The Best Small Car in the World?

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Elsewhere is this issue can be read a brief road test of the Alfasud, Alfa Romeo’s new small car. Since that section of Motor Sport went to press I have had the opportunity to sample a more sporting version of the model, the Alfasud Ti. I suggest that the test of the ordinary version should be read first, from which it will be seen that it proved disappointing in terms of engine performance and interior appointment. It would be nice to think that Alfa Romeo had been psychic, for the Ti removes virtually every criticism I made of the ordinary Alfasud other than the annoying positioning down by the front passenger seat of the handle for boot lid release. The result of the improvements are, as I suspected they might be, to realise much more of the Alfasud’s design potential and to create what in my opinion is the finest small car on the road today.

The British journalists’ test of the Ti was based at the still unfinished, ultra-modern Alfasud factory at Pomigliano, near Naples, almost within sprinting distance of Mount Vesuvius. It would be nice to report that we were able to examine the sophisticated production lines, but no: apparently the fickle workers object to being “looked at like animals in cages”, and in the interests of continued production (500 Alfasuds a week are rolling off the line currently—the potential if labour relations allowed is 1,100) we were restricted to the exterior and a temporary bar. It is quite amazing how in Italy as in Britain motor industry workers are prepared to throw dirt in the faces of gift horses. The Naples area is one of the poorest in Italy and the Alfasud works was intended to be a lifeline for the area : many of the workers have been dragged out of poverty and some of them seem to resent the improvement in their status.

Taking mechanical matters first, the Ti flat-four engine mounted ahead of the front wheels retains the same capacity of 1,186 c.c. but various modifications have raised the DIN b.h.p. from 63 at 6,000 r.p.m. to 68 at the same revs., while maximum torque has been raised from 61 lb. ft. DIN at 3,500 r.p.m. to 65 at 300 r.p.m. less. This has been achieved by replacing the single-choke downdraught carburetter with a twin-choke downdraught Weber carburetter, raising the compression ratio to 9:1 and improving the profiles of the two overhead camshafts. This uprated engine has been mated to a 5-speed gearbox, the extra gear being accommodated in the same casing as the 4-speed model. The McPherson strut front suspension and rear beam axle are unchanged, as are the 4-wheel disc brakes, though a servo becomes standard.

The most obvious changes are to the diminutive and attractive exterior, which nevertheless affords five people as much room as an XJ6. Only two doors are available on the Ti (the ordinary Alfasud will continue to be available in 4-door form only) and a neat Porsche-type spoiler plus four circular instead of two rectangular headlamps enhance the frontal appearance. I’m not so sure that the screwed on plastic boot lid spoiler does the same for the tail, though. Perhaps it would look better if it was painted in body colour instead of matt black. Semi-sculpted, ventilated steel wheels without hubcaps (still the same size at 5J x 13 in.) and over-riders are the other exterior changes.

The interior has been changed quite considerably compared with the ordinary Alfasud, removing most of the cheapness which I criticised. A vital 8,000 r.p.m. rev.-counter containing the fuel gauge has joined the 180 k.p.h. speedometer in the same twin gauge ccwl, while usefully angled oil-pressure and water temperature gauges plus a blank for an optional electric clock are grouped in the centre or the facia, below which is a central console with repositioned ash-tray, a cigarette lighter next to the heater controls, provision for radio accommodation and some useful stowage space. The facing of the facia is of neater quality, extremely comfortable cloth-trimmed seats have built-in headrests and pleasingly the cheap plastic matting has been replaced by a well-cut fitted carpet, which incidentally is available as an option on the standard Alfasud. Two more criticisms have been removed by the fitment of a heated rear screen as standard and the conversion of manual windscreen washers to electric, operated by a button on the end of the right-hand steering column stalk. The dished steering wheel has the same soft plastic rim as the Alfasud, but the spokes are hollowed out.

Given chance I could let rip with superlatives about the Ti. Because of the improved torque and the reliable mixture distribution it has everything that I felt the basic version lacked in terms of flexibility. The engine is crisp and responsive and will potter along in third gear through town more easily than the other would in second. The five ratios are superb: there is a slightly noticeable gap between second and third, but the other ratios remain ultra-close. In true Alfa tradition, fifth is a usable gear rather than an overdrive. Even the most useless driver should find the gearbox easy to operate without finding the wrong gear at the wrong time and I’d go so far as to say that this is the finest 5-speed gearbox fitted to a mass-production car. Improved sound-deadening has made the engine if anything even quieter than the ordinary Alfasud, reducing it to a distant buzz, though the exhaust note from behind is even more of a raspberry noise.

Handling and breaking through semi-mountain country was exhilarating, the feeling helped by the excellent driving position, good ride and low noise level. I can think of no other front-wheel-drive car which understeers as little as this one. My test car, on 165/70 Ceat radials, was almost entirely neutral, but a colleague whose example was fitted with Pirellis had a problem with oversteer! The steering was a delight and the brakes impressive, except for a hint of fade after one long thrash down a mountain. As for autostrada performance… we were all utterly amazed by the staggering stability, to the extent where one journalist covered half-a-mile at 100 m.p.h. with his hands off the wheel! Quiet, comfortable, relaxing and fast. Indeed, virtually all the test cars proved capable of pulling 6,500 r.p.m in fifth gear, well into the red sector, equal to 107 m.p.h. Alfa claim a top speed of exactly 100 m.p.h. at 6000 r.p.m., which seems to be a perfectly happy cruising speed.

I have suggested that the ordinary Alfasud may not represent particularly good value for money at £1,400. When the Ti version appears in Britain next spring or early summer it is likely to cost about £1,600 and so superior is the Ti to the ordinary model that every pound would be well spent.

During the factory visit I discovered that the carburetter problems I experienced with the ordinary Alfasud tested in this issue were not uncommon ones. Heat from the radiator was causing fuel evaporation within the single-choke Solex and as a temporary production measure a heat deflector was added to the front of the carburetter. Even this did not effect a 100% cure and future production Alfasuds will be fitted with single-choke Dellorto carburetters.