In Between Dawn and Daybreak

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.

1998 Alfa Romeo 166: source

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…

1998 Alfa Romeo interior: source

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.”

1998 Alfa Romeo 166 Interior: source

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.

That’s how to do passenger seats. 1998 Alfa Romeo 166: source

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”.

1998 Alfa Romeo 166: source

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.

Image: radka maric

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.

1998 Alfa Romeo 166 rear view:

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?



Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

17 thoughts on “In Between Dawn and Daybreak”

  1. I remember my 166 as a car with a cabin ambience of extraordinary comfort.
    The seats are excellent with very high quality leather (light grey Momo in my case) which doesn’t make you sweat in summer and is not cold in winter but gets stained very easily. The heater is first rate and the auto air con works very good. Rear legroom only looks small because the seat bench is extraordinarily deep, later cars had smaller seats to make legroom appear bigger.
    The car was very easy to drive fast because it was very confidence inspiring. The four pot Brembo brakes are powerful but wooden and fast wearing and the very direct steering is precise and has exactly the right weighting.
    As it should be in an Alfa the best thing was the engine. I know that Ross Brawn preferred the four cylinder because of its better balance but mine had the big six and I absolutely liked it. The engine’s sound made me grin every time I revved it. My neighbour who was driving a BMW 530 at that time always asked me to rev the Alfa once more because it sounded so unashamedly good.
    The 166 needs speed to become comfortable. At anything below 80 to 100 kph it is crashing into undulations uncomfortably but at cruising speeds comfort is astonishingly good with just the nose diving excessively under heavy braking.
    There were quite a number of quality glitches in the interior. The worst was the part of the centre console between the seats with its Punto-derived ashtray and generally wobbly character. The flip up lid on the sunglass box at the top of the dashboard was of different grain and shine to the rest of the (very high quality) main dashboard and the lid of the first aid kit storage bin in the parcel shelf was a sad joke. There also only was a two point belt for the rear centre seat despite of the availability of a mounting point for a shoulder belt and a parcel shelf having a bulge for this part of a belt.
    The worst thing surely was the service (or lack thereof) the dealer gave me. The 166 has a number of design faults like rear window mechanisms that snap, making the rear edge of the glass pop out of the rubber seal. You can tell when this will happen because it develops gradually, giving you opportunities for endless discussions with your dealer. The outer door handles are chromed zinc with the inevitable consequence of the chrome peeling off when acid residues from the galvanic process have eaten through the zinc. It took the dealer five attempts to order the correct number (four) and type (one of each) door handles to be replaced under warranty.
    From my former Alfas I knew that having the car serviced meant at least four trips to the dealer. The first to make an appointment because nobody will answer phone calls. The second for the service, the third for them to do the work they forgot the first time round and the fourth to have them rectify the faults they built in at the first two attempts.
    As a 166 owner you were supposed to get a courtesy car of the same type at no extra cost which of course never materialised. Instead you again could discuss why they put only four litres of oil in an engine officially needing 6.6 litres at a change.
    All this at the main workshop of the importer’s HQ, of all things.
    The dealer experience was so nasty that I eventually sold my 166 at a giveaway price and never again bought an Alfa.

  2. It’s fascinating to note how different people can perceive a car.

    First of all, I appreciate all three of these saloons. The Alfa I always liked from afar and the Audi I had the pleasure of being driven through Paris in. Its interior featured cream-coloured leather seats and was utterly delectable (unlike the ride quality).

    However, I never found the E39 ‘so very ordinary’ or ‘a car less interesting than two days at a HR training course’.

    Maybe it’s because BMWs were the first cars I experienced during childhood (with an Erika Ford Escort thrown in) that I have an unreasonably affection for these automobiles. But to me, E39 was just as rounded and consistent a motor car as the two others. The interior’s ergonomics were simply perfect, the manual gearchange and all other controls were typically BMW in that they were precise, well-weighted and hence predictable. Despite its weight, E39 never felt like a large car – but then again, I only ever got to drive examples with straight sixes under the bonnet, an engine I have immense affection for.

    In contrast, E60 was hard for me to swallow. For despite being a stylistically far more daring/interesting car – and lighter to boot -, its simply appalling cabin ambience and run-flat tyres have always kept me from truly falling for it.

    In that sense, E39 may have been predictable. But only predictable in the way a visit to a branch of l’Atelier de Joël Robuchon is.

    1. The E39 was brilliant.

      Didn’t look as good as its predecessors, mind.

  3. I think that the 166 suffers somewhat from comparison with the 156, which appears taut and athletic, almost as though the body had been shrink-wrapped around the mechanicals. In contrast, the 166 body looks rather oversized and “loose-fitting”, a perception amplified, I think, by the very soft profile of the waist level feature line and the bumpers. One detail that looks slightly odd/fussy to my eyes is the “double Hoffmeister kink” in the trailing edge of the rear door and window frame. Also, the way the lower feature line meets the rear wheel arch so close to the top of the curve, then slopes upwards as the bumper to rear wing panel gap, is less than ideal. Had this line met the wheel arch a little lower, then continued straight through to the rear of the car, the result would have been more satisfactory, IMHO.

    Those pleated leather seats are, however, just beautiful.

