15 October 2004

Alfa Romeo is in the final stages of a product blitz that parent company Fiat hopes will catapult the brand firmly into the ranks of Europe’s premier league of car makers.

Despite sales figures which make the emotive marque no more than an also-ran in the premium market, Fiat Group has pledged a multi-million euro development budget and has pinned its hopes on one of the most advanced four-wheel-drive systems yet seen and a raft of advanced diesel and petrol engines. Alfa bosses hope that an even greater emphasis on advanced technology will finally break the company’s long association with glamorous but flawed cars.

Over the next three years we will see Alfa enter new market niches – including the all-important crossover segment – as well as attempting to raise its profile with a dramatic driver-orientated coupé and cabrio, and even a Ferrari-challenging supercar.

One of the most impressive aspects of this audacious plan is Alfa’s innovative mix-and-match construction approach. Aside from the all-new ‘Premium’ steel platform (developed solely by Alfa after Saab pulled out of the project nearly two years ago), Alfa engineers have also developed a hybrid spaceframe-cum-monocoque version of the Premium chassis. They have even created a new type of ‘rolling chassis’, which can be used for relatively short production runs of high-end bespoke models.

But while Alfa’s engines have been universally admired (indeed, the company’s JTD diesel is now a staple power unit for GM’s European brands), and the innovative construction techniques will be a boon to the company’s product planners, the key to a profitable future will be producing desirable cars that match class standards in handling and reliability, and set even higher standards than Alfa’s current models in terms of fit, finish and materials quality.

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Alfa Romeos no longer rust and they are finished to far higher standards than a decade ago. However, rivals such as Audi have lifted the game on build quality to another plane, and the durability of Alfa mechanicals is still in question – problems with Selespeed transmissions, occasional engine failures and premature suspension wear can make reaching six-figure mileages an expensive process. But the company is reportedly addressing these issues in tandem with an upgrade of its dealer network, which in the past has frequently lost Alfa customers it has conquested from other brands.

And starting next spring at the Geneva Motor Show we should get our first look at the 157 saloon and Sportwagon (which should get the 158 moniker). These will be vital bread-and-butter cars for Alfa Romeo’s future, but close behind will be the Brera coupé (above, right) and spider. It’s this compact powerhouse that could do for the Milanese what the TT did for Audi.

Alfa Romeo Project 939C Brera

Prototypes of Alfa’s GTV replacement have just broken cover in Germany, as our gallery spy shots show. Although details are sparse, some sources say that the Brera coupé is a clever mix of the new Premium platform – which is used for the lower structure – and a bespoke upper structure developed from the steel spaceframe technology pioneered by Fiat on the Multipla and Stilo.

Although the Brera concept was created by Giugiaro and Italdesign, Autocar understands that it will go into production at Pininfarina’s facility in mid-2005. The topless Spider version is scheduled to go into production at the beginning of 2006. Should that be the case we’d expect to see both models publicly unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 2005 with UK sales starting in early 2006.

Although the strong flavour of the concept has been retained, the final car is different in every detail. It’s clear that the Brera has a shorter wheelbase than the upcoming 157/8. It’s thought that the car rides on a 2550mm platform, 150mm shorter than its four-door sister car’s. Despite this, the Brera has a markedly lengthy wheelbase and wide track for such a low and compact car.

The spaceframe upper structure seems to have enabled Alfa engineers to dramatically change the proportions of the top half of the car, as well as making it easier to build a stiff structure for the roofless Spider version. The current GTV-based Spider is hopelessly flexible.

Wide-bodied below the shoulder line, the sides of the Brera’s cabin slope dramatically inwards. The rear hatch is especially steeply raked. There has been one major change to the concept car: the production version has gained a proper side window. Italdesign’s original used a door so long that it was only separated from the wrap-around tailgate by the rear pillar. The ‘butterfly-wing’ doors have also been dropped for conventionally hinged versions.

So distinctive – and successful – is the Alfa family nose that it can hardly be disguised. The headlamps units are slimmer than on the 157/8, though the basic nose graphics are much the same.

