Italians love small cars, it’s a given. Unless you’re a politician, captain of industry or a mafioso el capitain then big cars aren’t their thing. Unfortunately that has never stopped Italy’s car makers from chancing their arm in the executive market.
Where Lancia have been marginally successful – with the quirky Gamma and Thema – Fiat and Alfa have been considerably less results-driven. The Croma was and is an awful thing, while the Alfa 90 proved that making a good car longer didn’t make a longer car good.
For the last decade or so Alfa has vacated the executive car market, despite on paper being the most eligible Italian maker to provide wheels for thrusting boardroom types. It’s a shame because, putting aside such inconveniences as sales volumes and return on investment, the 164 was excellent, if fragile, and the 166 arguably the firm’s best contribution.
Big but not beautiful
I know just how good the 166 is because I ran one for a couple of years and 40,000 miles. It may not quite nail the concept of ‘beautiful’ but it was accomplished and great to drive despite being essentially a warmed up 164. Mine was a 3 litre V6, the superlative Busso engine giving the big car proper urge and a lovely warble. But that wasn’t the end of the 166’s attractions. It was spacious, very comfortable with lovely Momo leather seats and the handling was crisp and responsive. All of these are classic Alfa attributes and, were it not for the brand’s other attributes, we’d all probably be driving Alfas instead of BMWs.
The 166 had the full panapoly of Alfa characteristics in abundance. Developed alongside the beautiful 156, the 166 enjoyed a leisurely route to production until the last few months when it was rushed into production to deliver some now-forgotten objective. The most obvious legacy of this is the styling, which combines a contemporary 156-style rear end treatment with an old school 145-style droopy nose. It was certainly distinctive, albeit with remarkably tiny front lights.
Lots of electrics
In a bid to out-quality BMW and Audi, Alfa’s engineers paid a lot of attention to the car’s structural rigidity, such that the 166’s doors close with a distinctly un-Alfa-like clunk. Inside they applied some superficially upmarket soft-feel plastics to the stylish dashboard and centre console. Perhaps forgetting that electrics and Alfas have never been a happy combination, they also designed a complicated infotainment and climate control system that included a satnav. For good measure they threw in as many electricity-based luxury gizmos as they could think of. Understandably, they must have decided to knock off early to celebrate this success, as this is the only explanation for why they forgot to screw any of it together properly. Or, for that matter, fix Alfa’s age-old problem of transferring electricity from one part of the car to another.
As a result, customers got a solid, distinctive, crisp-handling saloon that suffered endless, niggling problems from collapsible trim to heating that didn’t work (because it was part of the useless infotainment system) and self-levelling headlights that well, didn’t. This probably explains why so few were sold, even when Alfa gave the car a much-needed facelift with strong grille and bigger headlights. Despite being the last car to use the Busso engine the 166 quickly earned the reputation as the UK’s fastest depreciating car.
However committed you might be to the Alfa brand, losing 50% of your car’s value in 2 years is hard to stomach.
This is a shame because the 166 is a really good car. Perhaps not a brilliant one but certainly a very competent alternative to an Audi A6 or BMW 5-series. Until recently values for the handful of survivors were on the floor – I paid £500 for my 95,000 miler three years ago. Now they’re creeping up, stirred by rarity, the V6 engine and the dawning realisation that in the 166 Alfa got a lot of things right. If you can live with the looks and the wayward build quality and electrics you get a quick, comfortable and decent-handling front wheel drive Alfa.
Alfa’s experience with the 166 clearly sounded the death knell for the firm’s forays into the executive sector. Although the firm is launching new models there appear to be no plans for a car bigger than the Giulia. And that’s a real shame because when Italians put their minds to it they do big saloons surprisingly well. Where big German cars tend to be bland and with the ride quality of a concrete mixer, the Italians are more stylish and more forgiving. They make cars that, by necessity, have to go round corners on roads that undulate and bump. With a big Italian car you get the sense that comfort and speed don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
So I do hope that Alfa don’t just slavishly follow the rest of the industry by churning out endless variations on the SUV theme. Lets have a big car please – one that we can be frustrated by and wowed by in equal measure.
Great Escape Cars www.greatescapecars.co.uk 01527 893733