Monday Motoring: Alfa Romeo’s Failed Promises

One of the most hotly anticipated new cars of 2016 is Italy’s long awaited replacement for the Alfa 159, the Alfa Romeo Giulia.  We will be featuring this on next week’s Monday Motoring. This week we will be looking at the cars that preceded it and why the anticipation fro this car is running at fever pitch.

Jeremy Clarkson famously claimed that no one could  seriously be considered a petrol -head if they had never owned an Alfa.  It’s a rite of passage, a litmus test of devotion.  Clarkson is, of course, wrong. Not for the first time….

I’m definitely a petrol head and have never owned an Alfa.  However, there is more than a grain of truth in his statement; because I’ve for many years longed to own an Alfa.  I’ve just not yet managed to find one worthy of ownership. I am not alone.  Over the last 20 years, at the very least,  Alfa Romeo, a company with a proud history of making cars for people with petrol in their veins for over 100 years, has for the last generation repeatedly failed to deliver on its promises.

The roots of the Giulia are to be found in its illustrious predecessor, the 156.  I remember the launch of the Alfa 156 in 1997.  On a seemingly interminable train journey from Manchester to Cambridge, or perhaps the other way round, I needed something to while way the time and discovered there was a magazine for cars!  Imagine a soft-porn glossy mag but with cars rather than people as models…. For a man like me the latter was the far more attractive proposition.

159 Interior

I had discovered Autocar magazine, the high quality publication which has been reporting on cars since 1895, of which I soon became a faithful subscriber. I recommend it to you highly if you are a lover of cars. But it was not the magazine that caught my attention that day, as much as the beautiful model on the cover, it was the newly launched Alfa Romeo 156.

This was the car that was to go on to win the 1998 European Car of the Year Award and to set the template for the way Alfas should look and drive that is still being followed today.  The prominent Alfa shield which so dominates the front that the number plate had to be offset, the compact dimensions, slim headlights, and supermodel looks are all traceable to this car, which itself channelled and distilled historic Alfa Romeo DNA.

Alfa Romeo 156, facelifted in 2003
Alfa Romeo 156, facelifted in 2003

The 156 designed to compete with the BMW 3 Series, a grudge match that has been going on since the 1960s, was followed by a bigger brother, the 166, designed to take on the BMW 5 series.  Eventually, a smaller brother, the 147, which was to take on the Audi A3,  completed the saloon range.

Curiously, though launched after the 156 the 166 was, in fact, developed earlier and then its release was delayed because the 156 was deemed more urgent.  It showed.  The 166, a beautiful car, and in my view a more desirable car than the 156, didn’t have the self confidence of the 156’s prominent Alfa shield and simply looked old hat from its very beginning in comparison to its smaller and less expensive younger brother.  Not a great way to sell an executive car.  Only once the 166 received a facelift halfway through its lifecycle did it finally get the self confident look consistent with the quality of the rest of the package. Unfortunately, by then it was too late. Britain had moved to a Road Tax system in 2001 based on CO2 emissions and Alfa’s glorious V6 engines, having been designed for a previous era, were no longer competitive.  The facelift improved the looks of the car, but coincided with the removal of all the V6s from the 166 range quickly followed by a similar outcome for the 156. I very seriously considered an Alfa back in 2002.  Unfortunately, the 166 that I wanted was no longer offered in Britain.  I could get a car with the engine I wanted, or the face I wanted, but not both.  The 2.5v6 156 I considered as an alternative, and which was an incredibly sexy beast of a car, was also thirsty to fuel, and expensive to tax. Also, like the 166, it was not available in a facelifted model. In the end, I went for a different 2.5V6, the delectable MG ZT190.  But it felt like a lost opportunity, both for Alfa and for me….

Alfa followed up the 156 with the 159 and its Brera coupe variant but the 166 had sold so poorly it has never been replaced.  Like the 156 before it, the 159 promised much but failed to deliver. Logic suggests that the 156 should have been replaced by a 157 or 158.  The choice of 159 was meant to demonstrate the leap that the company had made over the 156.

Alfa 159

Early signs were good.  Alfa and Saab were working together to develop a platform that they could each use and keep the costs of development down.  The idea was they they would end up with a higher quality basis for their new cars than either could afford if they went alone.  Sure, some compromises would be necessary, but the benefits of the additional investment would outweigh them.

Saab ran into trouble and pulled out of the deal leaving Alfa to soldier on alone.  By then the car had been engineered in such a way to meet Saab’s exacting safety standards, way beyond that which Alfa, and many other manufacturers of the time, would have required.  The result was a car that was over-engineered, overweight, and over budget.Unfortunately, this was precisely at the time that the weights of cars became ever more important, because  of growing concern about CO2 emissions.  So Alfa’s 159 was again not quite competitive enough to give BMW a run for its money.  Plus the overspend on the platform meant that Alfa had to cut corners elsewhere.  So the car was, yet again, just not good enough.

What Alfa did have going for them was the fact that the car was achingly beautiful.  It still is.  I think the Alfa 159 is probably one of the most beautiful saloon cars ever built, and certainly the most beautiful of its genre produced in the last 30 years.  It was beautiful enough to go up against James Bond’s Aston Martin in Quantum of Solace and occasionally share the stage with a Lomborghini among Italy’s Polizia without looking out of place. But that made it all the more frustrating.  My heart desperately wanted a 159, ideally in Alfa Red, in Ti spec with limited edition alloy wheels, lowered suspension, special dual exit exhausts and uprated interior.  My head was frustrated when it became clear that even Vauxhall’s newly launched Insignia seemed to outdo Alfa on interior quality, fuel efficiency, CO2 emissions, and depreciation.  This was not really a car playing in the same league as the Germans.

In the same 2 decades that Audi transformed itself from a purveyor of reheated Volkswagens to one of the most profitable and prolific car makers on the planet, Alfa Romeo withered on the vine instead of benefitting from the huge swing towards premium vehicles worldwide.

Alfa 159 Sportwagon

The 159 of  2005 was followed by the beautiful but underpowered Brera coupe, the rather fantastic 8C supercar of 2007, the MiTo supermini in 2008, and the Giulietta small family car in 2010, the latter two aimed at the Audi A1 and A3 respectively. The most recent addition to the stable, the new 4C, is meant to provide the 8C’s supercar looks at slightly more accessible prices. All were beautiful.  All were in different ways flawed.

So Alfa continued to wither on the vine whilst its competitors flourished.  Even Jaguar Land Rover, a perennial underperformed, was seemingly getting its act together.  For years FIAT, Alfa’s parent company denied rumours that it would sell Alfa to Volkswalken.  Instead it put into place secret plans finally to deliver on Alfa Romeo’s potential.  Those plans are finally coming to fruition.  We hope.  And pray….

Next week we look at what Alfa are planning next.

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