Carshow Classic: 1985 Nissan Cherry Europe GTi – The Worst Of Both Worlds

The idea of one company using another’s product as a basis or substitute for funding the development of a new model alone is not new. We can all name examples; perhaps the best examples in Europe during the CC era came from Rover, whose selection of Honda derivatives kicked off in 1981 and did most of the company’s business from the late 1980s to the end. Partly this was achieved by Rover doing what they did best (British interiors, a competent ride and handling compromise for British roads) and mostly by accepting Honda’s input on practically everything else. Italy did it differently.

The new in 1971 Alfasud needs little introduction here: it is one of the seminal compact cars, arguably one of the best, maybe the best, of its generation. Started as a project led by the Italian government to help create a national competitor to Fiat and principally to build industrial infrastructure (at Pomigliano d’Arco near Naples) and opportunity in southern Italy, the logically named Alfasud has long been regarded as perhaps the best compact family car of the 1970s.  Alongside the Citroen GS, Fiat 128 and VW Golf, it demonstrated how good a front wheel drive compact saloon could be.

The format of the Alfasud was a little different to many European competitors. It had an 1186cc flat four engine mounted longitudinally, a la Subaru, with belt driven overhead camshafts. Drive was through a four speed and later a five speed gearbox to the front wheels, with the fronts suspended by MacPherson struts and the rears by a beam axle with a Watts linkage. Discs brakes were used all round, at a time when drum brakes were still being seen on competitors. The front brakes were mounted inboard for reduced unsprung weight and were another signal that this car was different.

All this gave a low bonnet line and lower centre of gravity, and Alfa tuned the car and its suspension to take full advantage of this. It was widely considered as the best handling car of its class for several years. Development was masterminded by Austrian Rudolf Hruska and styling was by Giorgetto Giugiaro at Ital Design.

It was let down only by a relative lack of power, cliché-typical Italian build quality and a tragic propensity to corrode almost before your eyes. A lack of significant development through the 1970s didn’t help the business case either – there was a two door Ti version in 1973 and the gorgeous Sprint Coupe in 1976 but we had to wait until 1982 for a hatchback. None of these factors stopped CAR magazine naming it as their Car of the 1970s, at the end of the decade.

Not surprisingly, the Alfasud is quite likely to be the enthusiasts’ choice of the class. It would certainly be my choice from the Citroen, Fiat, VW and anything else from Europe at that time. It was not a compact car built by Alfa Romeo but a compact Alfa, and, as we will see, that is an important difference.

In 1983, Alfa replaced the Sud (we all called it the Sud, didn’t we?) with the Alfa Romeo 33. This was closely based on the Alfasud floorpan albeit with a small wheelbase stretch, carrying over the engine, transmission and suspension, though it lost the older car’s rear disc brakes and inboard front discs. Alfa were trying to move slightly upscale and to keep up with competition on size.

Moving the 33 upmarket left space below it, for a more compact car. Whilst Alfa could not afford to do two cars, this opportunity coincided with Nissan’s interest in entering more deeply into the European market through local manufacturing. Nissan were willing, keen even, to not just sell more cars but also support that process by building in Europe, which was arguably necessary to avoid import restrictions and penalties. A deal was done with Alfa Romeo, then still owned by the Italian government.

In late 1980, Nissan and Alfa Romeo formed a joint venture company, known officially as Alfa Romeo Nissan Autoveicoli or ARNA for short, that would build a new factory at Pratola Serra, east of Naples.Nissan would contribute the floorpan, body shell, interior and rear suspension of the 1982 (fourth generation) Datsun/Nissan Cherry, known as the N12, the car sold in the US as the 1983 Nissan Pulsar and in Australia as the LB series Holden Astra. Alfa contributed the Alfasud’s boxer engine, transmission, steering and front suspension. And electrical system…

The N12 Cherry was a typical Japanese product of the period – visually contemporary, with most of the 1970s styling excesses calmed down, no great claims for driving excellence but with a strong focus on ease of use and ownership. An ideal car for someone who did not understand the Alfasud in other words.

