Road Test: Alfa Romeo 164

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The comeback!

It is as well to be honest so that you, the reader, know where you stand from the start. The ownership of two Alfa Romeos has not diminished this tester’s appetite for these idiosyncratic cars, and the chance of being re-united with the 164 after a year’s absence since test driving it on the launch was not going to be overlooked.

It has been a sad fact of the Eighties that the marque’s presence in the UK has diminished rapidly, the Alfasud never succeeded in popular terms by the 33. So as the introduction to the marque was knocked out, so the rest of the model range fell out of consideration, even though there were some splendid cars to be had. The Achilles heel in recent years, however, has been Alfa’s propensity for producing dogs as big cars; several leap to mind, but the Alfa 6 is probably at the forefront although one Motor Sport reader, owner of the Editor’s old example, would disagree.

Alfa Romeo is now having another stab at the executive saloon market. Having collaborated with Fiat, Lancia and Saab in producing a floorpan, it is the last of these manufacturers in producing this variation of a theme. It has been a tough act to follow since the Lancia Thema in particular has been regarded as a class leader in terms of chassis behaviour and good handling. Initial reports on the car in the August and November 1987 editions of Motor Sport and again in November 1988 when the model reached Britain were all very favourable. Having been the subject of a week long road test, have our views altered?

There are two aspects of the car that initially impress one before stepping inside and turning on the ignition: the design is gorgeous and is without doubt one of Pininfarina’s best; and on opening the bonnet the V6 engine, transversely mounted and showing off its chromed air intakes, is an architectural delight.

Styling

Pininfarina has not always been acclaimed for its large car designs, for too often elegance has flown out of the window as the metal has increased, but with the 164 they have got it absolutley right. From whatever angle it is viewed, whether it’s from the front of its integrated kidney-shaped grille or from the rear quarter, it remains a handsome car, enhanced by the lowered roof-line. This may have brought about a slightly more claustrophobic feel to the cabin, but in fact there is just enough space between cranium and roof-lining for a six footer to sit back in relative comfort.

What pleases at a distance can often disappoint when inspected closely: it may be badly engineered, trim fittings may be poorly fitted or the build quality as a whole is second rate all of which have applied to different Alfa Romeo models in the past so it is pleasing to observe that the 164 is not flawed in this fashion. The boot, which does not have a level floor and has a high sill making it awkward for loading heavy suitcases, is irksome, but it does not detract from the rest of the car.

Engineering

It is the V6 engine which is the centre of attention on this model even out-weighing the skin-deep beauty. Sometime next year the 164 should be receiving the 4 cylinder 2-litre Twin Spark in right-hand drive form to help widen its appeal, but until that time there are just two versions available: the 3.0 V6 and the 3.0 V6 Lusso, both models available with an optional automatic gearbox.

The single cam per bank V6 has been seen before, in both the GTV6 and in the 75, but the 164 is the first to be purposefully designed for the engine. As such it is transversely mounted for the first time and linked to the five-speed gearbox positioned alongside and held in position in the front sub-frame by hydraulically damped mounts.

Producing 192 bhp at 5600 rpm, this lusty engine is capable of propelling the car along at prodigious speed. A maximum of 140 mph was recorded while in our hands falling in line with the manufacturer’s claim of 143 mph.

Top speed is one thing, but the way it is delivered is quite another and actually more relevant to day-to-day motoring. There is plenty of power all the way through the rev range, as evidenced by the 181 lb/ft torque at 3000 rpm. Even at 1000 rpm there is enough pulling power to pull the car satisfactorily along in top gear, the weight of 2867 lbs making it comparatively light for a car for its size.

On the road

A relatively light car with beefy engine is not always the best way to achieve a performance car, as many manufacturers have found to their cost in the past. The acceleration and top speed may be impressive in a straight line and give good performance figures, but even the sniff of a corner can create turmoil.

