There’s a moment in Alfa Romeo’s press launch video that stretches incredulity. Lilli Bertone, widow of Nuccio, who now runs the famous carrozzeria, tells us, apparently in all seriousness, that Alfa’s new GT is ‘as significant to Bertone and Alfa Romeo as the 1954 Giulietta Sprint’.
Impossible. Bertone’s beautiful Sprint, styled by the great Franco Scaglione, set Alfa on the path to becoming a true volume manufacturer, and Bertone as a serious constructor. Why is this important? Because the new GT was pragmatically conceived by Bertone, largely to help keep its Turin assembly operation profitable after the death of the Punto Cabriolet. Alfa already had the GTV and – pre the 2005 Brera – no alternative coupé featured in its future product plans.
Bertone’s idea was for a four-seater coupé, positioned independently of the 147 and 156. To make the project feasible, Bertone cleverly created the GT from a mix of 147 and 156 parts and clothed it in an (almost) bespoke body. In fact, front fenders are 147 GTA and the bonnet nearly, but not quite, identical to the 147’s. Under the body, the firewall, steering column, climate control, pedal box and much of the dashboard are 147, but the platform borrows the longer 2596mm wheelbase of the 156 to retain its roomier cabin.
In the end, much to Bertone’s disappointment, Alfa decided to assemble the GT alongside the 147 in its Pomigliano d’Arco plant, near Naples. It just didn’t make sense to move production away, when Alfa had invested so heavily to improve quality there. No matter how you approach it, the GT remains no more than a niche model. Production is set for 20,000 a year with around 1500 earmarked for the UK in 2004, and surely destined to be no more than a footnote in Alfa’s history.
So how does it look, this new Alfa GT? Low slung, sleek, and certainly pleasing from most angles. The new chrome grille is contemporary Alfa, but the deep flanks and shallow glasshouse lack the grace of many of the innovative coupé groundbreakers that litter Alfa Romeo history. In profile and from behind, the shape is distinctive, the three-box outline suggesting a conventional boot opening. Instead the GT features a hatchback door that reveals a decent-sized 320-litre boot that’s much more spacious than the 147’s and just 60 litres shy of the 156’s. Inevitably, the bigger the wheels the better it looks. Alfa offers 16-, 17- and 18-inchers.
The problem is, the 147 and 156 are still both immensely attractive, notably cheaper and, for any given engine, quicker, because the 147 is 75kg lighter, while the 156 offers the 175bhp JTD that’s not (yet) offered in the GT. The GT comes to the UK in March next year with either the 162bhp 2.0-litre JTS petrol or the revised 1.9-litre 148bhp JTD – now called M-Jet 16v – with the 3.2-litre V6 (effectively a GTA in all but name) and entry-level 1.8 joining the line-up in September. Prices will range from £18,500-£27,000.
The decision to overlook the 175bhp in-line five for the GT is a strange one. Alfa admits the powerhouse could come later. Not that you’ll find an engine badge on the GT. The V6 gets twin exhaust pipes and the fours a chrome-tipped oval outlet.
For now we’re left to enjoy the measured performance and economy of the 1.9 M-Jet, it’s output stretched 10bhp to 148bhp by adding a little more boost, reducing the air temperature at the intercooler by 5deg and fine tuning the turbo.
It’s a terrific engine, wonderfully flexible, smooth, and with a broad, near-linear power band from 1500rpm to 4500rpm that immediately becomes the operating range. Outright acceleration is strong enough not to embarrass the GT’s coupé values, though the claimed 9.6sec to 62mph is half a second slower than a 147 with the 138bhp diesel can manage. In the gears (now six), of course, it feels even quicker, this willingness delivered with all the anticipated Alfa brio.
Where the GT improves over its four-door siblings is in its dynamics. Nothing radical, mind, but a 15 per cent improvement in torsional body rigidity and subtle changes to the suspension tuning reduce road and tyre noise, take some of the fidgetiness out of the ride and help the handling. No one is going to pretend the GT matches a 3-series in fluency, but the handling balance moves a tad closer. Quick, light steering lacks feel and occasionally kicks back, but understeer is well contained. Alfa’s VDC stability control system cuts in late and gently, and body control appears marginally better than on a 147 or 156.
For the driver, apart from a new texture to the dashboard, revised instrument graphics and a new console, the cockpit is pure 147: classy, sporting and well equipped. Room in the back for tall passengers is limited, while small windows (the exterior glass area is deceptive) restrict visibility.
For most coupé buyers that’s probably a minor distraction, as they’re more interested in turning heads. And the GT is certain to perform that role to perfection, given the comparatively small numbers involved. Still, Signora Bertone knows better than to compare this coupé with the ’54 Sprint.