From the June 1990 issue of Car and Driver.
America’s very own E.L. Cord once observed of the car business, “If you can’t be big, you have to be different.” It has been 80 years since the doors opened at Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili—”Alfa.” During that period, the company, like some sort of corporate three-toed sloth, has clung tenaciously to Cord’s precept. Nowhere is that clearer than in America, where Alfa has engendered a small but loyal cult following. Today, however, the sloth is in danger of falling out of its tree. Explains Darrell Davis, the president of ARDONA (Alfa Romeo Distributors of North America): “Cult followings are neat, I guess, if you’re Jeane Dixon or Elvis Costello. But they’re not going to save serious car companies.” And you don’t have to be Jeane Dixon to predict the future of any marque that sells only 2900 cars annually, as Alfa did here in 1989.
What to do? “We need one nearly perfect, mainstream product,” answers Davis. That product is the front-wheel-drive 164 sedan, Alfa’s first luxury car and by far the most mainstream Alfa ever to wear the Visconti serpente in the homeland of Errett Lobban Cord.
There is only one major component on the Alfa Romeo 164S that is carried over from any previous Alfa. It is the best thing about the car. If Alfa’s all-aluminum 3.0-liter V-6 were a teenager, it would be a gang leader in East L.A. No normally aspirated V-6 on the market is a more willing participant in delinquent behavior. Revs appear so quickly that first-time drivers find themselves furiously slipping the clutch. Power begins in earnest as low as 2500 rpm (indeed, if you sidestep the clutch above that point, the front tires simply vanish in blue smoke) and carries on with smooth fury until 6500 rpm, where a rev limiter asserts some discipline. Throughout it all, this 60-degree V-6 emits a throaty, gripping growl, the sort of noise you’d elicit from a greatly annoyed 100-pound bobcat. All this, mind you, from a SOHC, two-valve-per-cylinder design.
In both the 164 and the 164L (see “Alfa Flavors” sidebar below), this oversquare V-6 produces 183 hp at 5800 rpm. The six in the 164S, sporting a different cam profile, a less restrictive exhaust, and an increase in compression (10.0:1 rather than the standard 9.5:1), produces 200 hp at 6000 rpm. We’d guess that that figure is low. Without raising a sweat, our 164S laid down a string of 0-to-60 runs in the high six-second range, followed by a quarter-mile time of 15.6 seconds. A trick of gearing? No way. On open stretches of deserted highway in New Mexico, our 164S twice hit an indicated 140 mph (once while a passenger snoozed blissfully), and we later, at Chrysler’s proving grounds, confirmed a top speed of 142 mph at 6200 rpm. No three-toed sloth, this.
On this car, Carrozzeria Pininfarina’s efforts went beyond exterior styling. The design house also worked its magic on the 164S’s interior, which is elegant and sinfully alluring.
From a 3418-pound sedan, such performance is remarkable—virtually identical, in fact, to that of a Ford Taurus SHO. More important, the 164S leaves for dead the cars that Alfa has fingered as its competition. Namely, the Acura Legend, the Audi 100/200, the BMW 525i, the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.6, the Saab 9000 Turbo, the Sterling 827Si, and the Volvo 760GLE. Of that group, the quickest competitor is nearly one second slower to 60 mph.
On top of that, the engine in the 164S, with its chromed nest-of-vipers intake plumbing, is the best-looking powerplant to appear since Ford stuffed Yamaha’s V-6 in the SHO. Checking the 164’s oil at the local Mobil station is guaranteed to draw low whistles and at least one onlooker who asks, “Is it a V-12?”
On this car, Carrozzeria Pininfarina’s efforts went beyond exterior styling. The design house also worked its magic on the 164S’s interior, which is elegant and sinfully alluring. With cowskins stretched everywhere, the smell is divine, and nowhere does your hand fall without encountering rich textures and supple surfaces. The red stitching in the leather looks like the work of Ferrari, but the sheer number of cockpit amenities could never have come from Maranello. Inside, there are spring-loaded grab handles, a huge glove compartment, four pivoting reading lights, a leather-covered trapdoor leading to a ski bag, two rear headphone jacks with individual volume controls, height-adjustable shoulder belts, leather-lined map pockets, a gorgeous felt headliner, silky carpets, a rear-deck storage bin, dual sunshades for the backlight, and, well, you get the drift. And all of it is sewn and stitched and glued together in un-Alfa-like fashion. Nothing in the interior of our car groaned or rattled. As a matter of fact, this is the quietest Alfa yet produced, despite its rorty V-6. The entire powertrain is mounted on a subframe, and hydraulically damped engine mounts keep noise and vibration at arm’s length. Cruising at 70 mph, the Alfa is nearly as quiet as a Jaguar Sovereign. At 100 mph (4350 rpm in fifth), we had no difficulty listening to the radio.
