Alfa Romeo GT
Alfa's stalled revival gets cracking again with a coupe that's as good to drive as it is to look at
How the stars fall to earth. Everyone loved the Alfa 156 on its launch at the back end of 1997. They loved the way it looked (still terrific), they loved its smooth, fizzy engines and they loved its pointy, agile, feelgood handling. The 147 went down well, too,
if with a little less rapture. Both cars even claimed the European Car of the Year title.
Times move on, standards change, both cars are now chided for a lack of steering feel and a knobbly ride. Their shared platform's glory is not over yet, though. Reason one: the 156 has just won the European Touring Car Championship by one point from BMW. Reason two: Alfa Romeo has just launched the Alfa GT (surely the company's shortest-ever name) on this same platform, and it's rather good.
But what, exactly, is the point of the Alfa GT anyway? It is to tempt people away from the default choice of a BMW 3-series coupé. The GTV clearly doesn't do that - it's old now, facelift notwithstanding, and it has just two seats and a minute boot. The GT is a five-seater (just), with the five three-point belts to prove it, and it is also a hatchback (despite appearances) with a big boot and folding rear seats. But does it set the serotonin flowing in your brain? Are you, in fact, salivating at the prospect of one on your drive?
Thing is, our first view of the GT, as a concept at last March's Geneva Show, was a bit of a non-event. It didn't seem to move the style game on at all, for all its Bertone credentials. Seemed the Alfa design brief was so tight that Bertone simply painted by numbers: Brera-esque front, 147/166 side scallops, slim rear lights a fusion of what had gone before. Where was the presence, the visual movement?
Turns out the show sold it short, mainly because we couldn't get far enough away to see the GT at its more flattering angles. Out in the open air, the Alfa metamorphs into a mean-looking, wedge-waistlined, curvy-haunched piece of metal muscularity, shallow side windows adding substance (at the expense of serious claustrophobia in the headroom-challenged rear seat), protuberant sills the only jarring note. More's the pity, then, that the dashboard is lifted straight from the 147 apart from tidier dial graphics. It's not a bad dash, but bespoke would have been better. One possible salvation is the optional hand-stitched leather covering, turning the cabin ambience into a kind of Maserati microcosm.
The grandest model is the 3.2 V6, whose 236bhp is 10bhp down on the 147/156 GTA's version with the trade-off of a stronger low-speed torque delivery. It still sounds delicious, not creamy like a BMW but slightly gravelly with a burbling idle and a tenor blare at big revs. It's tractable and broad in the powerband, with six neatly-shifting gears to make the most of it. Full marks to the powertrain, then - but can the front-drive chassis handle its efforts?
We're climbing up out of Menton, just beyond Monaco, to Sospel, and the roads are getting damper. This should be a tractive challenge, but so far it isn't. The steering isn't being tugged except under big provocation, the traction control's intervention is subtle enough to suggest infrequent activation, power is flowing where it should. But this isn't just down to traction-focused, sensation-damping geometry; the steering lacks the slight dead patch of a 147/156, so it's less of a shock when the ultra-quick gearing does its stuff, and this welcome sharpness comes with more feel than we're used to with this badge in the steering wheel's centre. It's hardly talkative, but there is some information interchange.
And yes, the GT has a decent, shudder-free ride. Revised bushes in the front upper wishbones and rear radius arms are one reason why, and aside from an occasional thump from the back over sharp edges (and the terrible turning circle) this interpretation of the chassis is a reformed character. It feels firmly planted on the road, too, but a little more throttle-steerability would be nice. I drove some late GT prototypes a couple of months ago at Fiat's Balocco test track when the engineers were experimenting with the balance by altering the rear anti-roll bar, and they've gone for the softer one. Pity; I preferred the thicker one, better for flicking into corners. Maybe it should be an option.
That's the V6, denied to the UK until late next year. There are also a 2-litre, direct-injection JTS and a 1.9-litre, 148bhp JTD turbodiesel whose torque exceeds even that of the V6, engines whose lighter weight makes for a nimbler front end at the expense of the V6 sound effects. These two go on sale in March, starting at about £20,000. The V6 follows in the autumn; any of them makes the best 3-series coupé alternative there has yet been.
+ Fine body, fine heart, fine soul
- Not happy with hairpin bends