Was the Alfa Romeo Arna one of the ‘worst cars ever’?
At the beginning of the 1980’s Alfa Romeo was in grave trouble. Its reputation had been marred by the problems that afflicted its C-segment Alfasud. Built at the behest of the Italian government in a new factory in Pomigliano d’Arco near Naples, it was riddled with faults, the most serious of which was its tendency to dissolve into ferrous oxide at an alarming rate.
By 1980, the Alfasud’s build quality had improved noticeably, but not so Alfa Romeo’s reputation. A replacement model, the 33, was in development and would be launched in 1983. The 33 would be a somewhat larger and more expensive car, growing by just 20mm (¾”) in wheelbase, but by a more substantial 185mm (7¼”) in overall length. This left room for a smaller and cheaper car to replace the entry-level Alfasud. It is a moot point as to whether or not Alfa Romeo actually needed such a car in its range, unless it was really determined to challenge Fiat on the latter’s home ground, surely a foolhardy move? In any event, Alfa Romeo had neither the time nor resources to develop another new model.
Step forward Japanese automaker Nissan as a potential white knight. Nissan’s motives were, of course, not at all altruistic. In the early 1980’s there was growing hostility amongst Europe’s automakers concerning the invasion of Japanese cars that were eating into their traditional market shares. This was happening because the Japanese offered cars that, if dynamically underwhelming, were well built, reliable and generously specified. Rather than accept this and try to raise their game to match, the Europeans’ first instinct was to cry foul and call for import quotas and even an outright ban.
Nissan saw the opportunity to work with Alfa Romeo as a way of circumventing import quotas. The Italian government, weary of pumping money into state-owned and perennially loss-making Alfa Romeo, approved the deal despite opposition from politicians, unions and other manufacturers. Some commentators described it, and the contemporary Honda Ballade-based Triumph Acclaim, as Trojan horses for the Japanese auto industry’s wholesale invasion of Europe.
A joint-venture company, Alfa Romeo Nissan Autoveicoli S.p.A., was formed following the signing of a memorandum of understanding in October 1980 between Alfa Romeo and Nissan. For the venture, a new factory would be built at Pratola Serra near Naples.(1)
The outline of the new model was quickly agreed: it would comprise the body, interior and independent rear suspension and (drum) brakes from the forthcoming N12 generation Nissan Pulsar/Cherry and the engine, gearbox, steering, brakes and front suspension from the Alfasud. It was hoped that such a combination would produce a car with the character and brio of an Alfa Romeo, coupled with the build quality and reliability of a Nissan.
Weighed against these hopes probably should have been concerns about how the market might regard such a car. Given that it would look almost identical to the Pulsar/Cherry, could it ever be accepted as a proper Alfa? Moreover, the cost of re-engineering of the Nissan bodyshell to accommodate a flat-four longitudinal engine in place of a transverse inline unit would not be insignificant.
Christened the Arna,(2) it was launched at the Frankfurt motor show in September 1983. Like its progenitor, it was a not unpleasant if rather bland three and five-door B-segment hatchback. Visually, it differed little from the Nissan. At the front, an Alfa Romeo shield grille had been rather incongruously plonked in the centre of what looked like Nissan’s black plastic slatted affair (but wasn’t).
The differences were more marked at the rear: instead of the Nissan’s two-tier rear lights, wider and shallower units that bookended the number plate were fitted. This necessitated a rather makeshift looking black filler strip to be inserted between the lights and bumper as there were no metalwork changes to the rear panel. The Arna’s steel wheels with black centre covers were a recognisable carry-over from late model Alfasuds. Inside, it was pure Nissan, even down to the unusual oval instruments(3), although the steering wheel had been changed for a sporty three-spoke item with perforated metal spokes.
Under the bonnet, the Alfasud flat-four engine and transaxle gearbox were fitted. The former came in 1,186cc 62bhp (46kW), 1,351cc 70bhp (52kW) and later, 1,490cc 94bhp (70kW) forms while the latter was a five-speed manual unit. In a further nod to the ‘Sud, a second bulkhead had been inserted between the suspension turrets.
