New cars: Alfa Romeo 164 3.0 Cloverleaf

Alfa Romeo has been riding the British recession effectively. Unusually, it is the largest car in the line, the 164 saloon, which breathes life into Romeo. The British Alfa 164 price-span is now almost exactly £10,000, with the 2-litre Twin Spark starting at £16,791 and our test Cloverleaf 3-litre V6 retailing (and probably achieving) a list cost of £27,299. For that substantial sum a Jaguar 4-litre XJ6 demands £25,500 — Alfa in Britain provides generous standard equipment and the fastest production 164, claiming a 147 mph maximum and 0-60 mph in “under 7.5 seconds.” More importantly, the Cloverleaf 164 is an excellent drive, massaging the driving instinct with a road rendition of Monza Memories played on the more powerful V6. Extensive engine modifications avoid the need for quadruple valves per cylinder, and amass a positive feast of pulling power. The changes include enlarged intake and exhaust manifolding, plus compression ratios elevated from 9.5:1 to 10:1 and camshaft profiles shared with that brutal collector’s delight, the SZ.

And the effect on this 2959cc (93 x 72.6mm) short-stroke unit? Some 200 bhp at a lowly 5800 rpm and 198 lb ft of torque at 4400 rpm, although that peak torque figure feels totally arbitrary as there is apparent and abundant torque at every point between 2000 and 6000 rpm. It is a lovely engine, one to make even a BMW straight six appear banal.

Alfa Romeo has conscientiously improved braking ability with increased diameter for the quartet of discs which, as for the engine, are electronically manipulated by Bosch. Other chassis changes include “electronically controlled semi-reactive” Boge dampers that have a sport or automatic mode controlled by Marelli. More importantly, Alfa has attacked the front end MacPherson strut geometry vigorously to avoid torque-steer, extending its efforts to lowering the engine 30mm/0.5 in, and the ride height is also reduced (by 20mm/0.78 in).

The red Alfa with hideous beige leather clashing discordantly with any attempt at subtlety was an immediate success with our drivers. The standard provision of outstanding air conditioning helped in the Indian Summer of 1991, but it was the driving pleasure conferred at two or six thousand rpm that attracted the bulk of the comment.

Take it for granted that every electronically assisted or controlled gizmo you could reasonably want is present, and that covers a CD player as standard. You might want Recaro seats with a memory facility, but these are the only options we could spot.

The 164 was utilised as weekend transport to and from a Donington race meeting and left some strongly positive memories. Although the intermediate gearing has been numerically raised to assist acceleration, the 164 Cloverleaf remains an outstanding motorway machine. The extended front and rear spoilers are matched by side sills, all contributing to exceptional stability at speed.

The Alfa performance claims were credible, but we did not crack the 7.5 second barrier for 0-60 mph and 145 mph was the best we calculated. One of those: “we-are-really-that-late-for-practice” drives recorded 15.3 mpg. When common sense prevailed, some 23.1 mpg was recorded, in line with the manufacturer’s urban claim of 21.7 mpg.

Away from the delights of the M40 (how many plain livery police cars can you spot between Oxford and Birmingham?) the 15 foot-long Cloverleaf handles with true Alfa agility. Of course it will wriggle and squirm if you apply full throttle over bumps in first or second, but Alfa has done a fine job in taming the more obvious front-drive/large engine quirks whilst retaining driving enjoyment and a ride quality that rates in the Citroën/Jaguar bracket.

The two electronic suspension alternatives are unlike most rivals in that they provide discernible differences in ride characteristics. We only used automatic setting for town work in which the sport selection could provide too much bump and thump. This over the decayed inner city tarmac the City of London calls by street names, but which are rougher than many Forest of Dean rally stages.

There are severe snags to the Alfa Romeo 164 Cloverleaf, mostly centred on interior quality and ergonomics, but these did not alter the fact that this model was one of the surprise pleasures of 1991. Perfect for the executive who does not want to join the West German herd. — JW