The car came to the market in 1983. The pictures above and below are from the web – I didn’t have one in my files.

Technically, it was as run of the mill as its styling. In Europe, it was offered with a four cylinder transverse overhead cam engine, in 1.0, 1.2 and 1.5 sizes with power ranging from 50bhp to 114bhp for the 1.5 litre turbo,  usually a five speed gearbox. Suspension was MacPherson struts at the front and trailing arms at the rear. Brakes were discs and drums.

The usual format in Europe was three or five door hatchback, with very contemporary styling with a certain Ford Escort and Mazda 323 feel to it, although some markets also got a four door saloon.

The end product of this marriage, then, was a Nissan with an Alfa drivetrain and front suspension, being sold by Alfa Romeo, in most European markets as the Alfa Romeo Arna. Arna was the company acronym but also a play on words that linked to a girl’s name and therefore fitted with the Giulia and Giulietta in Alfa’s back catalogue. Sales in the UK and Spain were under the Nissan Cherry Europe name, through the Nissan network which was, of course, larger.

The Arna and Cherry Europe were offered in 1.2, 1.3 and 1.5 variants, with the 1.5 GTi being the top of the tree. The top model for the UK was the 1.5 litre GTi, whose 95bhp gave 112 mph, and had fog lights, spoilers and stripes to help take the challenge to the Ford Escort XR3, Golf GTi and Vauxhall Astra SRi.

Not that it did a lot for sales volume. To be fair, sales were initially not that bad, running at about 10% of European Cherry sales, but the news starting to come through about the electrical system and bodywork quality stopped this rising any further.

The Arna had issues in several areas – the build quality was Italian, not Japanese, with the electrical system in particular being a weak spot. The car may have had the front suspension and drivetrain from an Alfasud but it had rear suspension from the Nissan and the handling reflected this.

The interior was largely Nissan, and not very inspiring Nissan at that, but with an Alfa Romeo steering column, gearshift and pedals, with Italian positioning.

The press reaction was lukewarm at best.  The car may have had an Alfa heart but it had lost the soul of the Alfasud.

Put this against an Alfa Romeo 33 in an Italian showroom and you can see the lack of appeal against the real Italian car. Put it against a Nissan in a Nissan showroom and you can see people asking what the point of the exercise was. What was the point of buying an Italian built Japanese car, when the benefits of the Alfa character were lost or not understood by the buyer? A Japanese built Italian car might have had more success.

Many of us at CC and within the readership love Alfas. Not all of us crave Nissan Cherrys in the same way. An Alfa that looked like a Nissan, had a Nissan interior, rear suspension and only a significantly pared Alfasud core was never going to appeal to us. Likewise, a Nissan Cherry made more characterful but with no better handling (due to the compromised suspension), a bonnet line that didn’t take advantage of the compact (but usually low powered) engine, Italian ergonomics and electrical system, and assembly standards was never going to fly for the traditional Nissan customer base familiar with ease of use and ownership as basic motoring decision factors.

In the UK, sales were taken over from Nissan by Alfa Romeo from 1985, but with the damage already done and the lack of market presence for the car ensured it fared no better. Government data suggests 3 are left in the UK. That’s more than the Nissan Cherry Europe though – just 2 remain.

ARNA sold just 53,000 of both versions over four years and when Fiat bought Alfa in 1986, the ARNA agreement was quickly unwound. The Pomigliano d’Arco factory now builds Fiat Pandas and the Pratola Serra plant was soon converted to engine production.

And Nissan in western Europe? In 1986, Nissan started production of the Bluebird in a new factory in Washington in northeast England, a factory that today is frequently identified as one of the most efficient car assembly plants in Europe and which assembles more cars in a year than the whole of Italy.