Autocar magazine road-tested the Arna 1.5Ti in July 1985. Its performance was “hardly in the really hot-hatchback bracket, but respectable” with a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 10.23 seconds and a top speed (in fourth gear at the red line of 6,250rpm) of 109mph (176km/h). Oddly for a sporting hatchback, top gear was more of an economy overdrive, with a top speed of 104mph (168km/h) at only 4,750rpm.
Overall fuel consumption on test was surprisingly heavy at 24.3mpg (11.62 L/100km) but this was attributed to “the relatively harsh treatment the car received [on test]” and owners should expect to achieve “nearer the gentle driving figure of 31.6mpg (8.94 L/100km) .” Steering was “a little heavy at low speeds but once above 40mph (65km/h) it is light and responsive.” The predominant handling characteristic was “mild understeer” and lifting off abruptly in a bend just caused “the front end to tuck in controllably and scrub off excess speed.”
Despite the adoption of Nissan’s rear drum brakes in place of the Alfasud’s discs, braking performance was strong and fade-free. At lower speeds, the predominant noise is from the boxer engine, a sound “you either love or hate.” At higher speeds, particularly above 70mph (113km/h) wind noise is noticeable, albeit “not too overbearing.”
Inside, the Nissan heating and ventilation system was “very effective” with an “excellent” supply of fresh air and a fan that was inaudible on its lower two settings. The Alfa Romeo-sourced seats were “firm with good lumbar and side support” but taller drivers found them “rather uncomfortable” and, perhaps surprisingly, the driving position was described as “typically Italian.” The front compartment was “very spacious with a pleasant feeling of airiness and plenty of headroom” while the rear was “a little cramped.” All-round visibility was “good.” Minor controls all worked well, and headlamps were effective on both main and dipped beams.
In summary the Arna 1.5Ti “stood up to our test very well” and “is very competitively priced at £5,590 (US $7,830).” The reviewer did, however wonder who might buy it: non-performance orientated drivers “will probably stick with the Cherry” and it’s a moot point as to whether “a ‘Sud driver [would] even consider buying an Arna.”
Autocar’s concerns about the perception and potential market for the Arna proved to be well founded. Production of ended in 1987 after just four years, with a total of 53,047 cars manufactured. The decision to cease production was the first taken by Fiat as Alfa Romeo’s new owner, which immediately terminated the partnership with Nissan.
At this point, you might be wondering how the Arna, which seemed to perform perfectly well on test, ended up a much derided and even reviled car, and a fixture on those lazy and tedious worst cars of all time lists? The answer to this conundrum is, I believe, only in small part that its reputation was sullied by typical Italian build quality woes.
It is true that Nissan-branded versions of the Arna, sold under the name Cherry Europe, were nowhere near as well put together as the genuine Japanese-built Cherry(4) and often needed significant rectification work at Nissan dealerships before delivery to customers. Moreover, while the Arna was a perfectly acceptable car in itself, it was a poor facsimile of an Alfa Romeo, with its dowdy looks and lack of a pure-bred bloodline.
However, the main reason for the Arna’s terrible reputation is not that it was by any means a terrible car, but because there was such a degree of blind prejudice levelled against it. A large section of the automotive (and journalistic) community was just determined to hate it from the off.
(1) It appears that Alfa Romeo had learnt nothing from its gruelling experience with the Alfasud at Pomigliano d’Arco and was content to take the same risk again.
(2) This was simply an acronym of the joint-venture company’s name.
(3) A rev-counter was only fitted to the top of the range 1.5Ti model.
(4) At home, Nissan tried to capitalise on its Italian connection and sold a differently trimmed version of the JDM Pulsar/Cherry badged Nissan Pulsar Milano.
Author’s note: In using the word Mule in the title, I intended no slight against the Arna. The mule is, of course, a hard-working and dependable beast of burden.