With Alfa’s return to our shores delayed once again (to mid 2014), its easy to forget that it seems like just yesterday (to us oldsters) that Alfa was selling its handsome 164 sedan hereabouts until 1995. To the more youthful here, the 164 may have been something you ogled from the back of the family minivan on the way to grade school. Regardless; it’s a quickly disappearing part of the street-scape, and has some fascinating history behind that tasty exterior.
The 164 was the last new car developed by an independent Alfa Romeo before they were bought by Fiat. But that doesn’t mean Fiat wasn’t already a major player in the 164′s genesis by another means: the 164 was one of four cars developed on the joint “Type 4″ platform, which included the Fiat Croma (above),
the Lancia Thema,
and the Saab 9000 (COAL here). Even a grade schooler could see that the Fiat, Lancia and Saab were the chummy trio of the foursome. The doors from a Croma will install right on the Saab; etc. Obviously, the Alfa got special treatment; up to a point.
While the 164 certainly benefited from the distinctive styling from the other three, courtesy of Pininfarina, it failed to make sure there was an exclusivity clause in its contract with the storied design house.
The 164 and the concurrently Pininfarina designed Peugeot 605 show a remarkable degree of familial similarity, perhaps even more so when they’re not right together like in this picture. Well, that had been happening for decades, but Peugeot got sick of it finally, and ditched Pininfarina after so many decades together. This would never happen with an in-house design studio. But Peugeots didn’t look this good again either.
The 164 was a serious effort to move Alfa upscale, which had failed badly in its previous efforts to expand beyond its roots as sporty brand. Its prior effort, the Alfa 6 (above), was about as successful in the larger sedan category as Fiat’s interesting but also unsuccessful 130. The Italians had never been able to crack the stranglehold of the German bigger sedans, even on their home turf. The Type 4 platform cars were to be the big breakthrough.
I don’t have all the sales stats and contemporary reviews in front of me, but my recollection is that the Croma and Thema may have been, at best, only marginally successful for Fiat in holding off BMW, Audi and Mercedes’ inroads further. The Thema 8.32 was a wild variant, featuring a Ferrari -sourced V8 mounted transversely, and a very high-grade interior; an Italian version of the Taurus SHO (not the interior part, that is).
So the 164 and the Saab 9000 were probably the most successful of the four; the Saab’s fairly strong presence in the US being a major contributor. The 164 was taken quite seriously in Europe as a competitor in the executive saloon sector, and enjoyed a degree of success, both critically and commercially, that was unprecedented for a larger Alfa, at least since the days of the 2600 in the fifties and sixties.
In Europe, the 164 came with a variety of engines; the twin-spark 2.0 fours, both normally aspirated and turbo; a small-bore 2.0 turbo V6 (primarily for markets with a heavy displacement tax); a 2.5 diesel; and the beautiful 3.0 V6 (above) which solely powered the US versions: a 12 valve version until ’93; then a 24 valver until the end. The power ratings were pretty healthy for the times too: from 183 hp (12 valve) to 230 hp for the 24 valve S version. The 3.0 was fine running motor, and as sweet-sounding as it gets. It went a long way to dispel any lingering doubts about a FWD Alfa, at least in a sedan.
These were fine handling cars too, although torque steer could raise its ugly head. Its ultimate limits weren’t exactly in M5 territory, but up to that point it, it was engaging, satisfying, and comfortable to boot.
Not surprisingly, the 164 had its shadow sides: reliability. It’s not as fragile as one might think, but certain issues tended to make it challenging for its owners. the stepper motor for the HVAC is notorious. Timing belt changes at 30k miles are essential, as a failure is catastrophic (to the wallet). Tire life is short. Paint can be iffy. And so on. Its drivers inevitably experience strong emotions, on both ends of the spectrum. Not an uncommon experience with a red-blooded Italian, even if it does share some genes with a Saab.