The Alfa Romeo 166 offers a lot of car for not much money, but the purchasing process can be like a game of Russian roulette. Here's how to avoid heartbreak...
How much to pay
• Project £500-800 • Good £1200-2000 • Concours £2400-4900
Running costs ★★★
DIY Friendly ★★★
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The bigger they are, the harder (and further) they usually fall. When it comes to classic car bargains it’s usually the biggest models that offer the most for your cash, especially new-wave ones like the Alfa Romeo 166.
While the Alfa’s contemporaries are all worth peanuts, this intriguing Italian is especially good value, largely because of perceived shortcomings rather than real ones – not that this is an executive car with the bullet-proof build quality of its more obvious German rivals.
Using the same floorpan as its more collectible predecessor the 164 (but with significant changes to the suspension), the 166 looked rather sad when it arrived in 1999. But a hefty facelift in 2004 brought a new visage that was far more appealing. Track down a good one of these and you’ll have a left-field classic that’s usable, great to drive and top value.
Your AutoClassics Alfa Romeo 166 inspection checklist
Any 166 engine will last 200,000 miles if looked after, but they tend to use oil which is why it’s not unusual for the lubricant level to run low, resulting in major damage. Check the oil level and consistency; if the engine looks neglected just walk away.
Four- and six-cylinder engines are fitted with a cam belt which should be replaced every 36,000 miles in the case of the smaller units and every 60,000 miles where the V6 is concerned. It’s not a cheap job and in the case of the 2.5 V6 the cost is increased by the fitment of a water pump with plastic impellors, which is why it has to be replaced at the same time.
The 2.0 litre Twin Spark engine’s oil pump can fail, leading to the bottom end disintegrating; listen for knocking on start up. If there’s a lack of power higher up the rev range it’s because the air flow meter has failed. New ones aren’t especially costly but it’s something to use as a bargaining tool.
On the V6 – listen for ticking at idle or under light load, which suggests that there’s a sticking valve lifter; the noise will disappear when the engine is revved. Sorting this is just a question of flushing out the oilways, but you might have to do this more than once to fix things.
While all 166 gearboxes are strong, the four-speed Sportronic automatic transmission is only really suited to the 3.0 and 3.2-litre V6 as these have the necessary torque; even the 2.5-litre unit isn’t really up to the job because the ratios are spaced too widely.
The Sportronic transmission is controlled by an ECU that sits below the heater matrix. If the latter fails it’ll destroy the ECU and replacements aren’t available, new or used. It’s possible to enclose the ECU to protect it; if this has already been done consider it a blessing. Incidentally, the Sportronic gearbox is supposed to be sealed for life, but an occasional fluid change is a good thing.
If you’re buying a manual, make sure the clutch pedal is okay; they often develop significant play. Also ensure that the clutch biting point isn’t at the top of the pedal’s travel. The system is self-adjusting so if the biting point is on the limit a new clutch will be needed before too long – a job that’s never especially cheap.
On the manual gearbox there’s a small plastic guide incorporated in the selector mechanism. This wears leading to baulky gear changes, but fitting a replacement isn’t expensive or time-consuming.
Suspension and brakes
Invest in a four-wheel alignment check because the complex suspension can wear, leading to everything being thrown out of kilter. Tired bushes are given away by uneven tread wear and at high speeds the car will wander. If new bushes are needed it’s worth fitting Powerflex items as the original Alfa ones aren’t that well made.
The days of Alfa Romeos corroding were long gone by the time the 166 arrived, so if there’s any sign of rust it’s because the car has been the subject of poor body repairs. As a result you need to check the panel fit as well as for overspray, but 166 owners are no more likely to prang their cars as anybody else, so rubbish repairs aren’t especially likely.
Interior & electrics
The 166’s interior trim tends to last well; some cars came with cloth trim but most have leather. The latter looks a lot more appealing, even if it isn’t any more comfortable or more durable; indeed, the cloth trim tends to age better.
All 166s came with plenty of gadgets to play with and as a result there are quite a few electrical glitches that you need to be on the look out for. If the engine is idling fast (1000-1100rpm) it’s probably because the alternator is on its way out, confirmed by the interior or dashboard lights going dim when you operate the electric windows. It’s also worth checking that the battery is suitable; it should be a 70Ah unit but some owners skimp by fitting smaller items which aren’t up to the job.
Items like the central locking and electric windows can play up and it’s the same for the door mirror adjustment, heated seats and electric sunroof (where fitted). However, while the central locking is a weak spot the rest of the electrics aren’t inherently unreliable, so if there are all sorts of problems it’s probably because the car has been neglected by its previous owner.
The xenon lights are great to have as they work brilliantly – when they work. But replacements are big money and the self-levelling mechanism is prone to failure. Park the car in front of a wall and switch on the lights. They should move up, then down, then settle – if they don’t, expect a big bill soon.
- 1999: The 166 replaces the 164. It’s offered only as a four-door saloon and comes with 2.0TS, 2.5 V6 or 3.0 V6 petrol engines in the UK, but for European buyers there’s also a choice of 2.0TS V6 petrol or 2.4 turbo-diesel engines.
- 2000: There’s now a Lusso trim available which adds leather trim, xenon lights, automatic wipers plus electrically adjustable and heated front seats.
- 2004: The 166 gets a facelift with a new nose and tail plus more standard equipment. At the same time the 3.2 V6 replaces the 3.0 engine and the 2.5 V6 is discontinued.
- 2006: The final 166s are made.
Unless you’re going to buy your 166 for everyday use (and with maintenance from the right specialist this is a car that’s eminently suited to everyday use), buy one with the biggest engine you can find, ideally a 3.0 or 3.2 V6. Much of the 166’s appeal is in its soundtrack, and the best noise is made by the bigger V6 engines. Because these have to work less hard than the smaller units, real-world fuel consumption for the bigger engines isn’t necessarily much worse than for the smaller ones – it’s not unusual for the 2.0 TS to average well below 30mpg.
We’d also avoid anything with an automatic transmission, partly because the manual is so much nicer to drive and partly because if you decide to sell you’ll find it a lot harder to shift a Sportronic edition. Both five- and six-speed manuals were available and the latter is the one to have, if you can find one.
The reality is that you’ll probably end up buying whatever you can lay your hands on because the 166 was hardly a big seller and they’re pretty thin on the ground in the classifieds nowadays. Joining the owners’ club is essential and the chances of you buying the first car you see are remote. What’s really key is that you inspect anything thoroughly before buying, to pin down any problems that will need to be addressed; some parts availability is a real issue with some models, which makes seemingly simple repairs that much harder.
Thankfully most of these cars are in the hands of enthusiasts who cherish them – the problem can be with who is entrusted to look after the car. As with all marques there are good and bad Alfa specialists, so if you want your 166 ownership experience to be a dream rather than a nightmare you need to find one that’s been pampered by the right specialist, and pinning down such a car can be harder than you think.
Picture courtesy of MagicCarPics
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166 2.0 TS