A Saving Grace

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Legs nicely stretched out, with knees slightly bent. Back reclined, and shoulders square against the back of the seat. Steering wheel within easy reach, arms comfortable and elbows bent at 110 degrees. Comfortable? Yes, very. Ah! Let’s try again. Foot pedals closer and angled slightly to the left. Knees tucked up underneath the steering wheel, back upright, shoulders bent forward, and arms outstretched with elbows at 180 degrees. The top of the steering wheel just within reach. Ouch! That’s more like it.

There is in motorcycling parlance a condition known at MV back. It is much the same as Ducati back and Laverda back, and basically means that after an hour and a half in the saddle you have a pain running from your lower spine to your shoulder blades. But you don’t really care because the engine sounds so damn good. The new Alfa 33 seemed to me to provide the four-wheeled equivalent. If the driving position was its Achilles Heel, then the engine was much more than its saving grace.

It was a particular shame because the seat was so comfortable before I tried to reach the controls. Fortunately I had by then turned the engine on; the urgent rasp of the 16-valve boxer engine and a serpentine Scottish B road had already cast their spell, and I all but forgot about my back . . . . for the next 80 miles at least. I also forgot about the gearstick, even though for the first few miles it did occur to me that I could be changing gear with a packet of partly cooked spagetti.

It was the ratios that worked their charm in this respect; they were perfectly spaced, keeping you right up in the power band. They also allowed you to change down for a high-speed corner without bringing a Banshee howl from the engine and sending the tacho needle spinning into the red. The excellent change from fifth to fourth, so awkward on many cars, also encouraged a great deal of gear changing at high speed, although the change from third to second was not nearly so easy. Fortunately the handling meant that second gear was necessary only on particularly sharp corners or for unusual pessimists, and so the problem did not arise that frequently. The clutch was perfectly weighted, and up and down changes could be made with relaxing smoothness; there was none of the dive and squat induced by first to second gearchanges on several of the car’s competitors.

The new 33 has a revised chassis and suspension, and the modifications certainly work, for I could detect nothing of the understeer that blighted our first road impressions of the 33 in 1983: “Near its limit it ploughs out and understeers through corners like many a mundane front-drive family saloon”.

The independent MacPherson strut front suspension has new mounting blocks and bearings, as well as an anti-roll bar, while the rear strut mounting positions have also been improved. The handling was taut and precise, and given that our test of the car was conducted almost entirely on wet Scottish mountain roads, and that the 33 did not once get out of line, one can only speak highly of it in this respect.

The Alfa now features ‘low-pressure speed-sensitive’ power-steering, the immediate effect of which is to almost eliminate torque steer. It can still be felt on tight corners, accelerating hard in second gear, but that is hardly surprising, and no real problem. For hard driving in general there is no torque steer to speak of. My own feeling was that the steering is now a shade too light for such a sporting car, but that is only a matter of personal preference.

The new 33 will be immediately available with two types of engine: 1.7-litre eight valve, and 1.7-litre sixteen valve units (a 1.5-litre eight valve unit will follow in September). The eight valve unit produces 110 bhp 5,800 rpm and 112 lb ft torque at 4500 rpm. The sixteen valve engine produces 137 bhp at 6500 rpm and 118.6 lb ft torque at 4600 rpm. Both engines sound wonderful, and are the absolute high point of the car. The majority of our test was conducted with the sixteen valve engine which would rev with astonishing enthusiasm all the way to its red line at 6500 rpm. The staccato bark of the exhaust encouraged you to use all the revs in each gear. I’m not sure what the 20-70 mph or 40-90 mph acceleration figures are, but one or two caravan drivers on the Ballater to Pitlochry road (and probably still on it) will testify that they are quite impressive. Once one had got the feel for the car it was an absolute pleasure to brake hard, change down through fourth to third, set the car up at 5000 rpm and power through a corner changing between 6000 to 6500 rpm on the short stretch of straight road before the next bend. The ventilated front discs and rear drums were certainly up to the test of such treatment, although the major criticism would be that there is too much travel to the brake pedal. It disappears well beyond the throttle when braking with any sort of enthusiasm, and causes one to rely too heavily on the syncromesh for changing down.

The internal layout of the car is good (bar the seating position) although some of the dashboard controls are rather out of reach. The speedometer and rev counter are well placed, and easy to read, with a temperature and fuel gauge and a row of ‘idiot’ lights in between. The stalk controls had the right feel to them, and the overall build quality seemed high. The mirror adjustment, a loose carpet, and a speedo that read an optimistic 20 mph at a standstill, cast the odd shadow of doubt however.

Visually the 33 is distinctively Alfa Romeo, and rather more stylish than the majority of hot hatchbacks on the market, but that doesn’t say an awful lot, and it is pedestrian compared to the striking 164.

On the whole it is a very competitively priced machine given its performance, and handling capabilities. It also has a certain charisma that you will not find in many of its teutonic and oriental counterparts. The engine alone would be enough to tempt me if my fairy Godmother gave me the £11,970 necessary to buy one of these 16 valve wonders. But she’d also need to make me five inches shorter and stretch my arms . . . .

CSR-W

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