Last week, when given the brief to go out and buy a hot hatch for £1500, writes Colin Goodwin, I very nearly bought a Mk2 Golf GTI. The younger Goodwin would have bought something a little more left-field and riskier a punt than a Volkswagen.
What Colin bought
But I didn’t buy a Golf; I bought a 1996 Alfa Romeo 145 Cloverleaf with 165,000 miles on the clock, and you can’t get much riskier than that. I found the Alfa on Auto Trader. The mileage should have ruled out the car, but look at it another way: this car must be a survivor, because in any form book it should have gone to the knacker’s yard years ago.
What’s it like?
Lester at Quality Cars in Hemel Hempstead happily knocked off the £99 and trousered £1100 for the car. When new, the 145 Cloverleaf’s 2.0-litre Twin Spark gave out 150bhp. I don’t think mine has lost any of them; it feels strong and sounds great. Perhaps it isn’t the original engine. The rest of the car doesn’t feel too bad, either. The dampers are a bit arthritic and the ride isn’t brilliant, but no worse than a Mito’s. Within the first few yards you realise how far build quality has come in the past decade, too.
My Alfa is fun to drive. It can’t weigh much and has fabulous throttle response. Hot hatches are about spirit, not power. You don’t need the 250bhp plus that is the norm today; this 145 proves that. With new bushes and probably dampers it would be even more fun to drive, and it would have a few more miles left in it if you immediately changed the cambelt and the cam variator.
The Autocar road test
Col’s purchase still revs cleanly, writes Jamie Corstorphine, with more rasp and zing than many of today’s hot hatches. But will it withstand a full-on standing start? Actually, it took several in its stride without too much protestation.
One of which was good enough for a 0-60mph run of 8.5sec – just 0.5sec off the time a brand new Cloverleaf achieved in 1996. Better still, 165,000 miles have added just 1.1sec to the 0-100mph time.
The engine may or may not be original, but I reckon the gearbox must be. At the time we said the Cloverleaf’s ’box was “terrific”, praising it for “a crisp action and short throws”. Fourteen years later, “dreadful” and “baggy” are more appropriate. If anything, it’s the gearbox’s sluggishness and imprecision that are to blame for the loss of performance.
Even though the suspension has clearly seen better days, there’s still enough Alfa magic showing through to see why we said the Cloverleaf “proved the lean period at Alfa is almost over”. In fact, at the time we went as far as to say that the Cloverleaf “handles as engagingly as any front-drive car in existence”. Which might have been a bit strong. But even with a rather embarrassing amount of body roll, the Cloverleaf is still fun to drive. Why? Because you feel part of the action.
And then it all went wrong. No, not the engine or the sloppy gearbox. Even the brakes lasted okay, needing a not unrespectable 53.3 metres to stop the car from 70mph (five metres more than in 1996). It was the fuel filler, which decided to spew fuel everywhere the moment we went for a lap time on our dry circuit.
So, great engine, peachy chassis, let down by everything else. Classic Alfa, then. Still, despite Col’s predictions, I enjoyed it. I’m just glad I didn’t have to drive it home.
A 165,000-mile Alfa is a miracle in itself, and our one deserves an honourable end simply for getting this far. I’d like it to be bought by a young enthusiast and taken to the Nürburgring, where it would play out the final moments of its life in hot pursuit of cars with far more horsepower but little more character.
You can read the full story, plus see more pictures, in this week’s Autocar magazine, which is on sale now.