Road impressions: Alfa 33 Cloverleaf

The Milanese Alfa Romeo company has an enviable reputation for making sporting family cars, suitable for everyday use but distinguished by having better than average performance and roadholding. Their first attempt at breaking into the 'mini' market with the Alfasud was outstandingly successful in terms of engineering and driving enjoyment, although well publicised labour problems at the Sud plant in Southern Italy coupled with questionable rustproofing have held the car back in the marketplace. The latest model, the Alfa 33, is clearly based upon the Sud and will eventually replace it, so we were particularly interested to find out how it behaves.

In many ways the 33 is an advance being more roomy inside, having a larger luggage compartment and being no less economical. The switch to outboard front discs and to drum brakes at the rear might be thought retrograde, but the system works perfectly well in hard driving conditions, and that is all that matters.

What did matter more to us was the deletion of the front anti-roll bar which helps the Sud to feel so taut and such fun to drive. The Sud's near-impeccable handling is not translated to the 33 which, near its limit, ploughs out and understeers through the corners like many a mundane front-drive family saloon. When the going gets tough, the driver is not encouraged to exploit the Alfa Romeo's handling, which seems a contradiction in terms!

This apart, and a lack of performance which could be rectified by using a twin-carburetter engine from the Sud Ti, Alfa Romeo have managed to capture the mood of the 'eighties for quick, highly equipped and economical saloon cars. The model we tested was the 33 Gold Cloverleaf, the most expensive in the range at £6,590. We would expect the 1.3 litre model at £5,690 (79 bhp) to lack any sort of performance to appeal to an Alfa Romeo fan; then the 1.5 litre model at £6,000 precisely with an 85 bhp flat-four engine is one that our readers might be interested in.

For the extra money, the Gold Cloverleaf offers tinted glass, electric window winders, headlamp wash/wipe, a passenger door mirror, fabric trimmed door panels, and a central locking system for all four doors. A central warning system for lights, oil level and coolant, and a trip computer are also part of the Cloverleaf's specification, which easily justifies the extra expense if you like gadgets; all three versions have a Pioneer radio/stereo cassette system with twin speakers, though with Medium and Long wave-bands and not the all-important VHF stereo radio band.

The general mechanical layout of the 33 is the same as the Alfasud's, with the neat little alloy flat-four engine overhung at the front, driving the front wheels, and the pedal/heater/battery box taking up half the front compartment. A single Weber twin-choke carburetter is mounted above the crankcase, and the 85 bhp developed is sufficient to take the 1.5 litre version to 60 mph in 11 seconds, and to a maximum speed of 106 mph. Though impressive enough on paper, we felt that the 33 lacked the element of sparkle that the twin-Weber, 105 bhp Alfasud Ti possesses. The price of the Cloverleaf is, after all, between that of the Escort XR3i and the Golf GTi which have all the space and much more performance to offer, so to be in that price bracket at all an Alfa Romeo should offer sub-10 second acceleration to 60 mph, and a top speed in excess of 110 mph.

Sheer performance has been sacrificed to a good cause, which is fuel economy. The figures of 28.8 mpg in the urban cycle, 49.6 mpg at 50 mph and 37.8 mpg at 75 mph are all at least as good as those on the Sud 1.5 although the 33 weighs 55 kilos more (121 pounds), being on the same floor pan as the Sud with an extra 1.5 inches on the overall length. The lower drag coefficient of 0.36 should assist the consumption at higher speeds and this is borne out by the official figures, our 32.2 miles per gallon on test being pretty good considering the way the car was driven on two by-road journeys to Silverstone!

Somewhere in Alfa Romeo's design department there lurks a man whose job it is to ensure that all the products have a rasping note to the exhaust, distinctive but not particularly appealing. So the 33 feels and sounds exactly like an Alfasud, the little four-cylinder engine being inherently well balanced and responsive. It has a nice five-speed gearbox, fifth being a higher ratio than in the Sud and contributing to the fuel economy aspect, and like its elder brother the 33 always needs to be in the correct gear for the situation to make real headway.

The steering wheel is height adjustable, the binnacle also going up and down so that the instruments are correctly aligned, and as usual the instrumentation is one of the Alfa's most appealing features, unspoiled by progressive designers. They have black faces with white figuring, and a yellow warning sector on the tachometer from 5,500 rpm, turning to red at 6,400 rpm. The fuel gauge surges alarmingly, giving welcome news under hard acceleration but zooming to zero under braking when the tank is more than quarter full. A water temperature gauge completes the line-up, lights doing the job of warning about oil pressure, battery or brake malfunctions, choke out, etcetera. The up and down window lifts are actuated by separate buttons in the centre console, and the fresh air ventilation earned good marks with no fewer than five fullly adjustable outlets at fascia level. If Alfa Romeo themselves describe the steering wheel as "wood" rim in inverted commas, we feel that our impression that it is plastic might be accurate!

The centre lock system can be actuated on any of the four doors by turning a pivot control on the window sill, which gives children a great deal of pleasure but would be far more acceptable if actuated only from the front seats.

With their notchback styling, Alfa Romeo have found the best of both worlds between booted bodywork and hatchback. The boot is very roomy indeed, and the rear seat backrests split individually so that large and lengthy articles can be pushed through to the interior compartment. In this way the capacity can be increased from 14 to 42 cubic feet; the fuel tank capacity is 50 litres (11.1 gallons) giving a useful range of over 300 miles, even 350 miles with careful driving.

Assuming that Alfa Romeo now have their corrosion problems sorted out, they have an appealing new family car in the 33 model. The 33 1.5 at £6,000 would seem to be the best value — unless you require nearly £600 worth of extras — lacking only a front anti-roll bar which is necessary, and some extra power which would be desirable. Might a Ti version rectify that in the future? — Michael Cotton