Invisible touches

More of a muscle-tone than a face-lift, Alfa’s revisions to its executive flyer are significant, but almost invisible. Added side protection which you can’t see, new bumpers which you won’t notice, different headlamps if you peer at them, and a revitalised V6 engine concealed behind that heart-shaped grille. You can’t see that, either — but you can hear it. A strident, musical wail, electrifying and utterly Italian, announcing that one of the nicest engines around has just got even better.

That V6 has seen several guises – carbs or injection, 2.5 or three-litre and all of them were delightful. Now it’s changed from a two-cam 12-valve to a four-cam 24-valve layout, packing either 210 (on the 164 Super which replaces the Lusso) or 230 bhp of silky muscle from the same three-litre package. We drove the more powerful 152 mph Cloverleaf, and revelled in the fluid pulling power from low engine speeds, where the big displacement compensates for the usual poor gas flow in four-valve heads, coupled to the effortless climb to a heady 7800 rpm red-line. Torque peaks at 5000, but the 207Ib ft is only a slight swelling in an impressively broad-chested curve. Its smooth and willing all the way, and it sounds terrific when working hard, hitting 60mph in 7.5 seconds. Sadly, the interior is generally so hushed that at normal speeds only pedestrians get the aural benefit. Bosch MI.7 engine management and coil-per-plug sparking mean no maintenance for 60,000 miles, and the well-spaced five-ratio ‘box now has synchro on reverse.

Alfa has tried strongly to differentiate the luxury Super from the sporting Cloverleaf in the new range. Larger, softer bumpers extend the Super by 11 cm, and are now body-coloured making the elegant shape look cleaner; our top model retained the previous slimmer grey ones. New polyellipsoidal headlamps are fractionally slimmer, but more effective: the beam is even and well-defined, especially on dip. Larger door mirrors now flip inwards by push-button for close parking, and on the Super you can have an auto-dim interior mirror, too. Inside, the previous battery of fascia push-buttons has been replaced by a battery of push-keys; it looks grand, but you can’t easily find the right one by feel. Wide-spaced main dials are partly obscured by the wheel, and there is little oddment stowage: a huge glove-box lid conceals only a small locker, almost entirely filled with an absurdly bulky owners’ handbook.

But the ventilation is excellent, the Automatic Climate Control stuck rigidly to the set temperature as we swapped August London rain for blazing Scottish sunshine, and there is a power sun-roof as well. All-electric seats and two-way column adjustment allow a bewildering variety of seating positions — luckily there is also a two-person memory — but the optional Recaros are over-hard for the Cloverleaf’s taut ride. Alfa’s own seats have gained improved lumbar support, and would be my choice. On the Cloverleaf, electronic damper control lets you choose Sport mode, which really is firm, or Auto, which decides between Comfort and Sport according to how hard you are pushing; I thought it did a good job and left it on all the time.

Tyre size goes up from 195 to 205/55 ZR on new 6 1/2J I6in alloy rims, which makes the CL look a little meaner, but it is still afflicted with awful add-on skirts which are utterly out of sympathy with the quality image Alfa wants, and deserves, for the 164. A shame, as in other respects the Cloverleaf, boosted by an eight-year corrosion warranty, is an alluring alternative to respected executives such as BMW 5-series and Audi 100. The spec is very high, with ABS, remote anti-theft system, boot-mounted CD changer and sun-blinds on top of the all-electric frills, and the chassis, aided by revisions to cut torque-steer, has a poise and precision which will shame many rear-drive machines. But at £28,100 it is no longer the bargain it was; it’s good value if character, chassis dynamics and engine bravura matter to you, but it’s not cheap. Financially, this is leaving Rover, Saab and Audi territory and dipping a toe in Jaguar-land. If 210bhp is enough, or if you want an auto, go for the Super at £3000 less. If you want a snip, though, Alfa can offer that too: the base 164 Twin Spark, with its dohc four enlarged to give 146bhp, slips in at £16,850. Mix and match your own extras to outpoint the German rivals. What you won’t get is the blood-stirring wail of perhaps the best engine not made in Modena.