The man from Alfa, he say “Fun, or what?” In extolling the virtues of the new Alfa Romeo 75 Cloverleaf Mr Alfa did confess to me that a press-on in the previous model might get you sweating rather than smiling; the Cloverleaf, however, was definitely the bee’s knee-caps. Well, I have to confess that the urge of this slightly hotter V6 will get you so much you’ll be eating bananas but while sweating is definitely not the right term, for MOTOR SPORT editorial staff at least, there was still the odd of perspiration; my passenger glowed. But no folks, the handling was not culprit here, it was the two-speed (on or off) heating control.
In assessing what is good and bad about any particular car your memory provides a fairly reliable screening procedure. You definitely notice and remember those aspects of a car that are particularly good or particularly bad, whilst anything that is adequately up to the job fades into nondescript grey area. In some ways the more competent a car is the larger the grey area, and ironically the boring it is to drive. It all depends on whether you like life to be spicey or just bland and as any curry fanatic will tell you, if you prefer the former you have to learn to take the rough with the smooth. Italians, thank goodness, are not ones to compromise, they leave that to the makers of the cuckoo-clock, and so life with any Alfa is bound to involve a certain amount of equal and opposite to balance those things that they do particularly well.
So, what stuck in the bad memory list after several days with the Alfa 75 Cloverleaf? Not much, I’m pleased to say: a windscreen washer light that continued to flicker on and off after I had filled the fluid reservoir, a hand-brake designed for people with short arms that are hinged half-way between the elbow and wrist, and a Gordian knot of a fuel tank cap that did have me sweating, and kicking, and cursing, for about ten minutes at an A1 service station.
And to balance the rough there was the smooth – the 3.0 litre V6. This little beauty could make good more or less any wrong (except perhaps red wine with fish, or brown shoes with a blue suit). Even if it was powering a Sainsbury’s shopping or a golf cart I’d still have an inane super-glued across my face. Let’s put aside figures for a moment and just talk aesthetics. Engine aesthetics, it seems, is largely a thing of the past: under the bonnet of most cars is hidden a spaghetti of wires and pipes going from nowhere to somewhere else. Underneath all that is a bulging in all the wrong places power plant. The engineers at Alfa clearly haven’t cottoned on to this trend; they confine such lack of discipline to their food, and make some of the most beautiful engines in the world. I could be happy for half an hour just staring at their V6 with its gorgeous cam covers, and six perfectly curved inlet pipes.
As for power this V6 turns out 192 bhp compared to the standard V6’s 188 bhp despite being fitted with a three-way catalytic convertor. The modifications that have enabled this consist of revised fuel Injection, ignition and engine timing. The Bosch L Jetronic system has been replaced by a “Bosch Motronic ML4.1 digital ignition and injection engine management system”, the same system as that fitted to the SZ Coupé, whilst altering the timing for each bank of cylinders has increased the high rev performance and tractability. Certainly it is the latter that is particularly striking. Let out the clutch quickly in the long first gear and your head will be planted very firmly to the back of the seat. Peak torque of 184 lb ft is developed at 4500 rpm, but 165 lb ft + is available from 2000 rpm upwards. The third gear overtaking acceleration really is gloat-worthy: caravans, the perennial curse of the driver in a hurry, become a meaningless and rapidly diminishing blot in the mirror, and petrol prices become a dim and distant memory, as the tacho needle spins with enthusiasm to the naughty end of the dial. But all that is only half the sensation: the ear, made almost redundant by so many hair dryer wheezes, and muffled whines, is suddenly brought to life by the vibrato purr of the V6. The noise gets even more glorious as you climb the rev scale, and occasionally I found myself holding it in gear simply because it sounded so good.
The gear ratios are widely spaced but are well matched to the power characteristics; the engine has so much low down torque that the widely spaced ratios make it a very manageable machine. One doesn’t have to worry about running out of breath coming out of a corner, or changing down to overtake. If you do feel like playing fortissimo/diminuendo games with the gearbox, cog-swopping is a matter of relative ease. Although the throw is quite long, and the box is not lightning fast, it is an accurate and sturdy unit. The two changes most manufacturers bodge; 1st to 2nd and 4th to 5th, are perfectly good and mean that both become driving gears as opposed to simply being used for starting and cruising. 5th gear is still quite lively and 1st is sufficiently long to be useful for hairpin bends.
Alfa Romeo have reduced (numerically increased)the final drive ratio in this 75 from 3.545:1 to 3.727:1, giving sharper throttle response and improved acceleration. For 0-60 mph fanatics the time taken is 7.3 secs (assuming you have a dry road, hot tyres, you rev the engine to 4500 rpm and slide your foot sideways off the clutch), for anyone else it is fast enough to dispense with bores in clapped out Allegros, salesreps and caravans.
As for the swervery I have to admit that my first reaction was “Gordon Bennet, this car’s a bit skittish.” Perhaps the rain had something to do with it, but it soon transpired that my first impression was wrong. Along a 12-mile stretch of back roads in Norfolk (the record for which is held by a Mazda 323 4WD Turbo) it was certainly up with the best in terms of cornering speeds, although the car does feel a little too cumbersome to be thrown around really tight corners. This might be a product of the light power steering, with too little feel for my own taste. It feels more suitably set up for long sweeping bends and smooth roads, and on these the grip is tremendous. Modifications to the suspension over the standard 75 consist of firmer double acting dampers, and an alteration of the front wheel camber. The independent MacPherson struts at the front, with longitudinal torsion bars, transverse links and anti-roll bar, and the coil sprung de Dion rear axle with Watts linkage, all remain unchanged. So does the neat layout of the power train with the engine mounted quite far back and the gearbox at the rear. This arrangement gives good weight distribution, and its effects can be felt in the neutral handling characteristics. I managed to induce neither oversteer, nor understeer, or any other steer for that matter. Even under heavy braking into a corner the car remained stable, and the power is so progressive and considerable that accelerating through and out of a bend the car’s attitude is easily controlled on the throttle (something less easy to do in a poorly set up front wheel drive turbo car).
Inside, the 75 is still of a high quality. Alfa designers continue to understand what a dashboard should look like. No wild and gimmicky experiments with graphs, and digital read-out displays, just elegant black on white chronograph dials. The buttons and stalk controls (always a give-away as to overall quality) feel good, and there are all the electronic mod-cons you’d expect of a car in this or a higher price range. The fully adjustable steering wheel meant that I didn’t have the same MV back problems that had plagued me in the 33, and both the pedals and gearstick are correctly placed. The only really worrying aspect was that on several occasions, as I rested my left arm by my side, I accidentally managed to undo the seat-belt with my elbow. Sounds silly, but it could be fun if you then have to heave on anchors.
The styling of the 75 is really so distinctive that it can only bring out strong reactions in people, although that in itself is no bad thing. Personally I’m not wild about its cumbersome shape, and infinitely prefer the 164, but on the other hand I do recognise and appreciate that the 75 is definitely not conforming to the EuroShape ideal; one couldn’t really mistake it for a Sierra/ Cavalier/Peugeot 405 etc, and on those grounds alone I could grow to like its looks.
So, despite one or two niggles my overall impression of the 75 Cloverleaf is that it is a good value and well sorted out performance car. For £17,300 what else can you get with 192 bhp on tap and an engine that you could happily put on a plinth in your front hall? Where else can you go for that elusive and priceless quality, character? CSR-W