Behind the wheel, you find that the driving position is, in Alfa’s inimitable way, Italian. Even with the seat far forward and the steering wheel at full extension, the driver’s arms are thrust almost straight ahead, Nuvolari style. The problem is that the wheel cannot be adjusted to a more nearly vertical axis. More disconcerting, however, is headroom. All C/D staffers drove the 164 with its driver’s seat in its lowest position, yet our noggins often rubbed the headliner. Avoid any 164 with a sunroof. Or simply wait. Alfa says that it will lower the seats 1.5 inches later in the year.
The peculiar driving position notwithstanding, the Recaro-designed seats (electrically adjustable for height, seatback angle, and fore-and-aft position) are well bolstered and as comfortable as any on the market. On four occasions, we drove uninterrupted 300-mile stints, and nobody complained about needing to get out and stretch. Rear legroom is good, if not as commodious as that in, say, a Saab 9000. We did haul five people in the 164S, although the fifth rider’s perch on the thinly padded center position was tenuous.
The standard five-speed shifter is a dual-rod layout—no cables for Alfa, thank you very much—and is perfectly located. Shift effort is light, the throws silky and satisfying.
In keeping with the 164’s mainstream character, secondary controls are generally where you expect to find them. The window-lift switches are on the center console—not the headliner, as was the case in the Milano. The white-on-black analog instruments are readable at a glance. And the 164’s “command module”—those 27 black cubes that operate everything from the trunk release to the heated mirrors—looks more daunting than it really is. For most driving, the only buttons that you punch often are those controlling the temperature settings for the automatic climate control.
The standard five-speed shifter is a dual-rod layout—no cables for Alfa, thank you very much—and is perfectly located. Shift effort is light, the throws silky and satisfying. Even weird stuff, like a fifth-to-second downshift, is difficult to muff. Combine that with progressive clutch take-up, exquisite throttle tip-in, and pedals positioned to encourage heel-and-toeing and you’ve got a sedan that even Uncle Seth can drive smoothly.
If for a moment you doubt Alfa’s “mainstream” intentions, consider this: Alfa estimates that 70 percent of U.S. sports-sedan buyers want automatic transmissions. Thus, a four-speed ZF, basically identical to that in the Saab 9000, is available for $685. (We can hear the bodies dropping as Alfisti swoon all across America.) Under full throttle, the automatic shifts at a sporty 5700 rpm, but it does not mate happily with the 164’s rev-happy V-6. At 40 mph, under light throttle, the automatic hunts between second and third, clunking grumpily when it finally does make a decision. And full-throttle launches from a standstill barely chirp the front tires, making this powerful and enthusiastic V-6 feel peaky and pressed—two insults it should never have to endure.
Although the Alfa 164 looks big on the outside, it feels small and agile at speed. When we hustled the car through Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest—and we were, indeed, hustling—we found more body roll and vertical ride motion than we expected, traits similar to those of the 164’s rear-drive predecessor, the Milano. Unlike the Milano, however, the 164’s tail cannot be kicked out with an exuberant squirt of throttle.
In short, the 164S offers speed, elegant styling, a tomb-quiet cockpit, a kick-out-the-jams V-6, rarity, and more character than any other $30,000 sedan.
For a front-drive car, there is excellent weight distribution here—only 57.5 percent of the bulk up front—but when you’re really cooking, the nose gets light. It’s easy to chirp the tires on yumps and railroad crossings. Nail the throttle as you’re exiting a tight turn and it is also easy to buzz the inside front tire. For a sports sedan with luxury pretensions, however, there is a fine ride/handling compromise here—supple, confident, with minimal harshness. And the brakes are simply faultless. From 70 mph, the car comes to a fade-free stop in 177 feet, only two feet shy of the distance required by a BMW 535i.
In short, the 164S offers speed, elegant styling, a tomb-quiet cockpit, a kick-out-the-jams V-6, rarity (only 3000 copies will be sold in North America this year), and more character than any other $30,000 sedan. “Character,” like pornography, is hard to define, but as a judge once observed, “I know it when I see it.” Or, in the case of the 164S, “We know it when we feel it.” Any C/D staffer dropped blindfolded into the 164’s cockpit could tell you, in about two seconds, that he was sitting in an Alfa.
