Few car brands can be as perplexing and exasperating as Alfa Romeo. Until the recent arrival of the Giulia and Stelvio, Alfa enthusiasts were resigned to expecting new models to be quite good, but at the same time disappointing.
It’s hard to know definitively whether this is because we expect so much from a brand that has so much more emotional power than Audi, BMW or Ford. Or because the new models really weren’t much cop. I suspect the latter. The firm’s habit of reheating Fiat parts and calling the Alfas was never going to be a recipe for success, no matter how much and for how long they tried to persuade us otherwise. The Mito and Guilietta, the latest in a long line of shared platforms, are good, interesting cars, but I’m not sure there’s enough Alfa DNA on show.
We’ve been fed Alfa-ised Fiats for so long – the last ‘proper’ Alfa was the 75 of the late 1980s, based on the Alfetta of the 1970s – that it’s not entirely easy to pinpoint exactly what Alfa’s DNA is. 60s models like the Giulia and 70s cars such as the Alfasud and GTV were great handling cars with superlative engines. But other cars handled just as well or better, were faster and they were better looking.
Which perhaps explains why the latest Giulia is considered to be a stunning return to form. It isn’t the greatest looking car in its class. It has great handling, but so do many other cars. And yet it does have something a little extra bestowed by that badge – an emotional connection that you just don’t get from an Audi or BMW.
So, really, in a way, Alfa hasn’t ever quite made a bad car, just some not good ones. If you exclude the Arna that is. Here, then, with that caveat firmly to to the fore, is our best and worst of Alfa.
5 Less Good Alfas
Car makers, big and small, have a disarming habit of pulling defeat from the snapping jaws of victory. And none more so than Nissan and Alfa with the Arna.
It should have worked. On paper the combination of a company that made boring cars extremely well with a car company that made interesting cars extremely badly should have been a winning one. The problem, as so often in life, was in the execution. Instead of entrusting the interesting stuff to Alfa, like design, they gave that to Nissan. Nissan, clearly too busy doing something, anything else, gifted the project the Nissan Cherry body shell, essentially unchanged.
And instead of giving the job of building it properly to the company that built cars properly, this crucial task was delegated to Alfa.
So what buyers got was a car that looked dull, built badly. For some strange reason this didn’t persuade many people, even though the car was sold through Nissan and Alfa dealerships. That Nissan badged the car as a GTI, presumably without first checking to see if the Alfa Boxer engine was fuel injected (it wasn’t), didn’t entirely help.
2. Alfa 90
In the early 80s Alfa was getting a bit desperate. Government owned and starved of cash, new models were in short supply.
The company decided it needed a big, profitable flagship executive model to generate much needed cash. Casting around for cheap ideas, presumably someone in Milan noticed that Saab had just launched the 900. Little more than a 99 with a longer front and rear, the 900 had successfully injected new life into an old design and moved the model upmarket.
So Alfa set about performing the same trick, adding extra length to the front and rear of the Alfetta. When it came to naming the car the engineers clearly forgot they weren’t actually building Saabs because they called it the 90.
In its favour the Alfa 90 was pretty anonymous, which apparently is the motoring style favoured by Italy’s Mafia-dodging top executives. And it got the company’s superlative 2.5 v6 engine and a posh interior that included, of course it did, a built in briefcase. But there really wasn’t much else to recommend it. It looked boxy and ungainly, it was cramped, it wasn’t particularly nice or quick to drive and it was an expensive car built badly.
3. Alfa 33
It is typical of this list that the Alfa 33 isn’t actually a bad car. It’s just not one of Alfa’s better efforts. Following the Alfasud was never going to be easy, and the 33 had it tough. That it was essentially an Alfasud with a bigger body didn’t help, because by the mid 80s when the car was launched those underpinnings were no longer much cop. Plus that new body was heavy. So the aging Boxer engines struggled, even bored out to 1.7 litres, and the handling got wallowy.
