Car reviews - Alfa Romeo - 166 - sedan
Alfa Romeo models
Distinctive exterior styling, unique interior ambience, inspiring engine and exhaust note, equipment levels, sharp steering, value for money
Room for improvement
Tight cabin accommodation, coarse ride quality, torque steer, bump steer, lack of ground clearance, turning circle, four-speed auto, lack of low-rpm torque, reduced peak engine performance, heavy controls, centre rear lap-belt
17 Jun 2005
AS a replacement for the much admired 164 sedan, the 166 is certainly among the best large sedans Alfa Romeo has ever produced.
But that’s faint praise for an Italian company that’s built an enviable reputation by producing red-blooded sports cars and feisty hot hatches.
Either way, there’s no doubting the 166 offers the kind of interior ambience and luxury features expected of an $85,000 car.
In terms of presentation and attention to detail, it’s cabin may not be in the same league as BMW’s latest 5 Series, Mercedes’ current E-class, Audi’s classy A6 or even the new Lexus GS, but the 166 does offer an unmistakably Latin flavour that’s unique rather than derivative.
Similarly, the 166’s shapely profile is instantly recognisable as Italian, and the addition of an edgier bonnet, different headlights and a distinctive new shield grille that plunges down into a new front bumper combine to both modernise the dated 166 look and set it even further apart.
But the window dressing does nothing to address the 166’s most fundamental flaws, such as a ridiculously tight, 11.6-metre turning circle and ground clearance that would make some sports cars seem like they’re on stilts.
Indeed, the facelifted 166 continues to require three-point turns where most equally large cars won’t, and scrapes its plastic underbelly on even the most innocuous looking road rubble.
While the tightish cabin continues to offer plush seating for four adults, three passengers is a squeeze for the cozy rear seat.
And there’s no three-point centre rear seatbelt. Instead, the inboard rear-seat occupant scores a lap-belt, which may well be handier for fitting baby capsules, but the likes of which have long been banished from any self-respecting luxury car.
A lack of chassis changes in the facelifted version also means the 166 continues to feel cumbersome compared to its far more nimble mid-size sibling, the lively 156, with which it shares many components.
Despite a relatively slender 1550kg kerb weight, somehow the 166 feels heavy at any speed, a feeling that’s no doubt exacerbated by heavy-feeling, olde-worlde controls.
Not helping matters either is an engine performance drop, from 166kW of peak power to 162kW and a 10Nm torque reduction to 265Nm, which Alfa says is due to stricter emissions regulations.
Sure, the rorty V6 engine note remains one of the 166’s most endearing features and lives up to the Alfa Romeo promise, so the lack of straight-line punch – especially at low revs – is all the more disappointing. Still, its claimed 8.5-second 0-100km/h acceleration is reasonably competitive.
That said, torque steer is still evident when the 3.0-litre six is employed aggressively, accompanied by disconcerting bump steer when pushing on over broken mid-corner tarmac.
In true Alfa style, however, understeer is kept well in check and the steering itself is heavy yet quite sharp, with a surprisingly tight 2.3 turns lock to lock. It’s not nearly as agile as 156, but 166 does steer with accuracy and response.
Combined with an out-dated four-speed auto, which does offer a manual-shift function but is incredibly slow to shift and frustrates with a delay every time reverse gear is selected, the 166 powertrain is comprehensively out-specified by its rivals, some of which now offer automatic transmissions with up to seven ratios.
Ride quality on the sexy 17-inch alloy wheels - despite an unhealthy dose of bodyroll even at mild cornering speeds – also falls well short of most rivals, many of which ride on larger wheels.
In a market segment that offers some seriously formidable German engineering, 166 stands apart as a melodious sounding and stylish left-field option that lacks the finesse of just about every competitor except, perhaps, Saab’s ancient 9-5.
And this is reflected by the fact that just 17 examples have been sold this year, despite late last year’s facelift.
Of course, at $84,950, 166 represents good value compared with its northern neighbours. Similar money buys only the entry-level 120kW supercharged four-cylinder E200K, while BMW’s soon-to-be-upgraded 141kW 525i sedan costs about $4000 more.
What’s more, 166 comes well equipped, including, as standard, power windows/mirrors, leather trim, cruise control, heated and powered front seats, auto door locks, rain-sensing wipers, headlight washers and a large LCD screen incorporating phone, six-CD audio, climate control, trip computer and GSM mobile phone functions.
Alfa’s 166 is the type of car that takes time to get acquainted with. Do so, and revel in the value and character afforded by this distinctive large Alfa, and you may just overlook some of its flaws.
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