This is not the case with the 164. Allied to a good chassis the suspension has been well engineered to allow both responsive handling and excellent roadholding. Macpherson struts are used all round as with the other “Type Four” cars, but the front suspension turrets have been relocated in the Alfa so as to allow both a lower bonnet line and also increased suspension travel.

No doubt aided by the wide Pirelli P4000 tyres, the car belies its 179.3 inches and acts more like a frisky hot hatch instead of large saloon. Driving along rural roads, for example, is a delight, the car responding to every nuance of the driver’s input. It is helped by the fact that the power-assited steering does not indulge in overkill, some feeling of the road still being able to get fed back to the driver. Although the car can take almost any speed in any gear, the gearchange is very slick, quite unlike that found on the transaxle box found on earlier models. Although the rev range is comparatively narrow, being redlined at 5900 rpm although the clock does show up to 8000 rpm, it is not until the engine is turning over at 4000 rpm that you can hear the growl, albeit muted, of the V6. It is almost that reason alone which encourages the use the upper part of the legitimate tachometer, although it is inevitably at the cost of fuel consumption. The 24.5 mpg we recorded over the week during which plenty of town and cross country driving was undertaken as well as the recording of top speeds and acceleration figures is quite reasonable for a 3-litre car.

In standing start acceleration tests, the quickest 0-60 mph time achieved was 7.6 seconds, but the average achieved was 7.8. More impressive, however, were the mid-range figures, more relevant to overtaking manouevres and therefore more of a yardstick by which to judge the car. 30-50 mph in fourth gear was achieved in 7.7 seconds, 40-60 mph in 7.6 seconds and the important 50-70 mph in 7.9 seconds. This compares quite favourably with almost any other sports saloon you care to name.

With so much power going through the front wheels, there is an element of snaking as the car takes off under full power, but this car was designed from the start to be front-wheel driven, and in normal driving mode, torque steer is virtually absent.

Accommodation

The first fact to recite is that the bile-enducing heater and ventilation controls have been thoroughly revamped. Out have gone the row upon row of cheap plastic knobs replaced by three circular dials which do exactly the same job.

Clothed in a smoky blue, good quality material, the car has a fair degree of opulence. Criticised by some, the driving seat is not bad at all, and is certainly an improvement on the typical Italian driving position of yore. Electric seat adjustement and a steering column which allows a number of different rake positions obviously help.

The six footer behind six footer test showed that there is little room to spare between the knees and the back of the front seat, but at least they were not jammed tight. There was enough space to fit three adults across the back seat without too much squashing.

The range of dials and guages is comprehensive as are the warning symbols and the pedals are nicely weighted and conveniently located for heeling and toeing. Noise suppression is effective until the higher revs are reached at which point the engine insists on making itself heard.

Conclusion

When the 164 was launched in Italy, 15,000 were sold in the first six months and accounted for 18% per cent of Alfas Romeo sales. While hopes for it in England were far less ambitious, it has in fact caught the imagination on a limited scale and is right on its original sales target even though the hoped for 2.0 litre Twin Spark has yet to appear.

From its launch until the end of September 1041 164s had been sold and had helped hoist Alfa Romeo sales up by a full 23% on 1988 sales. Its arrival, however, has been far more significant than that, for not only has it boosted sales, its image has rubbed off on both the 33 and 75 giving them a boost in their sales as well.

Alfa Romeo still has a long way to go to get back to its peak of former years, but there is no doubt that it has begun the long haul necessary to dig itself out of the trough into which it had plummeted. Apart from the Twin Spark model which is due to arrive in the spring/early summer of next year, a Quadrifoglio model, with an uprated 210 bhp engine from the SZ, Recaro seats, lowered suspension and wings, is also due to arrive next year giving the range an even more sporting image. This should not detract, however, from the 3.0 litre 164 which ranges in price from £18,990 to £22,180 depending on whether it is automatic or manual, Lusso or standard. Hardly any other car offers more fun per pound whether it be in its handling and performance, styling or overall engineering. WPK

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