BEFORE THE BBC decided to part company with the presenters of one of its most successful television shows of all time, a certain Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May would often make the point on Top Gear that to be a genuine petrolhead you had to have owned an Alfa Romeo.
Of late that’s been rather tricky. The company’s range had dwindled to two decidedly unconvincing hatchbacks (the Mito and Giulietta) and the tiny 4C sports car, which few drivers could afford or put up with. Alfa hopes to tempt drivers back to its showrooms with the new Giulia, a rear-wheel-drive saloon that competes with the Audi A4, BMW 3-series and new Jaguar XE.
But back to being a petrolhead. There are some interesting used Alfas to suit a wide range of budgets, so let’s get things started with five of the best…
Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione
- Best for: Supercar investors
- Budget: £140,000
- Performance: 0-62mph: 4.2 seconds; top speed: 181mph
You don’t so much look at the 8C as drool like an idiot, mesmerised by its heavenly hips and Coke bottle curves. Then the V8 engine fires into life and you lose sense of your faculties as the bark of its 450bhp 4.7-litre motor matches anything Ferrari has to offer.
There were two versions of the 8C – a coupé (Competizione) and a roadster (Spider). The coupé is, to our eyes at least, the more dramatic. It cost just over £110,000 when new, although with just 500 made and 41 sold to UK drivers, you’ll need a minimum of £140,000 to buy one today.
Still, that’s small change compared with the cost of top artworks – and the 8C is most definitely an artwork, albeit one that will rev to just over 7000rpm, can top 180mph and lights up its rear tyres coming out of a hairpin. It may not have the precision of a Porsche 911 GT3, but, boy, does it have drama to spare.
Alfa Romeo GTV 2.0 Twin Spark
- Best for: Alfa style on a minimal budget
- Budget: £2,500
- Performance: 0-62mph: 8.4 seconds; top speed: 131mph
It’s easy to be seduced by a car this good-looking that goes by the name Gran Turismo Veloce. Easier still when you take it on a test drive and savour the distinctive rasp of the twin spark engine – so called because it features two spark plugs for each piston. But you need to know what to look for on a car that dates back as far as 1995.
Styled by Pininfarina, it’s a bold and daring piece of sculpture compared with most of its contemporaries (Fiat Coupé excepted) and still commands attention to this day. The 2-litre Twin Spark model is hot-hatch quick, with 150bhp, and sounds cracking, while the front-wheel chassis is alert and agile, with sharp steering. That it has four seats is something of a bonus, although friends won’t thank you for making them spend much time in the back.
The cam belt needs changing every five years, which may well mean that any used GTV you look at will need that labour-intensive job done soon. Also check the rear suspension, in effect a double wishbone arrangement that suffers wear in the ball joints and may also erode through the rear subframe.
Alfa Romeo 156 GTA
- Best for: Pace with grace
- Budget: £5,000-£10,000
- Performance: 0-60mph: 6.3 seconds; top speed: 155mph
I can remember driving the 156 GTA back from its British press launch. It was held just north of Wick, a stone’s throw from John o’ Groats, and we brought along a Subaru Impreza WRX STi to compare it with on the long and winding drive back to London.
The Alfa looked sophisticated and charming; the Subaru appeared to be built for ram-raiding. Lifting the bonnets was equally revealing of the cars’ characters: the Alfa’s 2.5-litre V6 was a work of art; the Subaru’s 2-litre flat-four turbo was, frankly, a mass of wires, pipes and intercoolers. The Alfa sounded divine and called for a slow-in, fast-out approach to cornering, whereas the Subaru seemed to steamroller everything in its path. Each was thrilling to drive, but by the end it was the Alfa I’d warmed to most.
The 156 GTA is rare; fewer than a handful will be up for sale at any one time, so watch the market carefully and get to know the good from the bad from the ugly before making a purchase. The 247bhp V6 engine is robust but the oil level needs checking weekly. A clutch that doesn’t bite until the top of the pedal’s travel indicates it’s nearly finished; and check that the warning lights for the antilock braking, airbags and engine management system all switch off after the engine starts.
Alfa Romeo Spider
- Best for: Sunseekers
- Budget: £10,000
- Performance: 0-62mph: 8.8 seconds; top speed: 139mph
The original Alfa Romeo Spider is a classic car in every sense. It’s old, it’s desirable, it has flirted with on-screen stardom and it is quite possibly approaching that stage in life where it needs to be taken apart and rebuilt – an expense most of us could do without. So choose the most recent Spider instead, based on the Brera coupé.
You could park this in the paddock at the races and, even when surrounded by Porsches and Ferraris, it would turn heads. The fabric roof is electrically operated, and with it down a pair of “speed humps” are revealed, just behind the seats, evoking Alfa racing cars of years gone by.
The Spider was most commonly sold in 2.2-litre JTS specification, which meant a four-cylinder petrol engine that – in typical Alfa fashion – needed to be revved hard to give its best. It’s also not a light car and the handling is more competent than thrilling, but for sunseekers who care more about how they look, that’s just fine.
Watch out for electric windows that have a mind of their own (a simple reset fixes their erratic behavior) and the suspension and brakes on cars with a high mileage may well need replacement parts as the heavy Spider wears through brake pads and suspension bushes. Premature tyre wear can be a problem if the suspension geometry has been knocked out of alignment by ham-fisted parking manoeuvres.
Alfa Romeo Giulietta Quadrifoglio Verde
- Best for: A hot hatch with style
- Budget: £20,000
- Performance: 0-62mph: 6.0 seconds; top speed: 151mph
There are plenty of drivers who want a hot hatchback but find that a Golf GTI is as predictable as socks from Marks & Spencer and the Mégane Renaultsport has all the subtlety of a cheap bottle of French plonk – fun until the next morning, when it makes your head hurt. If that sounds like you, take a test drive in a used Giulietta Quadrifoglio Verde, the quickest version of Alfa’s Golf rival.
Like most Alfas, it looks quite different from other cars in its class. Beneath the surface is the 1.7-litre tubocharged four-cylinder engine that powers the feisty little 4C sports car, which kicks out 237bhp and can propel the Giulietta from 0 to 62mph in six seconds dead.
It has a dual-clutch transmission and features Alfa’s DNA driving modes – Dynamic, Normal and All-weather. Admittedly, this isn’t the most precise or rewarding hot hatch, but it’s fast and capable and, most importantly, it makes the driver feel good. As does the interior.
Having only gone on sale early last year, used Quadrifoglio Verde versions of the Giulietta are relatively new and relatively expensive. And they should still have that new car smell and will come with two more years of warranty cover.