Living in Clover
Last month I said that the new Alfa Romeo 33 gave one the four-wheeled equivalent of the motorcycling condition known as MV back. There is also in motorcycling terminology something known as a damn comfortable bike. On the whole this remains a mythical phenomenon, rather like the Unicorn and a punctual British Rail train, and exists only in the imagination of thousands of saddle sore riders throughout the world, and especially Italy. I am compelled to report that Alfa Romeo has also brought the four-wheeled equivalent of this phenomenon to life in the 164, but one is left wondering if they can do it for one car, why not another? It was briefly explained to me that the new 33 has the same floor plan as the old and this makes the conversion to right-hand drive difficult — hence the driving position. All it really needs is a telescopic steering wheel. However, in the Alfa Romeo 164 one has a damn comfortable motor car. One also has a lot more besides.
The Alfa Romeo 164 has in fact been available in the UK since October ’88 but Alfa has recently extended its range with the new Quadrifoglio 164 3.0-litre V6, which will be available here from September. The Quadrifoglio, as you know, was first used as a good luck symbol on an Alfa in the 1924 Mille Miglia, and since then has come to adorn the top of the range machines. This new ‘tuned’ 164, the latest Alfa to bear the Quadrifoglio symbol, seemed to me to be a very worthy heir.
The heart of all Alfa Romeos is the engine and the Alfa V6 needs no introduction as one of the finest contemporary production engines. The 2959 cc unit of the 164 Quadrifoglio has been ‘breathed upon’ slightly by Alfa’s engineers to boost the power up by 16 bhp to 200 bhp at 5800 rpm. The fundamental alterations consist of freer inlet and exhaust manifolds, a revised exhaust layout, new camshafts and timing and an increase in the compression ratio from 9.5: 1 to 10: 1. The engine uses a Bosch Motronic ML4-1 fuel injection system. Alfa’s intention of boosting the performance without detracting from the flexibility of the unit has certainly been realised with this well balanced engine tune. (Lesser manufacturers would simply have bolted on a turbocharger). Consequently the car can accelerate very smoothly from as low as 1750 rpm in third gear, although the power does not begin to come in seriously until about 3000 rpm, from which one accelerates with increasing ferocity up to peak power at 5800 rpm. The engine will carry on willingly until the rev limiter cuts in at 6500 rpm, but for sheer acceleration there is little point in revving it quite that high. She will pull an impressive 6300 rpm in fifth gear which is 233.4 kph (243 kph on the speedometer). In English that is 144 mph or quite fast enough. The acceleration, unsurprisingly, is very impressive, but the engine is so smooth, so lively that it is not the sheer pace of the car that makes it enjoyable, but the sforzando note of the exhaust as the needle spins past 4000 rpm, the purity and enthusiasm of the performance.
The stability of the car at the high speeds it is capable of is helped by the. . . wait for it . . . ‘electronic, self regulating, variable damping, suspension system’. Essentially there are two modes of suspension setting operated via buttons on the central console. ‘Auto’ (or soft) allows a smooth comfortable ride and is best for low speed pottering about town. It is in this mode that the ‘self-regulating’ aspect is relevant for the damper settings respond to speed, vertical acceleration, the angle of body roll, pressure in the braking circuit, the application of throttle and the rotation of the wheel. In ‘Sport’ mode the damping is at a permanently hard setting, and this is of course for high speeds and fast cornering. The system seemed to work very well, with the Auto setting providing a soft and civilised ride at low speeds and on bumpy roads, the Sport setting giving very impressive stability at top speed.
The Sport mode conveyed the nature of the road surface in stark contrast to the Auto mode; it stiffened up the whole car, and gave firm and precise cornering. The Quadrifoglio would understeer slightly on slow corners, but lifting off would give slight oversteer. On fast corners the handling was neutral, and in Sport mode there was no troublesome body roll.
In addition to the inclusion of the variable damping suspension, the suspension geometry of the 164 has been revised for the Quadrifoglio. The anchoring points for the steering system and column have been altered, and shims have been used to lower the suspension anchorage by 2 cm. The engine has also been lowered by 3 cm. These modifications have aimed at improving the traction and handling of the car, and also at reducing the high level of torque steer that rather spoilt the standard 164. Certainly the torque steer was not too obtrusive on the soaking wet roads on which we conducted the test, so Alfa may well have solved the problem. They also seem to have cured the problem of the uncertainty of the wheel return via the use of return springs.
The Quadrifoglio 164 comes with ABS as standard operating on front and rear discs with a diagonally split circuit. There is a vacuum brake servo. The pedal feel is excellent, and the brakes are superbly progressive although one has to push quite hard to get them working; but this allows for very controlled and safe braking. The positioning of the pedals is also good; on full application the brake pedal is just about level with the throttle. The clutch was similarly progressive and if the gearbox had not been so impossibly notchy would have allowed for very smooth gear changes. The car, however, had done very few miles and I suspect that the gear change will loosen up quite considerably. The pedals were well spaced with a particularly good clutch footrest.
The interior of the car is interestingly minimalist in its layout. The majority of the car’s controls are located in the central console that rather takes its inspiration from a block of flats by Mies van der Rohe. There are four rows of buttons of more or less the same size, capped by the finned fresh air inlet. Stitched leather surrounds the excellent dashboard which contains speedometer, rev-counter, ammeter, oil gauge, temperature guage and fuel gauge all in easy to read white on black dials. There is little in the overall layout to obstruct the smooth and pure lines of the dashboard, console, and cubby hole, which also reflect the nature of the exterior design.
The seats are comfortable, with excellent all round support. The gear stick and steering wheel, are well positioned within easy reach and the pedals are a sensible distance beyond the steering wheel, meaning one can drive in a truly comfortable legs out, arms bent, back upright driving position. Points of criticism were the extraordinarily difficult to reach seating position controls, and the rather notchy and plastic stalk controls. The fan was noisy although the fresh air supply was good.
Like all the best Alfa Romeos the 164 is a striking and beautiful design. The additional front and rear spoilers and side skirts of the Quadrifoglio rather spoil the purity of line, but they do serve the aerodynamic purpose of increasing the high speed stability of the car. The design of the 164 breaks no boundaries in terms of fundamental body shape, it still has the high boot, low wedge shaped nose that is ‘state of the art’ nowadays. But all the proportions have been carefully considered and balanced; for example the proportion of the size of the wheel arch to the height of the wing. The boot has also been carefully integrated into the unity of the design, with the rear lamps continuing the groove that runs from the front headlamps down the sides of the car. It is the accumulation of such details, each considerate of the whole, that leads to such a pleasing design. Indeed there is little to find fault with in the new 164 Quadrifoglio either in its constituent parts or as a whole; from a point of view of performance, engineering, comfort and styling it represents a thoroughly good buy. CSR-W