The 33 did have a lot of merits, including a decent ride and comfortable interior, but reliability and durability weren’t among them. Dodgy electrics and dismal rustproofing stymied the car’s market potential.
4. Alfa 146
By the mid 90s Alfa was under Fiat control and the bean counters were pushing platform sharing. This innovation may work well for companies like Volkswagen and Audi, but for Alfa it was a disaster. Like Saab under GM, platform, sharing only served to dilute the firm’s DNA, serving up cars that for diehard fans were just reheated Fiats.
The 146 – and the 3 door 145 ‘breadvan’ – were the first fruits of this endeavour. They weren’t bad cars, just not great ones. Which might have been excuseable if they were wholly Alfa engineered, but they weren’t. Buyers got two fairly dull looking cars and the distinct sense they were being sold Fiats with posh badges.
5. Alfa Guilietta (modern version)
In the late 90s Alfa went through a bit of a renaissance. We got the 916 GTV and Spider, the 156 and the 166, all good cars despite being heavily Fiat based. Then something went wrong. For a long time there was nothing, then we got the new Guilietta.
The new car makes this list for what it represented at the time. Despite the press and buyers clamouring for new cars suffused with Alfa DNA, what the company gave us was a reheated Fiat Brava that even looked a lot like its lowly cousin. Aside from the badges there was precious little Alfa about it. It seemed that Alfa was never going to learn the lesson. And then…
The Good Alfas
1. Alfa Giulia (old and new)
The new Giulia saloon is a cracking return to form. The old and new models make this list (I know it’s cheating) because they share so many characteristics – great handling, brilliant engines and cracking steering. Neither broke the design mould but Alfas have never really been about beautiful design.
2. Alfa 75
It had a silly handbrake, was boxier than Amazon’s packing department, wedgier than Harris Mann’s drawing board, but someone the 75 was brilliant. Not brilliant as in a decent competitor to a BMW 5-series or Audi 80, but brilliant in terms of a rear drive, 50:50 weight distribution with typical Alfa flaws. In other words, a car you could love and connect with. And one fitted with the superlative Busso V6.
Everybody who has ever come into contact with an Alfasud loves them. Before the Golf and 205 Alfa gave us a FWD family car that handled brilliantly. Well packaged – apart from the lack of a hatchback – and with willing Boxer engines, the Alfasud was a world beater. Sadly, a world beater built near Naples by inexperienced Italians. Using dodgy Russian steel.
4. Alfa GTV
The original Bertone-designed GTV is the coupe that every coupe aspires to be: pretty, practical and brilliant to drive. The later 70s wedge-shaped GTV didn’t pull it all together quite as well, but it was a decent contender. Both cars couldn’t have been built by anyone else – they had character, if not quite longevity.
5. Alfa SZ and RZ
It’s fair to say that the brick-like SZ and RZ didn’t exactly put Alfa back on the map. When new the Zagato-penned lines appalled and confused in equal measure. But underneath was a shortened version of the 75 chassis, which meant these ungainly cars drove superbly, just like an Alfa should. Today those looks are less repellant and prices are skyrocketing.
6. Alfa Romeo Spider
Britain had the MGB but Italy had the Spider, the car that put the dolce vita into daily driving. Where the B was pretty but lumbering, the Spider was svelte and sporting – it looked good, it handled like an Alfa should and it had a great Alfa engine under the bonnet. It was so good in fact that Alfa kept making it for nearly 30 years, changing it over four generations to the version you see here. Afficionados have their favourites but any 105 Series Alfa Spider is a simple join to drive or be seen in.
No list of Alfa’s best can really stop at 6 models. The Alfetta and Giulietta of the 70s also deserve honourable mention, as do the 8C and 4C of modern times, even if the latter is a bit flawed.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. The Great Driving Days hire fleet includes an Alfa Romeo Spider and Alfa GTV. They’re available to hire by the hour, day, week, weekend or as part of the firm’s unique road trip multi-car experiences.