Inside, the interior will share much with the 157/8, although it will have its own door trims, steering wheel and seats. It’s thought that the dash-top moulding will be different and there could be detail trim improvements such as chrome bezel treatments for more of the instruments. Rear-seat accommodation should be reasonable, even if the available headroom isn’t.

Under the skin, the Brera has a transversely mounted engine and gearbox. However, it’s not clear which wheels will be driven. The best estimate is that all six-cylinder Breras will have the clever new Alfa Q4 four-wheel-drive transmission, although other insiders say Q4 will be standard on all version of the Brera. The entry-level engine could be a new 2.2-litre JTS (a direct-injection petrol unit based on the GM L-series engine) good for around 190bhp. Two diesels will be available: a 2.4-litre five-cylinder unit with around 190bhp and a 250bhp 3.0-litre V6.

The V6 petrol engine is based on the new GM global unit, also destined for Saab, Opel and Holden models. Bigger petrol V6s are expected at the top of the range, including 3.2- and even 3.6-litre powerplants, the latter good for as much as 300bhp. Even so, the unconfirmed GTA-badged Brera could deliver as much as 400bhp – showing just how seriously Alfa Romeo is about matching the best of the high-performance German cars.

As well as its unique JTS injection system, Alfa engineers are said to have another trick up their sleeve. Dubbed UNIAIR, this new induction system mimics BMW’s Valvetronic technology by both dispensing with the throttle bodies and controlling the engine’s inlet valves electronically. Sources say UNIAIR improves power and torque outputs as well as cutting emissions. Eventually it will be fitted to all Alfa engines and is even said to be under development at Ferrari.

Although we won’t sample the car until next year, the omens are good for the Brera if the Alfa 156 Q4 is anything to go by. Of course, the 156’s basic platform is outclassed in the sports saloon segment, but the Q4’s rear-biased torque delivery helps it determinedly resist understeer and keeps the nose-led lurching that typifies transverse-engined cars to a minimum, no matter how hard it is pushed around bends.

There are no clues on the likely pricing of the Brera models. However, the base 2.2-litre car will have to be more expensive than today’s 2.0-litre JTS GT coupe, which retails for £21,495. A price of £25,000 – matching that of the entry-level four-wheel-drive Audi TT coupé – would be a fair estimate. Pricing should top out above £30k for the 3.2-litre V6 version. A full-on GTA model – in effect Alfa’s BMW M3 rival – would probably hit £40k.

The truth is, Alfa’s been here before. Alfa – like Rover – has been looking for one last big push for the past 15 years. The 156 was as close to matching the class standard as any Alfa since the Alfasud of 1972. But the styling has been cracked and the new-generation cars, which start rolling out next year, have never been better equipped from a technical point of view. Fit, finish and reliability in the widest sense is now Alfa’s biggest challenge. That, along with the need for a massive improvement in dealer back-up and to shift ingrained buyer prejudice. Launching the Brera virtually along side the 157/8 could be the best way of boosting Alfa’s reputation once and for all.

Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione

Alfa’s dramatic 8C Competizione supercar project is at a turning point as you read these words. In the past few weeks Alfa insiders have been sounding out the possibility of charging as much as €150,000 – or about £100,000 – for the car. They are said to be gauging reaction to the price as this is rather more than originally envisaged. Autocar has also learnt that 600 orders is the break-even point before management will give the 8C the green light. Even so, there’s still plenty of discussion about the car’s fundamental make-up, according to sources.

As part of the ongoing cost-cutting investigations, the carbonfibre monocoque bodyshell will be dropped. It still sits on Alfa’s clever split-frame chassis (and uses some of the Premium platform’s running gear), but the upper body structure may now be built with Fiat’s steel spaceframe technology.

At the moment the three prototype cars are fitted with a 410bhp version of the 4.3-litre V8 Maserati engine, although some of the engineers are keen to use the supercharged version which delivers well over 450bhp. However, cost pressures (superchargers are expensive) could kill the plan. It’s also possible that the car may use a version of Ferrari’s new 483bhp 4.3-litre F430 engine. There’s said to be some disquiet within Fiat Auto about the 8C stepping on the corporate toes of Maserati, with some suggesting that the 8C could steal sales from the Coupé if the Alfa-Maserati divide becomes blurred

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