    1. The double Hofmeister kink or rather the black blanking panel was needed to make the door window wind down at all. The 166 inherited the 164’s body substructure but went from wrap over doors to conventional window frames but without the rear quarter light.
      The best part of the 166 undoubtedly is its interior. The way the leatherette inserts flow from the doors to the underside of the dashboard and around the centre console is very attractive and the general ambience is one of utter well being – except for this unforgivably sad joke of a cheap panel around the handbrake.
      There also were very bold colour options like this ‘stile rosso’ (there also was a ‘stile blu’, of which I never saw an example).

      I’m sure the residual of a 166 with red interior is next to nothing in no time…

  4. What this serves to remind me is just how blessed the market was at this time. I like all three of these cars for different reasons and would be delighted to own any of them. I also rate Simister as a test journalist, but (unusually) I don’t recall this test. That said, I am a bit surprised Simister was so dismissive of the two litre straight-six, it sounds heavenly to me and who cares if you need to gun it if you want to drive with a bit of pace; isn’t that the whole point? The Audi is seminal in my memory for its design and, in an odd way, so is the Alfa as it positively screams out it’s troubled styling gestation.

    Richard, as ever, your point about the failings of comparative tests is right on the money – in isolation, I suspect anyone driving or occupying any of these three would feel good about the experience. One would tend to choose one or other of them as new car purchases depending on what’s most dear to one’s heart or head and most ‘punters’ would not be driving around afterwards feeling wistful about not buying one of the other two (it’s such a debilitating and corrosive emotion in any case). By rights, according to Road Test results, I should be have been sectioned or institutionalised for having bought a C6, for example, so far off the benchmarks did it appear by every magazines’ measure (in my defence, M’Lord, I did not buy it new); for sure it’s an acquired taste, but it does most things well enough.

    1. I’ve never had the pleasure of a V5 I must confess. I did love my V6 406 but Alfa’s V6 beats that, and both are runners up to an Alfa boxer – smaller capacity the better!

  5. “The A6 is a masterclass in fault-free beauty”… can “fault free” and “Beauty” coexist? Alfa’s sideview is perfection…with a kink.

  6. After the triumphs of the 164 and 156 I always found the 166 exterior a bitter disappointment – it looked like a Chinese attempt at faking an Alfa. The only time I took pause for thought was seeing a metallic brown one with ivory interior and lovely alloys parked in the grassy environs of a hotel’s gravel driveway in Sicily – it looked so perfectly fit for purpose and at home there.

    But that interior really is masterful – the 8-Series like overlapping dials, the symmetry of the air vents either side of the steering wheel, the Saab-like treatment of buttons elegantly surrounded by wood trim, the sweep of dash above the passenger footwell. Certainly a nicer vehicle to be looking out of than at.

    1. The 166 is one of Walter da Silva´s cars, isn´t it? I agree it´s not even half as good as the the 164. In its defense, the facelifted version looked dramatically better and is more than good enough, if no landmark. I believe the 166 had to share its understructure with the the Kappa. That car makes a lot more sense than the 166 (curiously, despite the marked simplicity of the Kappa´s form and detailing they are very identifiable from a long distance) which, one could say, is over decorated. I still think it´s okay though, like a cheaper and more reliable Maserati QP you could say.

    2. Of the trio 147/156/166 the big one is the least satisfying from the outside.
      But it has this wonderful interior, a late ‘Exclusive’ with leather covered dashboard and door trim and Poltrona leather for its seats is a truly special car.

      Alfa 166 as well as Lancia Kappa inherited the Alfa 164/Lancia Thema understructure.
      The Kappa kept the Camuffo rear suspension and McP struts up front and the Alfa got new suspension at all corners.
      The Alfa has the advantage of being a seriously fast car that can be driven at astonishingly high average speeds in a very relaxed manner.
      And it got this absolutely fabulous engine sound.
      In truth, the later diesel Alfas are nearly as fast as the bigger V6s because you don’t spend so much time at the pumps. In a 166 V6 it’s difficult to get much more than 16 miles to the gallon which makes your local fuel station owner roll out the red carpet when your Alfa comes into sight. My worst fuel consumption was 2.5 mpg, emptying the tank in about 250 kms (at an average speed of around 180 kph on empty autobahn in a summer night).

    3. Dave: that fuel consumption data is terrible. My XM might not the most accelerative car out there but when I tried to keep as close to 100 mph as possible, I got 24 mpg. Regardless of whether it takes 7 seconds or 11 to get to 60 mph, once your there that´s all that matters.

    4. Astronomic costs of ownership are the Achilles heel of any big Alfa.
      Heart stopping deprecation ( I sold mine after two years and 135,000 kms at a third of its purchase price), healthy fuel consumption and high maintenance costs (cambelt changes recommended at 60,000 to 80,000 kms at around 1,500 EUR) and high insurance rates made the 166 a car as expensive to run as an XJ or an S-Class.
      On the other hand, no other car of this size is as much fun to drive. The 166 like any proper Alfa begs to be driven hard, has red hot power characteristics and an engine sound to die for. Shifting down to fourth gear at 160 kph and letting the engine rev into the red carries a high risk of addiction.

    5. Apparently, none other than Wolfgang Egger was credited with the 166’s exterior. I’d been utterly unaware of that.

      Egger usually only comes up among the other names (De’ Silva! Giugiaro! De’ Silva! Maurer! De’ Silva!) typically mentioned when the 156’s authorship is discussed…

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