A good Alfa, rather than a great one. Hampered by low power and high price.
14 November 2005

Every time you test a car, there comes a moment when your brain decides to make up its mind.

I’d like to say that in my case this is a meticulously well planned operation, but it’s not. It’s like whisking cream. One minute all your thoughts are swirling around your head, loosely connected, fluid and highly mobile, the next everything is as stiff as a board as you reach your conclusion.

Usually this happens fairly early in the appraisal process. If you’ve read the literature, done the sums and worked out in advance what sort of car it should be, it usually doesn’t take long behind the wheel to figure out whether that’s the car it actually is or not. But not in the curious case of the Alfa Romeo Brera.

The name speaks of beauty with just a hint of distant danger about it – so much better than the acronyms and numbers Alfa uses for its other cars. ‘Brera’ makes a promise and I’m not exaggerating when I say I yearned to find out if Alfa’s most sporting car since the SZ was capable of keeping it.

It mattered personally because Alfas have been part of my life from the succession of ’Suds I was flung around in as a kid to the Giulia saloon and Giulietta coupé I’m lucky enough to race occasionally these days.

I don’t know much, but I know Alfa magic when I drive it. Professionally it mattered because I didn’t want to write yet another ‘nearly but not quite’ Alfa tale any more than you want to read one.

And until half an hour before I stepped out of the car for good, I did not know which way it would go.

Indeed, confusion had broken out from the start. What was this car? The name, price and bold Giugiaro styling said this was a new breed of Alfa Romeo sports car, a successor to the original GT Juniors and GTVs and perhaps even the legendary GTA.

Talk to Alfa staff from head honcho Karl-Heinz Kalbfell downwards and these are the terms in which they reply. But, at another level, is this not just a coupé version of the new 159 saloon, complete with a clipped wheelbase and a fresh set of clothes?

And if so, what the hell is Alfa doing suggesting that even the cheapest, 2.2 four cylinder version will cost £25,000 when sales begin next spring? And while we’re on the subject, does Alfa not already have a two-plus-two coupé called the GT on its books?

Flummoxed, I put all this to Kalbfell before I drove the car. Kalbfell is a racer through and through, a gifted engineer whose influence has touched cars all the way from the Mini to the McLaren F1. "All I can say is go and drive," he said. "Then you will see." So I did.

But first I looked. The front is a masterpiece, combining beauty, presence and real menace, and while the shortened wheelbase seems to accentuate the overhangs and the heaviness of the tail the whole car has a rare cohesion to it: in short, it looks like a 21st-century Alfa sports car should. First test passed.

And it doesn’t stop there. Hook your fingers under the deeply scalloped handle recess, pull open the long door and the interior is so inviting it almost gets out to greet you. Architecturally it is very similar to the 159 cabin, but in terms of quality, at least compared to the shoddily constructed 159s I drove at its launch in the summer, it’s a massive leap forward.

Kalbfell says one of his former colleagues at BMW is now in charge of quality at Alfa and that his presence is already starting to take effect; on this evidence I’d say he was right.

There’s a real sense of occasion here, everywhere from the aluminium used for the centre console, the waist rail, the grab handles and the steering wheel spokes to the way the minor instruments are canted towards the driver, just as they were in so many Alfas of old.

There’s even an oil temperature gauge. If you could drop the seat another inch, the driving position would be perfect and I especially like the way that even a tall driver like me can pull the thick-rimmed leather wheel tight into my chest.

We’re in the 2.2-litre Brera as not only will it account for 60 per cent of UK sales, but the 200bhp diesel car (priced at around £27,500) is not available for testing, while the 260bhp 3.2, four-wheel-drive Brera Q4 is oddly restricted to track use only.

We drove carefully at first on roads made lethal by fallen leaves, harvest-time debris and thick, wet mist. How far Alfa Romeo has come in the past decade. I can remember wanting to commit an act of physical violence on the first 155 I drove, not to mention the sickening disappointments that were the early versions of the 145 and 146.

But here we were gliding across the Piedmontese countryside as I marvelled at the Brera’s deftly controlled ride quality, its conspicuously impressive refinement and the sheer extravagance of the cabin.

But as I set it some slightly tougher tasks by starting gingerly to probe its performance, so reality sank its fangs into my cossetted backside.

