Today we take another look at the world of 1998, or at least one small part of it to do with car reviews. We end up considering the problem of judgements.
I should put my cards on the baize here and say I don’t remember reading this review, from Car magazine 1998 so I am digesting it for the first time tonight (it took two hours to read carefully). Isn’t that odd? This article has sat around for two decades before I noticed it the other night How did I miss it? In the late 90s I would keep a close eye out for Car in the newsagent shop and would devote a good evening to reading it more or less entirely along with a nice cigar or a few bad ones.
After than initial inspection the magazine would float around the kitchen or sitting room to dip into when, say, I had to brush my teeth or sip a coffee in between things. So even an article skipped on day one would be seen on days 2 to 56. Yet, somehow I missed this article in the months it would have been close to hand in my apartment. And so I am reading and digesting now for what I believe is the first time…
John Simister had the task of seeing how the 166 fared against the BMW 520i and the Audi A6 1.8 SE. “Big Alfa saloons have often been greeted with derision by serious-minded German, but that was before the brilliant 156 blew the plot wide open**. Now BMW’s 520i and Audi A6 find themselves going very quiet as the new Alfa 166 rolls in.”
Predictably, Alfa Romeo lost the test and, less predictably, Audi took the laurels. Being a review by John Simister though, the verdict is one reached by quite fair balancing of pros and cons. The three cars all have faults, we are told. We learn the BMW 5-series demands a 2.5 litre engine since the 2.0 struggles a bit. Simister reminds us that small capacity sixes tend to lack torque (a lesson Lexus must not have learned with their straight six 2.0 litre IS200). Simister didn’t like the BMW’s appearance either. The Audi needed a “sweeter engine” and the Alfa Romeo’s interior needed some more care in the detailing.
Actually, Simister didn’t like the Alfa Romeo 166’s exterior much either, faulting the small and narrow head-lamps (I agree, they are too tinchy), the long overhang (less obvious) and suggesting the boot is “boxy”.
Two decades later, none of these three cars seem crushed by the passing of fashions. Maybe that’s just me. I do have some issues with the exact way the boot and bumper meet (it’s a unique bodge) on the 166. The A6 is a masterclass in fault-free beauty. Of the three cars, I’d have least difficulty avoiding the BMW. It’s so very ordinary – what do we call a car less interesting than two days at a HR training course?
Alfa Romeo actually planned to release the 166 before the 156 but the initial design tanked in the clinics and while it was being given some cosmetic surgery, the 156 came out steal the 166’s aesthetic thunder. In many ways it is among the early wave of “contemporary vernacular” cars that edged out the high-concept ID cars of the late 80s and early 90s.
The 164 is an altogether much purer shape just as the 405 is a purer shape than the 406. In the trio tested, only the A6 retains the design purity we admire so much here at DTW. Simister likened it to a concept car that made it to production. This is especially true in side view and at the rear; the front is very like the previous A6.
The 2.0 litre Alfa Romeo 166 had a perky twin-sparky, four-cylinder engine delivering 155 bhp and 138 lb ft of torque (a few more bhps than the other two cars). It was just 2 bhp per tonne short of the Audi (111 bhp per tonne) and 10% ahead of the BMW). Where Audi really led the way was in weight. It was a full person lighter than the Alfa and two people lighter than the BMW. I presume that in adding mass Alfa were addressing the perceived flaws of the 164, namely its apparent frailty and to deal with ever-tighter crash test regulations.
Suspension? The 166 had angled upper arms, lower wishbones, coils and an anti-roll bar. At the back it was fitted with three control rods, lower wishbones, coils and an anti-roll bar. It also featured passive rear steer. I love that. Pinion and rack steering did the pointing duties, power-assisted (naturally). Alfa endowed the steering with a 2.4 turns lock-to-lock ratio. And it had a 72 litre fuel tank. Also good.
The 2.0 litre engine came from Fiat, but was graced with an Alfa head. 16 valves worked with variable inlet cam timing, variable resonance inlet manifolding and balancer shafts. (I can imagine losing a lot of friends if I explained my car like this and, I must admit, I don’t know how my XM compares in these terms. I know it has a 4 cylinder 2.0 litre engine with 8 valves. And that’s it.) How did all that stack up in the test?
Having approved the exterior (more or less) and the interior (the seating and styling) Simister drove off. The Alfa had a commanding view (probably like the Kappa sister, it is such that one can’t see the bonnet from the driver’s seat). Simister liked the responsive steering (if a tad rubbery around the centre). Nice gearchange: “slicing cleanly through the gate”; brakes with “weight and progression” and overall the whole car “feels taut, handy and not that large”. It was 4.72 metres long by the way.
The aim of this article is to remind us what the 2.0 litres 166 was like so I am homing in on the driving descriptions: “It flicks particularly tidily through corners, thanks to the economy of steering movement and a tail which helps point the noise by virtue of some well-judged passive rear-steer. Actually, it does this better than the 156 with its less sophisticated rear suspension, proving more interactive when you back-off and not forcing the front wheels to work as hard as they do in the smaller car.” Downside time: some patteriness over pavement scabs but “control of the body movements is first class. There is no pitch, float or lurch to speak of”.
The engine demanded revving to produce acceleration (Simister blamed the weight). What you had to do was drop a gear if you needed to go from amble to sprint – pretty Italian, really. Simister concluded the individual part of the review by saying the car came very close in quality to its two German peers (and you had to read the dense spec table to see that Alfa charged £2000 less than the Audi and £3000 less than the BMW).
Where the Alfa Romeo stayed ahead was in being “engaging“. Audi trumped by dint of this list: “best-looking, best executed interior, quickest, roomiest…Its easy handling is fine if you haven’t driven the Alfa….”
For once this is not really a matter of head versus heart, because the Audi is a car whose rationalism is emotionally driven. The look of the Audi, inside and out, is as emotionally satisfying as the Alfa Romeo, almost more so since it has a shape where the emotional need for stylistic purity makes it look unusually out-of-the ordinary. It is expressive rationalism. And the interior is much the same, if less cosy and enclosing than the Alfa’s superb seats and trim.
Leaving appearances aside or letting them cancel, the Audi trumped for being the roomiest and quickest. So – are these things so apparent you will notice in day-to-day life?
I am getting here to an unaddressed weakness in reviews. Cars often lose for being on paper a bit deficient in some measurable department like speed or space. Yet this neglects the fact that a car that comes third in a test (say it’s .8 second slower or 11 mm smaller in rear legroom) may still feel far more than adequate in isolation.
Perhaps these reviews need to start with considering adequacy as a reference level. So, having gone down all the list of areas of interest, one should identify all the areas where the cars meet the standard of adequacy and only focus on the things that are noticeably poor or unsatisfying. Would that blow up car testing? Would it force a more careful look at the qualitative instead of the spuriously quantitative? Or is it true that the question of judgement is actually vexed, vexed, vexed?
** “blowing the plot wide open” is a mixed metaphor. Plots are changed perhaps. Locked down things like doors and barriers get opened by explosions and forces. An opened plot is not a plot at all, is it?