Alfa Romeo 164
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 4
Alfa Romeo's 164 always enjoyed a few advantages over the competition in the upper region of the executive car class. And a lot was to do with marque pedigree. The Fiat-owned Italian company, at the time, had no difficulty establishing itself as a recognized contender for the executive dollar because it had always attracted that market anyway. Even if it's reputation sagged in the 1980s because of quality control problems and lack of new product, the name Alfa Romeo
always meant something special to the cognoscenti.
So, in a sense, the 164 was nothing more than an extension of the traditional Alfa theme: it was a move upmarket, but most of the manufacturers it was competing with were old rivals. The 164 was a little late arriving in Australia - it was originally scheduled for September 1988 - apparently due to the fact that the Arese plant near Milan was flat-out satisfying demand in Europe. But a few month's wait did not affected the impact of the car, specially in view of the fact Alfa decided to adopt an aggressive pricing policy which saw the commodious V6 coming in well under what might be termed its natural competition.
Taking On The Opposition
At A$62,000 with only two options (sunroof and metallic paint) to be added, the car was well below the figure projected for Australia when the car was released in Europe at the end of 1987
. That Alfa Romeo included in the car's standard equipment things like automatic climate control, anti-lock braking, electric seating, electric glass, and central locking (for cars of this era, the list was extensive) - was indicative of how determined the company was to consolidate its prestige rating against manufacturers like Saab
and (dare we suggest) Mercedes-Benz
The marketing people at Alfa took an interesting, and apparently logical view concerning the 164's positioning. Instead of merely sizing it up against logical competition like Saab
was also asking that prospective customers also consider BMW 5-series and Mercedes W124 Mittelklass cars which offered similar dynamics, similar on-road presence and less comprehensive standard equipment for a lot more money. Alfa was asking that lease buyers consider the benefits of a $62,000 commitment as compared to a $90,000 one. Honda
was not forgotten in the marketing push either. The well-equipped three litre V6 from Milan was not priced that far above the Honda Legend
A Combined Effort From Saab, Fiat, Lancia and Alfa Romeo
So how did the distinctive-looking product of the Type 4 project that was a combined effort from Saab
and Alfa Romeo
tally up in the Australian environment? Styling individuality, and the three litre V6, were two elements that favored the 164 enormously, specially when combined with the proven Type 4 structure which had earned Saab
good credits during the time of the Saab 9000's availability in Australia. The first impression of the 164 (and you can check the larger images at the bottom of this article to see what we are talking about) was that it was a distinctive-looking car. While it had its detractors, the Pininfarina
styling appeared to be liked by most. We think it was a refreshing change from the lookalike and rather bland themes that were the general norm during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
To our mind, it managed to show individuality while still paying homage to the dictates of aerodynamics with a low Cd figure of 0.30. The car's identity was driven home clearly by the brazen Alfa grille which was highlighted by a sweeping central bulge in the bonnet. Side views tended more towards the normal European 1980s rounded wedge, but the 164 still displayed a pleasing balance between sheet metal and glass areas, free of unnecessary bumps or bulges, while at the back a high, slit-eyed tail light presentation tended to continue the pert rear-end theme of the 75
. Overall, it was a smooth car which looked distinctive in a non-alienating way.
Brilliant Panel Fit and Finish
What was impressive about the 164 was the way all the panels fitted together, and the way the doors closed. No other car gives forth a more solid, precise thunk when any of the four big doors are pushed shut. That sort of thing has good showroom value when you're trying to convince a potential customer of the quality of your product. Alfa's striving for vastly-improved quality control has clearly paid dividends here as the 164 is generally very well put together with carefully-chosen trim materials, excellent paint and good attention to detail.
Ergonomics, always a sore point with earlier Alfas, were turned around too. Even the 33s and 75s, both improvements over a disaster-studded past, showed a certain fundamental lack of understanding in some areas, but the 164 put Milan right on track. Only the most determined critic could have said anything bad about the car's ability to place its driver properly behind the wheel. The steering column adjusted for both reach and height, and the electrically-adjustable driver's seat (which didn't include a memory like a Benz or a BMW) moved over a large enough range to suit most people. The same could be said about general in-cabin accommodation.
Like the Saab 9000, the 164 - which was both wider and lower, but was shorter than a W124 Benz - made good use of its front-drive layout to maximize interior space. What many will have forgotten over the years was that the Saab 9000 was the happy recipient of a large-car classification by the Americans, and the Alfa, being based on the same floorpan, offered a similarly generous interior - even though it was not thought of as a large car. The good ergonomics applied to the controls that surrounded the driver in charge, as much as they did to the driving position. There was no silliness like roof-mounted window controls, or heater fan switches mounted on a steering column stalk. The location of controls remained in line with universal standards with light switches, indicators and wiper/washers all a logical flick of the finger away.
