A new engine didn’t just give the Alfa 145 the power it needed, Andrew Frankel says it changed the entire car for the better
Historical precedent hast taught us to expect several things upon climbing aboard and driving away in an Alfa Romeo. The driving position, likely as not, will be dire, the ergonomics a joke, build quality will not be of the best and, from one nook or another cranny, it will rattle.
History has told us also to accept these things; they represent no more than a small price paid for the finest responses from engine and chassis that a reasonable sum of money can afford.
History, however, has not been keeping up with the times. Alfa Romeo, in the years since the death of the Alfasud has struggled to follow in its own illustrious footsteps as Fiat foisted its floorpans upon the proud Milanese firm. The 164, you may remember, shared skeletons with the Lancia Thema, Fiat Croma and Saab 9000 and you didn’t need to be exposed for long to its unresolved ride quality and the unruly way the early ones tried to put their power on the tarmac to know the graceful days of the Giulias and Alfettas were in the past.
Mercifully the 164 was not just a fine and able car in other ways, it was also beautiful, which was not something you’d rush to say about the dismal 155 saloon that followed. But even the 155 had crisp engines which meant that, while it failed entirely to look or drive like an Alfa, it at least sounded and went like one.
The 145 (and its 146 big sister) failed even to do this when launched. Though we were encouraged by styling which succeeded where the equally bold but irredeemably ugly 155 had failed, they were pretty dismal to drive. Powered by emissions strangled versions of Rudi Hruska’s flatfour motor, the eight-valve 1.6-litre version was utterly gutless while the extra speed of 16-valve 1.7-litre engine was more than offset by poorer manners while exposing further the inherent weaknesses of the car’s Fiat Tipo-derived chassis. It was enough to make Alfisti blub into their Lambrusco.
So bad were these cars that I didn’t even care when it was announced that the engines were to be replaced by Fiat units. There was a time when such a move would have been greeted with outrage but now it seemed hardly to matter; the flat-fours were a generation old and just pale outlines of their rasping, revving former selves. Besides, it didn’t seem possible that the 145 could be hurt further.
It was, in fact, transformed. The first engine Fiat provided was, in finest Alfa tradition, a 2-litre twin-cam four. In addition to this, however, it now boasted two sparkplugs and four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing too. And while these innovations had not been hitherto unknown to Alfa’s engineers, never had they all appeared together under the bonnet of this, or indeed, any other car. It produced 155 catalytically clean horsepower which sounded promising — until you considered the 129bhp of the 1.7-litre flat four already asked rather more questions of the 145’s chassis than it seemed to have answers.
Yet what we were left to discover was that, without the bulk of the massively space-inefficient flat four laid across the engine bay, the front suspension could, at last, be allowed to work properly. In an instant, one of the most disappointing Alfas of all time became of the most promising.
You’d swear the engine was Alfa Romeo from sump to rocker-box though Fiat undertook to reserve only the trick cylinder-head for Alfas alone. It made all the right noises, produced the right power in the right place and bowled the pretty little 145 down the street with the kind of verve and vigour we had not seem from the marque since the demise of the GTA. Better still was the new gearbox with its five short, sharp-shifting ratios working in perfect harmony with the motor’s unusually generous torque curve.
With the new suspension came new steering, banishing dulled helm responses for good. Now, when you turned this 145 into a corner it attacked your chosen line rather than stumbling across it; it gripped better than any small Alfa in history yet provided a delicacy and balance which is rare in any front-wheel drive car, let alone an Alfa made in the nineties.
Suddenly it all made sense. The 145 Cloverleaf, as this saviour of a large part of the marque’s credibility was called, was still a flawed car but, as in the past, it seemed no longer to matter. The driving position was still poor, the switchgear a mess and the quality doubtful compared to the best but, in an Alfa that drove and handled like this, such failings assumed once more their traditional place in your mind. Yes, they were occasionally irksome and, of course, you’d choose to live without them, but they never seemed to compromise the car in the way that exactly the same faults had destroyed the earlier versions.
The Cloverleaf, of course, was a supplement to the flat-four 145s, which were in turn replaced by 1.6 and 1.8-litre straight fours from the same family as the remarkable 2-litre. The result was a range of cars which, while not quite as frantically fast as the Cloverleaf, still did more justice to the name than any family Alfa since the Sud.
And, at last, the future looks wonderful for the marque. Youll not need me to tell you how the Spider and GTV sportscars have been received; the numbers all over the road of Britain and Europe say more of its success than I ever could. The 164 is to be replaced by the bold and beautiful 166 while, by the time you read this, I will have driven the 156, replacement for the 155 and, as such the final brick in the wall that will block out the memory of those days when Alfa so dreadfully lost its way. You will be able to read about it on these pages shortly.
Verdict: Good Egg.