No question at all, for all the zip of the engine and the slickness of the six-speed gearshift, the Brera is slow by the standards of the £25,000 coupé. A Mazda RX-8 costs £2700 less and offers nearly 50bhp more. The RX-8 will also hit 60mph in a claimed 6.4sec, a massive 2.2sec ahead of the time Alfa says the Brera needs.

Even cars like the Mercedes C230 Sport Coupé and the now-defunct Audi TT 180 Quattro out-power and outperform this Brera for similar money. And we probably shouldn’t dwell too long on the fact that for an extra £500 over the likely cost of this Brera, the entry-level Nissan 350Z offers six cylinders, nearly 100 extra horsepower, a sub 6.0sec 0-60mph time and a top speed of 155mph. The Brera’s all done by 138mph. You’re going to need the small rear seats real bad to make up that kind of difference.

Alfa might argue that statistics don’t tell the whole story and it’d be right, not least because the as yet undetermined UK spec is likely to include not only electric everything and leather upholstery but also the splendid Sky View glass roof.

But there’s another issue here. With the exception of the TT, all rivals mentioned above plus both the existing and forthcoming BMW 3-series coupés and the Chrysler Crossfire have rear-wheel drive platforms.

This is not a coincidence. Whether it is because their drivers really do appreciate the advantages or whether it’s simply a marketing tool, it doesn’t really matter: the point is rear-drive sells. And as anyone who has ever so much as sat in a well-driven Alfa 75 will tell you, these guys once did rear-drive better than anyone.

But I wasn’t sure that what the Brera was serving up as we nosed our way through the murk could be equated to fun. The front-end grip was impressive, exhibiting good traction despite the absence of a limited-slip differential and the body control was never taxed by the relentlessly flat roads. But fun? Not where I was sitting.

Or, I should say, not yet. As I headed back towards Fiat’s vast Balocco test track, I started to fret and when I do that, it’s because I’m feeling guilty about something. This time the something gnawing away at me was a sense that the weather, the roads and some ludicrous time constraints meant the Brera had not been allowed to put its best foot forward and before the whirling soup in my head solidified, I did at least owe it that opportunity.

Selecting a course on the track that mimicked a winding country road, I at last gave it the proper thrashing it deserved and watched as it rose to the challenge with a conviction nothing in the last few hours had suggested it could muster.

Instead of feeling like a less spacious 159, the stiffer springs and shorter wheelbase granted the Brera an agility I had not suspected. Quick steering across – for once in an Alfa – a decent lock meant it could be guided by fingertip control as it fairly danced around the track.

The stability systems were discreet and disarmable and its receptiveness to mid-curve changes of plan welcome. I drove as I would had this been a real road; and after a few laps I was enjoying myself as I had at the wheel of no modern Alfa for at least 10 years.

The Brera is not without its problems, the biggest being the self-inflicted price-point that means it’s going to be outgunned by almost all its serious opponents. But I see it as further progress in the rehabilitation of a brand that means more to more of us than its size or significance in the global market should ever warrant.

I believe that Alfa Romeo is a marque that, like Lotus, like Jaguar and even like MG, inspires an almost irrational fervour among car enthusiasts that it should succeed. And I believe that, despite all the poor product and questionable quality that’s gone before, if you give us a good Alfa, we will buy it.

And make no mistake, the Brera is a good Alfa. Not a great one, mind, but a decent step in the right direction. Think about where Alfa was 10 years ago and then look at cars like the 159 and Brera. These aren’t class leaders, but they are at last serious contenders.

Compared to how far it has already come, the distance remaining to the affordable 21st-century Alfa sports car of our dreams – complete with rear-wheel drive and steering to make you weep with joy – doesn’t seem that far at all. That Kalbfell and his colleagues have the ability to get it there is not in question: we must just all pray that they have the guts, too.

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Comments
1

2 November 2007

Although good looking with good build quality, fit and finish, the Brera like the 159 is too heavy. Alfa are obviously trying hard to eradicate themselves from the cars gone by that did so much damage to the brand.

I have a 159, lovely car with (at present) Lambo levels of exclusivity, refined, beautifully built by comparison, and a match for the establishment, but a little dull in the performance department. Kalbfelb seems the man to turn it round andI believe is already working on lighter versions of the current range.

I wish them every success.

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