The automotive world had high hopes for Alfa Romeo’s late-’90s large executive saloon, but disappointment was not far away. We remember the Alfa 166.
The unveiling of the Alfa Romeo 156 at the Frankfurt motor show in September 1997 was cause for celebration amongst the Alfisti and, more generally, for all who love the automobile as an art form and expression of style. Following two decades of increasingly divisive and unhappy rectilinear designs, Alfa Romeo had produced a car of rare beauty. Its curvaceous, sculpted form received a hugely positive welcome, and sales started briskly.
Alfa Romeo’s next task was to replace its large executive saloon, the handsome but increasingly dated 164, which was already a decade old. Early work on a replacement had commenced back in 1990, and actually predated the start of development work on the 156.
The initial plan for the 164’s replacement had been a complete reskin of the platform and mechanical package of the existing car and this plan was assigned the project code 934. Pininfarina, which had designed the 164, was asked to submit a proposal for the redesign in competition with Centro Stile Alfa Romeo, headed by Walter de Silva. The in-house proposal was preferred but, as the schedule was slipping, it became apparent that the reskin option was running out of time: the underpinnings of the 164 would be rather outdated by the time the new car came to market.
Paolo Cantarella, head of Fiat Group’s car division, who in 1996 would be promoted to group chief executive, asked the designers to instead base the replacement on the group’s new E platform, which it would share with the 1994 Lancia Kappa. A new project code, 936, was assigned and work recommenced. The new Alfa Romeo would share no external bodywork with the Kappa but would be designed in tandem with the 156 in a new style. That style was first revealed to the public in a concept car, the Nuvola, a two-door sports coupé designed by Wolfgang Egger(1) and unveiled at the Paris motor show in October 1996.
The new in-house design was completed by the spring of 1993 and pitched against external design proposals from Bertone and Italdesign in May of that year. It duly won, but work continued for a further year until the design was frozen in May 1994. Progress on the new model was halting as priority was given to its smaller sibling and it was finally launched in 1998 as the 166, a year after the 156.
Its appearance was something of a disappointment. The 166 had nothing of the pert and pretty charm of the 156. Moreover, it had a decidedly odd front end, with undersized headlamps at the outer corners of the slim grille giving it a rather morose piscine countenance, somewhat reminiscent of the 1995 fourth-generation Ford Fiesta. Scaling up the smooth unadorned style of the 156 to a significantly larger car was not entirely successful and adding a concave indentation the length of the bodysides did not help alleviate (and might have exaggerated) a slightly flaccid, oversized but under-inflated stance.
When fielding questions from journalists about the new model’s rather frumpy styling, de Silva was, allegedly, somewhat defensive, explaining it as follows: “The target is a very different one after all and a car that was excessively sporty or over-designed at the front would have been quite inappropriate. The 166 is also aimed at a slightly older average audience than the 156.” Telling journalists and, indirectly, potential customers that the 166 was designed for an even “slightly older” demographic, does not sound like a winning sales pitch.
If the styling was a disappointment, the engineering was rather more impressive, with double-wishbone front and multilink rear suspension, the latter redesigned by Alfa Romeo engineers over what was fitted to the Kappa to improve the ride and handling balance.
The range of engines was largely carried over from the 164 and 156. It started with a 1,970cc 153bhp (114kW) twin-spark inline-four and included V6 petrol engines in turbocharged 1,996cc(2) 202bhp (151kW) and normally aspirated 2,492cc 188bhp (140kW) and 2,959cc 223bhp (166kW) capacities and power outputs. A 2,387cc inline five-cylinder 134bhp (100kW) turbodiesel(3) was also offered. Transmission was via either a four-speed ZF automatic or five-speed manual gearbox. All models were FWD with no 4WD option. The 166 was a large car, with a 2,700mm (106¼”) wheelbase and overall length, width and height of 4,720mm (185¾”) 1,815mm(71½”) and 1,416mm (55¾”) respectively.
