Road impressions: Alfa Romeo 164

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Head of the family

First reported in Motor Sport in August and November 1987, the Alfa Romeo 164 has just been launched in Britain.

Models available from launch are the 3.0 V6 and the 3.0 V6 Lusso, the difference between the two being the level of trim and equipment. Priced at £20,250 the Lusso costs £2325 more than the standard V6 but that buys an automatic climate control, a compact-disc player and an electrically-operated rear seat. Bosch ABS anti-lock brakes are standard on both models; a four-speed automatic gearbox will be available in March or April 1989, with the Lusso receiving it as standard.

Alfa Romeo GB expects to sell 300 164s in the remaining two months this year, a figure it expects to be almost quadrupled in 1989 which will increase overall figures to 5000. Initially the 164 coming here will only be powered by the 3-litre engine, but the 2-litre twin-spark might be available in late 1989, followed by a blown 2-litre version which will open up another market segment. The turbo diesel available in Italy will be absent here.

The 164 is one of the “Type 4” family, a project jointly developed by Fiat, Lancia, Saab and Alfa Romeo for the design and construction of a medium-to-large saloon frame. It thus follows in the footsteps of the Saab 9000, Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema, but has its own distinctive character.

The heart of the 164 is the beautiful all-alloy 3-litre V6 engine which started life in 2.5-litre form. For installation in the 3-litre Alfa 75 the bore was increased to 93mm and the stroke to 72.6mm to achieve a displacement of 2959cc and a power output of 188 bhp, an increase of 32 bhp. In the 164, there has been a further increase of 4 bhp, to 192 bhp at 5600 rpm, by use of the new Bosch ML 4.1 electronic system and alterations to the induction and exhaust system. Flexibility is where it really scores points, for it now boasts a maximum 180 lb ft at 3000 rpm, 85% of which is available at only 1000 rpm, little more than tickover. The whole thing is gorgeous to look at, installed under its hydraulically-operated bonnet.

Styled by Pininfarina, the 164 is arguably the most visually appealing of the “Type 4” clan, capped by a re-designed Alfa shield nestling between the two horizontal radiator grilles which adorn the strongly-raked bonnet. Windscreen wipers which are partially concealed when parked, bonded front and rear windscreens, semi-flush windows, semi-recessed door handles, lack of roof guttering and sills all round the car all help produce a good drag co-efficient of 0.30. Rigidity is increased with the reinforcement of the passenger section of the bodyshell into a “safety cell” and the use of a front sub-frame bolted to the shell which carries the entire drive-unit, front suspension wishbone, anti-roll bar and the power steering.

As is to be expected in a luxury car, passenger-comfort has been high on the designers’ agenda, the 164 necessarily featuring such items as central-locking, front and rear seat movement, door mirrors, windows and sun-roof, all electrically operated. The aerial also automatically extends when the radio is switched on, and each passenger has his own internal light and switch.

The ergonomics are reasonable, with the speedometer and tachometer being the two main dials above the battery indicator and gauges for oil-pressure, water-temperature and fuel. Between the two sets of dials is a strip of warning lights.

The central console houses controls for the heating/ventilation system in two rows of 14 keys, below which another row controls several electrical functions. However it is all rather untidy and lets down the cabin’s air of opulence, especially as the keys lack any finesse. A useful feature though, especially when motorway cruising, is the provision of a central arm-rest between the front seats which can be swung away when not needed.

For those who regard a car as little more than a status symbol and a mode of transportation, the 164 is a docile machine, happy to meander around town or cruise on the motorway at legal speeds. For those who enjoy motoring and gain pleasure from putting a car through its paces, it is a delight, and now Alfa has finally moved away from a transaxle ‘box the gearchange is superb.

That it is front-wheel-driven is most apparent from take-off. Put your foot hard down and the front wheels snake their way up the road, fighting the steering-wheel for direction; under normal acceleration the torque-steer is not quite so fierce. Stability and manoeuvrability through tight turns is impressive for such a large car, and whilst the ride is on the firm side it is never uncomfortable. A top speed of 140 mph, and 0-62 mph reached in 7.7 seconds, is impressive.

The 164 points the way forward for Alfa Romeo under Fiat’s aegis, for it will remain a manufacturer of quality performance cars, with coupes, sports-cars, convertibles and four-wheel-drive versions all in the pipeline. It has been built to a level of quality not achieved by the Milanese manufacturer for many years, which may help to explain why 15,000 were sold in the first six months in Italy (accounting for 18% of Alfa Romeo sales) and why there is still a waiting list of six months. Alfa is at last on the road to recovery. WPK

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