Death, taxes and compact Alfa Romeo hatchbacks: three constants in life, at least since 1981. While readers outside of Europe may not be familiar with Alfas like the 145, 146, 147, MiTo, Giulietta and the featured 33, they have helped keep the lights on at the Turin automaker. Each of these models are descendants of the critically acclaimed Alfasud. Such a legacy can be a dreadful burden and the 33 in particular bears the brunt of some outsized expectations.
The Alfasud was Alfa Romeo’s first front-wheel-drive production car and, though the company was new to the layout, their engineering expertise ensured the ‘Sud was one of the best-handling small cars on the market. Even almost a decade after its launch, it was still receiving tremendous critical acclaim for its dynamics – Ford, for instance, benchmarked it for their first front-wheel-drive Escort. Well into the 1980s, automotive journalists across the world were singing its praises – Wheels called it the world’s best-handling small car.
It’s a pity the rest of the ‘Sud wasn’t holding up as well as its reputation for dynamism. Poor rust control plagued Alfa’s smallest car and yet even that shoddy steel couldn’t completely tarnish the car’s reputation. Although quality control remained spotty throughout the car’s lengthy 12-year run, Alfa Romeo kept the car reasonably fresh: a hatchback was finally added 10 years into the car’s run, although the related Sprint coupe had first offered a rear door in 1976.
Eventually, the ‘Sud’s time had to come to an end. Its replacement was the 1983 33, larger and more expensive but carrying over much of the Alfasud’s platform including its McPherson strut front suspension and a beam axle with Watt’s linkage at the rear. The 33 was 7 inches longer, around half an inch wider, and with a fractionally longer wheelbase. Naturally, this meant the 33 saw a marginal increase in weight.
Unlike the Alfasud, the 33 was available with a hatchback from day one; a wagon, known as the Giardinetta, arrived shortly thereafter. Also, in 1984, Alfa Romeo introduced a 4×4 variant. Manufactured by Pininfarina, the 4×4 wasn’t intended as a performance variant. It used a shift-on-the-fly system designed for driving in snow and ice.
The 33’s strongest attribute was its powertrain lineup. Even as more automakers embraced fuel injection, Alfa stuck with carburettors. The 33 carried over the Alfasud’s water-cooled, single overhead cam 1.3 and 1.5 flat fours, the former with 75 hp and the latter with 84 hp. The only transmission available was a rather rubbery, notchy five-speed manual. These little boxer engines were delightfully rev-hungry. That went especially for the tuned version of the 1.5 used in the 1984 Quadrifoglio Verde (“green cloverleaf”). Borrowed from the Sprint QV coupe, this version of the 1.5 used double twin-choke carburettors and produced 104 hp.
One retrograde step was the loss of the Alfasud’s rear disc brakes in favor of drums, Alfa arguing this was due to ongoing issues with the Alfasud’s discs. Another was the loss of the front anti-roll bar.
Yes, the Alfasud’s flaws largely remained and some new ones appeared. The driving position was still diabolical. Ergonomics were baffling – seriously, window switches on the dashboard? Even the seats were uncomfortable, while quality control was nothing to write home about. The interior was plasticky. The ultimate insult? The 33 had noticeably inferior handling and steering feel to the ‘Sud and torque steer was a persistent complaint.
If the 33 was a disappointment to Alfisti, the Alfasud’s other replacement was even more so. The lower-end of the Alfasud range was replaced by the infamous Arna which, yes, was a Nissan Cherry manufactured in Italy. Yes, that is just as ludicrous as it sounds and yes, it was a huge failure. Back to the 33.
The 33 was larger and more refined than the Alfasud but that wasn’t exactly what Alfisti were after and Alfa Romeo wasn’t a volume brand on the level of, say, Volkswagen. To keep prospective buyers interested, Alfa continued to tweak the 33. A mild facelift in 1986 brought a cleaner interior design although it lost the clever instrument binnacle that moved with the steering wheel. New engines were introduced, including a 72-hp 1.6 turbo diesel from VM Motori and a bored-and-stroked version of the 1.5, displacing 1.7 liters and producing 117 hp. Fuel injection also finally arrived in the 33 in 1988, however the injected 1.7 produced slightly less power and torque than the carburetted version.
Now things were getting interesting. Alfa Romeo was slowly chipping away at the 33’s long list of faults and things would improve even more with the 1990 facelift. This facelift, penned by Walter de Silva, was more than a mere eye lift – the 33 was visually transformed, now bearing an uncanny resemblance to Alfa’s flagship 164.
The rust problems of the Alfasud became a distant memory as the 33 adopted the same galvanising process as the 164. And the fuel-injected 1.7 now featured dual overhead camshafts and 16 valves, bumping power up to 133 hp. You could still get a bevy of smaller, carburetted engines – including a 1.2 flat four – however these were only sold in certain European markets.
With the facelifted 33, Alfa Romeo finally saw fit to marry a four-wheel-drive system with the performance engine. The result was the Permanent 4, capable of hitting 60 mph in 8.5 seconds thanks to its aforementioned gutsy 1.7 flat four. The four-wheel-drive system was not the same, simple, selectable version previously available in the wagon, instead being a full-time system from Steyr-Daimler-Puch. Up to 65% of torque could be routed to the rear wheels when conditions called for it; the system also helped quell the 33’s sometimes unruly torque steer.
The mini-164 styling, much improved interior, intriguing Permanent 4 variant and enhanced performance had helped transform the 33. They couldn’t, however, completely disguise the 33’s advanced age or its lingering flaws (the driving position remained awful). Still, the 33 went out on a rather high note.
For a car derided as being ugly, Cubist, and a disappointing follow-up to a legendary nameplate, the 33 sold acceptably if not to the levels Alfa Romeo was hoping for. Over 12 years, Alfa Romeo sold around a million units. While that’s small fry in the face of the multi-million unit Golf Mk2, it was actually a marginal improvement over the Alfasud which had an identical 12-year run.
The 33 was replaced by two hatchbacks: the 145, with three doors, and the 146 with five. Although these Alfas utilized the Fiat Tipo’s platform, components were carried over from the 33 including some of the Boxer engines. By Alfa Romeo standards, the 145 and 146 were short-lived—manufactured from 1994 until 2000, Alfa Romeo produced just under 500,000 units in total. Once again, Alfa Romeo had failed to grow their small car sales, however the 145/146 proved to be more popular than their 147 successor.
Ultimately, Alfa Romeo’s attempt to harness the Alfasud’s core competencies in a slightly larger and more comfortable car had proved disappointing to critics and failed to deliver a significant increase in buyers. However, though the Alfasud’s shine had been dulled somewhat in its transformation to the 33, there remained just enough Italian brio to delight small hatchback shoppers. And that’s what we’ve expected from Alfa Romeo hatchbacks for the past 37 years.
Photographed at Cars & Coffee in Coorparoo, Brisbane, QLD on 7 April 2018.