On the Inside
Secondary functions were grouped together in an array of switches down on the centre console where, hidden away behind its own flip-up panel, out of sight of burglars, also lurked the radio. Electric window switches were located further down on the console, next to the handbrake, and controls for the seat are down between the cushion and the driver's door. The car's ambience, apart from the newfound Teutonic precision, was pretty Italian. That was, it has a pleasant, tasteful flair to it with a touch of color in the trim, a nicely-sized leathered-covered steering wheel
and even a 'ski-glove' accessible through the centre rear armrest which gave some idea of the class of buyer Alfa then saw as part of their target group. The subtle style of the interior was a nice contrast to the tendency towards stark purposefulness found in German cars and certainly wasn't enough to offend any executive with an eye for style. On presentation, the 164 scored significant points.
On the Road
Once you had the 164 fired up, you quickly found that this car had something other Type 4s didn't - the promise of an ample supply of good, beefy torque. The rumble of the V6 was unmistakable, and welcome to any driver with red blood left in their veins. And even though Australian cars were equipped only with the four speed ZF automatic transmission
, there was rarely any question of the 164's sporting abilities. As any current or past owner will tell you, the thing sounded bloody wonderful. The single-cam-per-bank 60 degree Vee would run the car through 400 metres in 16.5 seconds, and had it at 100 km/h in around nine. Response, specially when compared to the sometimes frustrating characteristics of the turbocharged Saab
, was excellent and was complimented by the finely-tuned ZF box which kicked down smoothly and readily, even when decelerating down from highway to suburban speeds.
A Sweet Engine
The V6, beautifully presented with its chrome inlet runners curving down the centre of the Vee, was fundamentally the same as that used in the three litre Alfa Romeo 75
model. It was of all-alloy construction, the exhaust valves being driven by pushrods operating directly off each single overhead camshaft, and drank its lead-free via Bosch Motronic electronic fuel injection
. It was located transversely and powered the wheels with equal-length driveshafts - an important factor in building up a minimally torque-steering front-drive car. There was still some torque steer under acceleration however, specially on an uneven road surface where weight transfered from one front wheel to another, or when pulling out of a tight corner. Still, considering the V6's readiness to produce torque at moderately low rpm, it was more a matter of the driver acclimatizing to a different characteristic, than a serious design flaw.
In highway use the three litre spun more rapidly than did the more economy-oriented European cars with ultra-high fifth gears, but this didn't affect its frugality with fuel, or the level of noise in the cabin, as the Alfa cruised virtually at any speed you wanted without beginning to sound fussed. The wind noise was low too - though not of Audi 100
standards - showing that good aerodynamics, and careful assembly by a heavily robotized production line, did have their tangible benefits. In Australian spec, the 164's engine produced 132 kW at 5600 rpm, which was down only six kW on the home-market version and, exactly the same as the European version, turned out 245 Nm of torque at 3000 rpm.
Under the Skin
Alfa had chosen, wisely, to build a non-European engine that satisfied virtually every overseas market rather than calibrate different engines to extract the most from each market. The benefits in development costs were obvious, as were the benefits in building one engine that suited a number of markets. Suspension layout of the 164 was familiar, although Alfa had obviously done a lot of fine-tuning to endow the car with the sporty characteristics familiar to the marque. It utilized independent struts at all corners, with lateral transverse arms and reaction rods controlling movement at the rear. The rating was significantly upgraded when compared to the Saab
, and some owners even considered the suspension a little too harsh, especially on badly pot-holed bitumen or roughly corrugated gravel - and coming from Alfa aficionados, that is saying something.
Road testers claimed there was a certain choppiness about the ride on rough surfaces, particularly at the front end which was often sensitive in a front wheel drive car, and undoubtedly contributed to by the big low-profile 55-section tyres
. But out on the road the payoff was a stable, secure ride that allowed the Alfa to keep its footing at very high European speeds. The 164's assisted rack and pinion steering was sharp, well-weighted, and allowed the car to be positioned precisely in corners where, despite the firmness in the suspension
, it resisted being deflected off line by rough patches. The front-drive understeer was there, but it was only the hard-pressing driver who ever noticed it because the absolute limits of adhesion were very high.
With four wheel disc ABS braking fitted as standard equipment on the 164 there was no shortage of stopping ability either. The big car hauled down during various braking tests conducted by motoring magazines and other authorities - the general consensus was that it would pull-up from 100 km/h in 40 metres without a problem and there was little fade. Some motoring journalists suggested that the pedal could have been a little more progressive. The overall picture was that the 164 combined Alfa dynamics with standards of quality and driver comfort that were balanced against the traditional style and flair. The 164 may have been a joint development but the Milanese company managed to breath a significant Italian flavor into it, not the least of which was the wonderful, growling V6.