New cars: Alfa 33 Veloce

Turning heads

Alfa Romeo was absorbed into the Fiat Group on January 1, and it soon became clear that the marque would concentrate on high-performing family models, while Fiat concentrated on volume and Lancia on luxury.

As it happens, Alfa Romeo's previous management had already decided to move away from the volume market, where the 33 and 75 models did not rest easily, and new 1.5 and 1.7-litre versions of the 33 had already been launched at the autumn shows. They are anything but dull, and the 33 1.7 Veloce proved an extremely good choice for our annual pilgrimage to Le Mans in June.

A quarter of a million 33s have been sold in Europe since the model's introduction in 1983, but any customers who looked for the Sud's sportiness and character were disappointed. Now it is time for them to look again at the range which is powered by 105bhp 1.5-litre, or 118bhp 1.7-litre 'boxer' engines, and seems to offer particularly good value at prices ranging from £7599 to £8999.

The 1.7 Veloce has, as standard equipment, £400-worth of Zender plastic body kit including a well-styled air dam and rear skirt, sill attachments, a rear spoiler, and clear wind-deflectors around the front door windows. Everything is in body colour (scarlet on the test car) and there is no risk at all of the Veloce merging with the mass of near identical, wind tunnel-honed shapes currently produced.

Concern — alarm might be a better word — set in when our photographer mentioned he had left the Veloce "in the `green' car park, behind the village" after taking pictures. It was near dusk, and the thought of stumbling round a packed car park in darkness did not have immediate appeal. But there was no need to worry . . . the Alfa was as recognisable as Daley Thompson at a village sports day.

The interior and fascia have been heavily revised and are most pleasant, the seats being well cushioned for sporty driving yet extremely comfortable. Even now, though, drivers of average height will wish the seat could go back another two or three notches.

The height-adjustable steering wheel needs to be on its highest setting to clear the thighs, and the pedal angles are awkward, even tiring for long journeys. They are rather close together, too: there is little space between the clutch pedal and the footrest, and the right ankle is only comfortable when the accelerator is fully depressed. That must be how the designers meant the car to be driven!

The flat-four engine is the heart of the 33 1.7, and it is more appealing than ever. Made entirely of aluminium, and nestling low-down between the front wheels, it has a larger bore and stroke at 87.0 x 72.2mm and develops 118bhp at 6000rpm, with 250rpm still to go on the tachometer. The torque figure is good, at 1091b ft at 3500rpm, but the new gearing feels high and it pays to use the gearbox freely. A pair of twin-choke carburettors provide the mixture, but the ignition system is electronic. There is a manual choke (which is increasingly unusual) and the engine has a really distinctive flat-four "beat" which is addictive and encourages full use of performance.

The gearbox still has the annoying habit of crunching when first gear is selected, overcome by leaning the lever against second beforehand, but otherwise it has a fast and positive shift quality. We did not check the performance accurately, but 8.7sec sounds a fair claim for acceleration from rest to 60mph, while the claimed top speed might be a little optimistic at 122mph. Every car has a usable top speed some way short of its terminal speed and, in the case of the 1.7 Veloce, 110mph comes up fairly easily, and an indicated 120mph only with gradient and tailwind.

The ride quality was surprisingly good, thoroughly impressive in fact on the straight but bumpy French D-routes. These are cambered and uneven, but usually free of heavy traffic, and the 33 ran true and comfortably at speeds which are only relaxing when you have the mandatory 900 francs tucked away in the glove-box. The brake pedal is spongy though, and ventilated discs at the front combined with drums at the rear felt only just adequate for serious use at very high speeds.

Nor was the steering particularly sharp. The rack-and-pinion system tends to he low-geared for ease of parking (when the drag of the 185-section Michelin MXV tyres requires some muscle power), and requires significant arm movement to place the car into bends. Handling is very good, in fact, but the 33 still feels as though it understeers more than it actually does, and a higher steering ratio combined with a good servo system would further transform the character of this Alfa.

In case the steering system is on Alfa Romeo's engineering agenda, the steering lock is poor, with a circle of 32.8ft, and fares badly in manoeuvring situations.

Fuel consumption reflects driving style markedly, our full-to-full tank checks ranging from 29.1mpg when driving quietly to 24.6mpg when driving fast . The overall figure of 26.5mpg was a little disappointing.

There is little wind noise at speed, 100mph being a comfortable pace to maintain in Germany for instance, and the 33 has "big car" feel. The wind deflectors around the side windows are fairly useless, and producing distracting reflections, and the exhaust pipe stops short of the rear skirt, causing a black stain. In short, the Zender kit makes the 33 Veloce look very distinctive, but those who do not want to turn heads can have exactly the same performance from the Cloverleaf, at £8599.

Accommodation is really generous, the boot also being a large and useful shape, and Alfa Romeo's rust-proofing processes are now taken to extreme lengths. At the price of a pervading smell of wax, Alfa Romeo (GB) Ltd offers a six-year anti-corrosion warranty and a three-year mechanical warranty, which ought to dispel any lingering doubts about the 33's longevity. Alfa Romeo itself refers to the new 33 as being "second generation", which seems completely justified. It has character, distinctive style and excellent performance, attributes which are much sought-after in the 1980s. MLC