A perfect sports sedan? Well, hold on.
When our Alfa was healthy, it was a charmer. But during the car’s first 3000 miles, it evinced a disturbing number of flaws. The power-assisted steering began to sing. The heating element in the driver’s seat worked at its whim, as did the side-mirror defrosters and the driving lights. The driver’s seat-height adjustment died. The brake pedal sank like the Andrea Doria, until heel-and-toeing became a real foot tangler. And the climate control had trouble concentrating on a temperature within ten degrees of what we requested.
If this richly historical marque disappears in America—and the 164 may truly be Alfa’s last chance—all enthusiasts will lament its passing. At the same time, the quality-control flaws are hard to forgive. Knowing that American buyers expect reasonably defect-free cars, Alfa delayed the American launch of the 164 for three years while it racked up 4.7 million miles of testing. No Alfa in history has undergone that sort of scrutiny.
Prospective buyers will, at least, be comforted by the comprehensive three-year /36,000-mile warranty. “We pay for everything,” says Davis. “Light bulbs, hoses, wiper blades, oil changes, brake pads, scheduled service, everything but tires. If the car quits, we’ll buy airfare or a rental car so you can continue your trip. Then we flatbed the thing to a dealer, no questions asked.”
That’s the silver lining. But Alfa’s lifelong battle with build quality remains just that—a battle—and it makes the 164S a high-maintenance proposition.
Finding those dealers no longer requires a road atlas, either. Seventy Chrysler Europa dealers have joined the team, raising Alfa’s total number of outlets to 202.
Pilots are fond of the expression “Every cloud has a silver lining, but some of them also have a Boeing 747 rattling around in there.” The 164 is like that. It is the most mainstream car Alfa has ever produced, delivering remarkable performance and opulence for its price—which should attract a whole new set of well-heeled buyers. That’s the silver lining. But Alfa’s lifelong battle with build quality remains just that—a battle—and it makes the 164S a high-maintenance proposition. At this critical point in Alfa’s struggle to survive in the U.S., that’s a problem the size of a Boeing 747.
Alfa Flavors: A Handsome Sedan With Three Faces
In North America, the Alfa Romeo 164 is offered in three levels of trim: the base 164 ($24,500), the 164L ($27,500), and the 164S ($29,500). Standard equipment on even the base car is impressive: power-assisted steering, air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and locks, a six-speaker stereo, power-adjustable front seats, and a driver-side air bag. Move up to the 164L—the model that Alfa predicts will account for 70 percent of sales—and you get Bosch antilock brakes, leather upholstery, alloy wheels, and metallic paint. Go whole-hog for the tip-of-the-flagpole 164S and the list of amenities swells further: two-way cockpit-adjustable suspension, Pirelli P4000 tires (rather than Goodyear Eagle NCTs), an extra seventeen horsepower, unique Speedline alloy wheels, and an “aero” body kit.
As is the case with so many skirt-and-spoiler packages, that on the 164S—designed by Alfa in Italy—does damage to the car’s graceful, airy lines, making it look bulkier than Pininfarina ever intended. The bizarre downward slope of the air dam’s side panels, for example, does for the 164S what extra eyeliner does for Tammy Faye Bakker. If that bothers you, don’t hesitate to move one step down, to the 164L (until ABS is offered, we can’t wholeheartedly endorse the base 164). If the slightly less powerful V-6 degrades the driving experience, we didn’t notice it.
No matter how you slice it, the 164 is easily the most elegant postwar Alfa sedan, and it is far more pleasing to the eye than the other cars that share its “Tipo Quattro” platform: the Fiat Chroma, the Lancia Thema, and the Saab 9000.
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1990 Alfa Romeo 164S
Vehicle Type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
Base/As Tested: $29,875/$30,675
Options: power sunroof, $800
SOHC V-6, aluminum block and heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 181 in3, 2959 cm3
Power: 200 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 189 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Suspension, F/R: struts/struts
Brakes, F/R: 11.2-in vented disc/9.9-in disc
Tires: Pirelli P4000
Wheelbase: 104.7 in
Length: 179.3 in
Width: 69.3 in
Height: 55.1 in
Passenger Volume, F/R: 50/41 ft3
Trunk: 18 ft3
Curb Weight: 3418 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
30 mph: 2.6 sec
60 mph: 6.9 sec
1/4-Mile: 15.6 sec @ 91 mph
100 mph: 18.9 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 9.9 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 10.0 sec
Top Speed: 142 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 177 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.77 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 22 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
City/Highway: 17/25 mpg
C/D TESTING EXPLAINED