New cars -- Alfa Romeo 33 S 16v Cloverleaf 4x4 and Sport Wagon 16v

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Mike Cotton

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More Jazz for Alfa 33

Alfa Romeo’s 33 model goes deeper into the sporty market with the launch of the 33 S 16v Cloverleaf Permanent 4. Introduced at the Geneva Show in March, the latest version has a 16-valve version of the 1.7-litre ‘boxer’ engine developing 137 bhp, plus a permanent 4WD system using a Ferguson viscous coupling. Another newcomer is the Sport Wagon 16v estate car, also with 137 bhp but not offered with 4WD in Britain.

Until now the 33 model has been tagged with a poor image — it was never forgiven for badly replacing the acclaimed Alfasud. Slow steering and major understeer were unloved characteristics which seem to have been banished, at last, from the 4WD versions with power-steering.

Like the Volkswagen Golf Syncro, the Alfa 33 4×4 is virtually a front-drive model with 5% of the torque going to the rear wheels. Loss of traction alters the balance completely, and up to 95% of the torque could go to the rear wheels in freak conditions.

A higher geared, power-steering rack with speed-sensitive assistance is coupled with suspension modifications that really alter the whole character of the 33 (and without which the 137 bhp available wouldn’t be very enjoyable).

Recaro seats and a smaller diameter, leather-trimmed steering wheel improve the relationship between the seat, the wheel and the pedals, and the front disc brakes are now ventilated. The saloon has disc brakes at the rear, the Sport Wagon drums, and the difference can be felt in mountainous driving.

The 33 is no ordinary saloon. The flat-four engine, originally 1100c in the Sud, is now 1712cc and virtually double the power, managed by the sophisticated Bosch Motronic ML 4.1 ignition/injection system. It’s lustily raucous, like having a souped-up Volkswagen Beetle engine under the toe-board, but very satisfying if you like having plenty of power delivered raw. Compared with the ordinary 33, which lives on, the differences in handling are illuminating. The steering is much quicker and lighter and the understeer has been reduced, though not eliminated. At last, we thought, the Sud ti has a spiritual successor.

Alfa Romeo took us to Sestrière, the Fiat-orientated ski resort in the mountains behind Turin, to sample the techniques of 4WD. A kart track, deep in snow, was the ideal proving ground where the 33’s traction proved to be quite superb, even on so-called summer tyres.

It calls for skill and bravery to exploit the 4WD handling advantages, which is the way the Golf Syncro is remembered. Power and torque are normally concentrated at the front wheels so the 33 behaves like any normal front-drive car on an even, or trailing throttle. It takes a confident and determined assault on the throttle pedal to get the front wheels spinning, and only then will drive transfer to the rear and give the benefits of a real four-wheel drive car. Most customers just don’t have that level of skill or confidence, and it’s difficult to regard the Permanent system as anything but a traction device.

Left-foot braking is rewarding as a means of keeping the throttle open and feeding the rear wheels, but this is for the experts. ABS is available on left-hand drive models, but is ‘impossible’ on rhd export versions according to the engineers. That’s a pity, because ABS really does give average drivers confidence to use left-foot braking in slippery conditions. — MLC

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