The interior was executed in traditional Alfa Romeo style, with a driver-focused dashboard containing a complement of closely packed instruments under a hooded cowl and attractive pleated textile or leather seat upholstery, with the pattern repeated on the door trim inserts. Although capable of carrying five, accommodation in the rear was a little confined and the rear seat was configured primarily to carry two passengers rather than three.
Sales started slowly and continued in that vein. One might have expected the 166 to enjoy some reflected glory from the successful 156, but it was not to be. The Alfisti held onto their 156s, while others stuck with the German premium saloons rather than risk their money on the 166. The lack of a diesel engined version in RHD markets effectively killed the possibility of significant company car sales, while the anticipated high levels of depreciation(4) made PCP deals for private buyers extortionately expensive.
The 166 was facelifted and substantially revised in September 2003. The updated model was unveiled at the Frankfurt motor show. It featured a deeper shield front grille, now embedded into the front valance rather than the leading edge of the bonnet, and much larger headlamps. Together these changes gave the 166 a much more assertive and confident looking front end. An enlarged 3,179cc (177kW) V6 petrol engine was added to the top of the range, as were six-speed manual and five-speed automatic transmissions, while the existing range of engines received revisions.
Autocar magazine tested the revised 166 in May 2004. The reviewer praised the facelift as “one of the best nosejobs we can remember” but bemoaned the lack of availability of the turbodiesel engine. The 2.0-litre Twinspark petrol engine “needs every rev to give the 166 any brio” but in mitigation “a super-quick throttle response, sweet induction growl and extra urge at the top of the rev range serve as a reminder of Alfa’s sporting heritage.” Moreover, the six-speed manual gearbox was “delightful” to use.
The Ti pack, a £2k option fitted to the £24.4k Lusso trim test car, brought a 15mm drop in ride height and 18” alloy wheels with low-profile tyres. This caused an increase in road noise, but the ride was “surprisingly unfazed.” Around town the independent suspension ”can hop and skip” betraying the chassis’ age, but the ride became “less fidgety with speed.” With just 2.2 turns from lock to lock, the steering was “direct and ultra-quick” and “negligible torque steer” belied the fact that the 166 was a relatively powerful FWD car. The claimed 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time was 9.3 seconds, a credible figure for the 2.0-litre version of the 166.
The interior was praised for its “superb, multi-adjustable seats [that] allow a comfortable driving position and the circular air vents, cramped instrument cluster and ribbed leather facings [that] provide an appropriately Italianate ambience.”
It had been hoped that the (highly competent) facelift would give a substantial lift to sales, but this did not materialise. The 166 was withdrawn from RHD markets in October 2005, while production of LHD cars ceased in June 2007. European sales over a decade were 90,224(5) and small numbers were sold in Australasian markets. The 166 / Kappa platform and tooling was sold to China’s Guangzhou Automobile (GAC) and formed the basis of the Trumpchi GA5 Saloon, produced between 2010 and 2018.
Although flawed, the 166 was arguably the best(6) Alfa Romeo large saloon in years. It drove well, was comfortable and pretty reliable, and rather good looking, after the facelift, at least. It was certainly a bargain second-hand, and its only significant longevity issue was an odd tendency for the floorpan (but not the bodywork) to suffer from corrosion. The 166 really deserves to be better regarded and remembered.
(1) Described by Walter de Silva as “The most Italian German I know.”
(2) The smallest V6 was for the Italian market only, to avoid punitive taxation on engines above 2.0-litres capacity.
(3) The turbodiesel engine was never made available in RHD markets, severely curtailing its potential sales to company car buyers.
(4) This expectation proved to be well founded: in August 2009, Autocar magazine named the 166 as Britain’s worst depreciating used car, calculating that it held just 14.4% of its original used value after three years.
(5) Sales data from http://www.carsalesbase.com.
(6) It is a moot point as to which was the better car – 164 or 166. Some might (justifiably) argue that the former was better looking, but the latter more accomplished dynamically.
A further viewpoint on the 166 from a fellow DTW scribe here.