Cruise Control

Alfa Romeo 155 2.5 V6

Introduced to Britain in the summer of 1992, the front-drive Alfa Romeo 155 range was designed to replace the cranky 75 line. Recalling the reliability habits of the 75 (the writer had a 2.5-litre V6 version for 12 months) and its ridiculous cabin ergonomics (you can still silence a room full of Alfa enthusiasts with a cheerful "Remember the U-bend handbrake of the 75?"), one might have thought any Alfa initiative to replace the 75 would have been greeted warmly.

Not so. British press reaction since July 1992 has been apathetic. Criticism has centred on its honestly declared links with the Fiat Tipo and particular dislike of its handling. Although the majority of the price opposition in the UK is now front-wheel drive (the exception is the car all the others aim for, BMW's 325i), the Alfa was singled out as being "inert" and "unrewarding" to drive.

There are still some of us at Standard House who have a soft spot for Alfa Romeo (although we no longer operate any of their current cars), and the melodious V6 exhaust note continues to appeal. In addition, you can save over £2000 on the price of a 325i, and further price cuts should have been made by the time this appears in print, yet the standard equipment list was considerably more generous: air conditioning is a particular plus.

When the opportunity to drive the 155 GTA Italian Touring Car Championship winner arrived (see last month's MOTOR SPORT), we elected to drive to the Varano test track and back in a 155, rather than hop on an aeroplane. We undertook a 2558-mile marathon through France and Italy.

A faultless fortnight of Alfa motoring, during which we returned just over 23 mpg, was followed by our usual full performance session. This revealed a maximum of more than 133 mph, and 0-60 mph in a tad over 8s.

UK range

In the '60s and '70s, one would automatically compare BMW and Alfa Romeo models. This rivalry was also waged in European Touring Car events. Initially BMW took some inspiration from Alfa, particularly in the development of higher performance, compact, four-cylinder saloons. Nowadays, BMW sets the pace, and was expected to overhaul even arch-rival Mercedes-Benz's manufacturing output of cars in 1992. Alfas seek to match some of that BMW profitability magic via offerings that have sharply increased content from '80s proprietor Fiat. BMW had just announced its 1993 prices when this was written and we could see the effect of the chancellor's abolition of car tax (previously levied at 5 per cent), when pitted against a 3.9 per cent average increase that was justified by the pound's slump against the deutschmark.

The cheapest current (you can still buy the old-style Touring and Convertible) 3-series BMW thus became the 100 bhp 316i at £15,100. The entry-level 155 (a 1.8-litre, 129 bhp Twin Spark) is £1,948 cheaper and comes complete with goodies such as an electric sunroof.

Further up, Alfa Romeo (GB) offers a choice of two-litre, four-cylinder 155 Twin Sparks. Both generate 143 bhp (down a little in these catalysed days) and are priced in the £15-17,000 bracket. The more expensive Lusso has, as standard, electronic ABS, air conditioning, alloy wheels, electrically heated front seats and electric operation of the rear side glass. Our test machine is the practical rhd range leader, for the 4wd Q4 turbocharged model is currently imported only in Ihd. For £18,288 (our test car had the unneccessary, but glittering, option of metallic paint) one gets the emotive V6 and all those items mentioned for the two-litre Lusso.

Technical analysis

The technical feature that drags this four-door saloon from the ranks of the mundane majority into a serious contender for our shopping list is that engine. It looks wonderful, even when straddling across the engine bay to drive the front wheels. With its polished inlet tracts atop a welter of cast aluminium, it is hewn to provoke automotive desire. It is not a particularly powerful design at 69 bhp-per-litre in catalysed form, but it has advanced considerably since the days of its unnatural appetite for head gaskets. It performed faultlessly for this test, and was particularly good at providing prompt, hot restarts in high ambient temperatures. Considering the short stroke (20mm less than the bore), the 6500 rpm redline is not unduly remarkable, but the way the engine is geared to respond happily to everyday demands for high-gear acceleration does impress. Since the engine is so smooth and stimulating, the fact that you need approximately 3200 rpm to maintain 70 mph, or more than 4000 for 90 mph, is an attraction, rather than an handicap. The chassis, with MacPherson struts, IRS (independent rear suspension) and Tipo-derived floorpan, is not a technicality we deplore. It breaks no new ground, but Alfa Romeo knows enough about front-wheel drive handling for us to query only whether it installed the right powertrain to lead the range.

For now Alfa can call on a 24-valve cylinder head design (presently confined to the new 164s, available in Britain May 1993) that could certainly generate 200 bhp. This may be a better marketing move, if plans to race the V6 in normally-aspirated form in the German Touring Car Championship ever materialise, in the shuddering wake of BMW's withdrawal and Audi's sulks. Even without that racing link, a more powerful V6 (preferably in association with the Q4's all-wheel drive) would bring the Milanese closer to the silky 192 bhp offered by BMW.

