Road impressions

The Alfa 6

Alfa Romeo introduce a new six-cylinder saloon

THE ALFA 6 Alfa Romeo may recall a tradition of Milanese sporting six-cylinders, but it breaks new ground in the Italy of today. Officially on sale toward the end of April, it has become Italy's only six-cylinder volume production saloon. The Fiat 130 was the previous bearer of that mantle, a difficult one to carry in a land that has no built-in executive market for 2-litre-plus cars.

That Italians do not cherish - or often are not allowed to afford - larger engined cars is significant for Lancia and Alfa Romeo. It means the cars must succeed abroad. In Alfa's case this means the 20,000 a year German market for their cars or the attractions of the USA and UK, which absorb half as many Alfa products every year.

Such thinking influences every line of this stretched Alfa. We were told the styling was "restrained," which means that the front is uncannily like that of a BMW 7-series, while the rear carries unhappy echoes of the 132, mixed with a dash of Alfetta saloon: in fact the front doors are interchangeable with the smaller Alfa and the basic style was drawn in 1970.

What Alfa have provided is an exciting recipe on paper. A brand new 60 degree V6 engine with light alloy used for the SOHC heads, cylinder block and finned sump. From 2,492 c.c., a bore and stroke of 88 mm. by a short 68.3 mm., the company have allowed 16o b.h.p. and 162 lb. ft. torque. The engine is both compact and smooth in operation, particularly on idle.

I say "allowed" because the company make it very clear that the engine could just as easily have offered 200 b.h.p., but they felt the highest output in the 2 1/2-litre mass-production class was enough. This may be the real reason for adopting three twin-choke Dell'Orto downdraught carburetters in preference to fuel injection.

This output, the horsepower peak at 5,750-6,000 r.p.m. and torque at a highish 4,000 r.p.m., is required to propel 3,146 lb. Alfa Romeo say the chunky saloon should be capable of 121 m.p.h. and acceleration from rest to the end of a standing 400 m. (very close to a quarter mile) in 16.7 sec., and we saw no reason why this should not be so.

The quoted UK m.p.g. figures in line with our legal requirements are from 15.8 m.p.g. in town to 31.4 m.p.g. at a constant 56 m.p.h. Interestingly the automatic 3-speed version is quoted at 16.7 m.p.g. around town, but is said to be 2 m.p.g. worse than the five-speed manual at a constant 75 m.p.h., returning 23 m.p.g.

There is a large German motor industry content in these bigger Alfas for the ZF concern supply either automatic or manual transmission, the now accepted variable ratio power steering and the limited slip differential set at a slack 2.5% pre-load. Bosch supply much of the electrics which include an r.p.m.-limiter that operates between 6,100 and 6,300 r.p.m.

The engine is certainly the heart of the new Alfa story. There are desirable features like a nitrided steel crankshaft to talk about, a reflection of 200 b.h.p. potential and a compression ratio that could be far more than the present 9:1. Some reservations were expressed about the valve-gear operation, for the cam itself directly operates the intake valves, but a short pushrod to the bank of exhaust valves is an unusual feature. Incidentally the exhaust valves are sodium cooled on the exhaust side.

The rest of the car is like a stretched Alfetta saloon, but the gearbox is placed at the front, not in the rear de Dion layout. The front suspension is by torsion bar, as on the Alfettas and Giuliettas, with very soft anti-roll bar settings at either end.

The Alfa 6 does not look a big car and there was a suspicion that the Alfetta floorpan had been used with an appropriate fillet to lengthen the wheelbase. A comparison between Alfetta 2000 saloon and Alfa 6 shows the Alfa 6 is built on a 102.4 in. wheelbase (Alfetta 98.82 in.); it has a length of 187.4 in. (Alfetta, 172.64 in.); a width of 66.3 in. (Alfetta, 64.57 in.) and a height of 54.9 in., where the Alfetta stands 56.3 in. tall. The rear track widths are comparable in the 53 in. bracket for both cars, but the Alfa 6 has nearly 2 in. extra front spread at 55.4 in. Weight for the Alfetta is 2,403 lb. compared to 3,146 lb. of the 6, reflecting the bigger car's luxury specification items like four power windows and so on, for the bare engine and shell of the Alfa 6 weigh approximately one third of the total figure!

Both braking and steering are outstanding features of this latest Alfa Romeo. The power assisted rack and pinion feels even more responsive than its 3.7 turns lock to lock suggests. The brakes are simply magnificent, and with good reason for the 10.5 in. diameter front discs are fully in line with racing practice and boast 4-piston calipers as well as radial ventilation slots. At the rear slightly smaller 10.2 in. diam. solid discs are employed, these mounted outboard as compared to the Alfetta's inboard location. A beautifully progressive servoassistance system is employed.

We have already commented upon the exterior lines, so suffice it to say that these are enhanced by 6J by 14 in. alloy wheels and that in Italy at least Alfa Romeo offer a two-year body guarantee. This is in common with their normal domestic policy, which also offers a 62,000-mile engine warranty.

Door fit and paint finish were about what on would expect of this class, but the interior is no outstanding. For a start the wood grain finial around the fascia has a strong resemblance to that used in Japanese cars and the large areas of black plastic are relieved only by the seat cloth or optional leather trim, some of which is inset iinthe door panels. Overall dashboard layout and seating is very similar to the Alfetta.

In action the strong points are the steering, braking and ride. The engine does not come across as wholly suitable for executive use in carburated guise. There were definite flat spots (markedly so in the automatic version from rest on full throttle) and the engine needs a fair bit of encouragement from the gearbox despite reasonable torque spread. The carburation was really only smooth from 2,000 r.p.m. onwads when asked to pull fourth or fifth.

The gear ratios are quite good, but a little "short" on the 4.54:1 axle ratio if you stick to 5,900 r.p.m. Third then provides around 70 m.p.h. with fourth taking you towards 90 m.p.h but second is only good for little over 45 m.p.h. This means a lot of shuffling through the ZF box and it was obvious that many of the other let drivers heartily disliked this, and the location of first over on its own, at the bottom of the gate closest to the LHD pilote.

Personally we found the change quality was good, but the car would occasionally baulk at going into first gear from rest.

Handling? Alfa are thinking soft these day, you have only to look at the Giulietta to see that. The theme is expanded upon for the top of the range and the result is body roll that, when I followed two factory drivers through the Italia foothills to the Alps, was right in the Gallic angles of lean league. However the car is enjoyable to drive on faster corners, tending only to feel a little lost when pointed at slow hairpin. that sort of going is best left to Suds or the sportier Alfettas.

In summary I would say that given a price today that will equate to £10,000 or less, the Alfa 6 will prove very popular indeed on the British market. That applies especially to the automatic. The auto, which is expected to form 80% of all British sales, was rather reluctant to kickdown above 55 m.p.h., but is otherwise a better proposition with excellent manual over-ride. When will it get here? Alfa Romeo say six months, but it will probably be closer to a year judged by the length of time it took the Giulietta to arrive. We look forward to assessing tt interesting newcomer more fully then, and seeing a possible fuel-injected coupe model in the eighties.