Action

I drove two rhd examples of the V6 and one Q4, covering 2800 miles and forming the opinion that the 155 has been grossly slandered. The two engines and transmissions allow completely differing characters, but both are well worth driving hard and far to discover a basic stability that far outweighs the better appreciated BMWs.

Since the Q4 is confined to Ihd, we will simply say that it has ample potential to fulfil the role of a sleeker successor to the Lancia Delta integrale (from which it draws so much running gear). If it was available as a righthooker, I would prefer such an Alfa to Audi's V6 quattros and the similarly non-turbocharged 4x4 Fords. Like the Q4, and so many Alfas before it, the 155 V6 makes few friends on first acquaintance. The external paint and internal fits and finishes on the rhd examples were better than has been reported elsewhere, but the cockpit lacks any distinction beyond any other 'Eurobox'. The omnipresent plastics are not particularly awful, but they are unsuitable accompaniment to the glorious history behind that steering wheel badge. Only the efficiency of the climate control in recorded temperatures up to 37 centigrade prevented a lot of our criticisms centring on the sweaty characteristics of such unnatural materials in hot climates.

A binnacle of myriad warning lights and six dials is frequently shrouded by the vertical adjustment needed to make yourself comfortable behind that steering wheel.

Although the cloth trim in grey tweeds with splashes of red is tastefully handled, and the driver's seat has two planes of electrical adjustment that should compliment the steering wheel, it took a lot of shuffling about to get comfortable. And then the comfort lasted only onto the first of many motorway miles: as soon as you back off to a cruising speed, you are struck by 'Alfa ankle'. This slow torture is inflicted with the voraciousness of a marauding terrier, pain gradually numbing out the entire foot. The only answer we discovered, officer, was to go a bit quicker. Thus stretching the artificially constricted limb and easing the pain until the next light throttle, top gear, stint.

The other obvious dynamic cabin failing was the deliberately long travel of the brakes. This is a Fiat Group affectation that we find mystifying, but regular inquiries have elicited the response that Fiat thinks it dangerous for brakes to bite instantly! This writer thinks it is a lot more hazardous if the brake pedal has to sink with tales of impending doom over a couple of inches' slop before any action occurs, never mind prompting the ABS. This and the contrasting height of the throttle pedal were the worst cabin features; the accelerator pedal could have been improved by strong arm butchery, but the action of the brakes was poor on both test cars, and by the time the harsh 2500 miles of one example had been exceeded, pedal travel was excessive by any standard. Served by Pirellis on both V6s, we found large differences in ride quality were apparent. Had we just driven the Alfa in Britain we would have criticised the ride as restless.

The other V6 covered the bulk of continental mileage, swallowing adult passengers (up to three) and an unreasonable amount of luggage, racing and photographic gear. Under such circumstances, the ride appeared marvellous, particularly good at soaking up bumpier French by-ways on a cross-country route from Monaco to Lyon. The steering is more suitably geared for performance driving than most opposition (effectively, just three turns from lock-to-lock are required). The feedback is not inspiring initially, but as the miles pile up you find that the rack and pinion does communicate changes in road surface just as informatively as it tells you when the front tyres start to lose adhesion under the influence of low gear power and tight corners.

Swinging smartly through the French countryside, the Alfa sounded marvellous, supplied reassuring grip over unknown terrain and returned some amazing average speeds. It is not particularly fast by current test track class standards, almost 10 mph down on a BMW 325i and measurably slower than a VW VR6 at the top end. However, the consistently able handling and an engine with a power band that ensures this 166 bhp V6 can outperform the 325i (before the onset of variable valve timing) in the 50-70 mph top gear band enable you to cover ground rapidly and enjoyably. Especially relaxing is the ability of the 2.5-litre V6 to growl from 2000 rpm with genuine pulling power. This means the need to change gear diminishes, as does high rpm engine noise. Fatigue for both drivers and passengers is commensurately reduced. Surprisingly, considering the autobahn heritage that is emphasised in every German performance saloon, I would prefer the Alfa to the BMW for motorway mileage, because its crosswind stability is so exceptional. We even survived a brief taste of the storms that rocked the Savona region and caused widespread flooding, all without drama. It splashed along the streaming autostrada with the kind of aplomb that was distinctly absent in comparatively calm conditions from the 325s we have experienced.

Verdict

Saving thousands over the equivalent BMW 325i is an attractive proposition, but (unfortunately, in my view) few buyers see Alfa Romeo in this role.

Despite what we proved in this endurance marathon, most will not see past previous reputation for rust and unreliability. Those that are prepared to put aside such predjudices may then be beached on the old front-versus rear-drive clichés.

We can only say that — noted cabin snags aside — we thought this 2.5-litre V6 superior in many ways to the Audi/BMW/Mercedes German establishment in this class. As such, it is outstanding value and well worth at least 30 minutes of your time for a test drive before you merge with the executive masses.

J W