Bangernomics: Can you live with a cheap Alfa Romeo?

A working sub-£1000 Alfa Romeo. Surely the stuff of legend? Max Holder takes on not only one budget Alfa, but two. Pray for him

Over the past few years, the Holder family home has been graced with a plethora of interesting and beguiling modern classics: BMW E46 330ci, Mercedez-Benz C215 CL500, Jaguar X100 XKR… even a Rover 75 V6 Tourer.

My father, Holder senior, is the proverbial bargain hunter. He’s forever looking for the ripened patina of that proverbial peach to nestle on the driveway until the next bargain has been procured.

Returning home from university one day last year, I was greeted by yet more new metal on the driveway; a first-generation Alfa Romeo 166 Super 3.0 V6. It was a surprise, to say the least.

Alfas from the 1990s and 2000s were certainly not known for representing a wise purchase when new, let alone second or third hand. They may look as gorgeous as the Tennis Girl poster we used to hang in our bedrooms, but – as with the poster – they spent a lot of time stationary. Sometimes even on fire.

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An Alfa is a bit like that girl you fancied in your 20s; out of your league but offering the thrill of the chase – even if they had a propensity to consume biblical quantities of super-unleaded Pinot Grigio. The only downside is that, when the day isn’t quite going right, an Alfa might try to kill you.

So, here was a 17-year-old 166, and it looked beautiful. Did I believe it would self-combust within a week’s ownership? Yes, I did.

The £800 Alfa Romeo 166 V6

As you might imagine, an £800 Alfa could be branded by anything, from its swathes of hilarious electronic gremlins to this model’s infamous ability to corrode faster than it could reach 60mph from a standstill. Yet dad’s example was characterised by the smooth thug under the bonnet – the glorious Busso V6.

So, it cost £800, has one of the greatest V6 engines ever designed (coincidentally worth more than the actual car), and Alfa is the top bucket-list brand for anyone who considers themselves to be a true petrol-head. Naturally, I used this elevator pitch to my dad when convincing him to let me take the 166 for a good thrashing around rural Oxfordshire.

At the time I was 24, and had been fortunate enough to drive well over 100 different cars in my seven years behind the wheel. This engine, however, was alive.

Why we love cheap Alfas

Some cars have true charisma, while others offer all the charm of a night in with Hyacinth Bucket. Some have humanised qualities that suggest personable character traits, and others just use pure power, or power delivery, to exonerate their sub-par personality.

The Alfa was in a different league. The sounds, the vibrations, the feelings, the smells – all were wrapped up in this £800 super-saloon that sounded like a budget Ferrari. No aftermarket exhausts here, just an engine note that left the hairs on the back of your neck standing to attention.

The genuine, guttural roar that bellowed from under the bonnet drowned out everything else; the sloppy automatic gearbox, the heavy front end, the restricted acceleration were no longer issues. Simply lock it in second and pummel the throttle, again and again, until it breaks or runs out of fuel. It was anyone’s guess as to which would happen first.

Having already been searching for a replacement for my much-loved Mk4 Golf VR6, I knew I needed one of these in my life.

Sadly, my dreams were quashed when I looked on the Internet. Alfa Romeo 147 and 156 GTAs already command collector prices, and remaining 166s with the 3.0 powerplant are hiding in their loving owners’ garages across the country. There was one other contender that I’d overlooked, however.

Enter the Alfa Romeo GT V6

Based on the 147 platform, which won Car of the Year in the early 2000s, the GT body wears one of Bertone’s finest designs. Only 4244 GT V6s were made worldwide, of which 447 were allegedly imported to the UK between 2004 and 2008. The 3.2 iteration was used, as in the 147/156 GTA, developing 247bhp when the crank is spinning at 6200rpm.

My search yielded a handful of results, with one example close by that boasted one owner from new, 60,000 miles and a gloriously full service history. I had to check it out, just in the interests of… journalism...yeah...

Dad’s 166 was fitted with a slush-o-matic gearbox; not my cup of char. I’m more of a double-de-clutch-just-because-I-can kind of guy, so I couldn’t wait to try this beating heart in a manual model, and a sports car at that.

I should have expected the outcome of the test drive; pure and un-adulterated love. Some fairly heroic haggling later, I was gawping at my very own Alfa GT V6. Having owned predominantly VW Group cars up until this point, I was quite excited at the ridiculousness of my latest purchase.

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Living with the GT V6

The fuel economy remains terrible no matter how you drive, the turning circle is rivalled only by that of HMS Ark Royal, and the torque steer has resulted in a new-found appreciation for tan-coloured leather.

The climate control disagrees with any and all inputs like a stubborn pensioner, and the visibility can be so bad you wonder whether there’s any point in watching where you reverse. That bollard or a cyclist's sudden frenzied screaming makes for a sketchy and rather dangerous reversing censor.

These ‘quirks’, as I fondly call them, do take some getting used to, but that’s what Alfa ownership is all about. If I wanted Parental Guidance-rated driving experiences, I’d buy back my Golf.

This thing is pure soul. You can actually sense the car’s components warm up when you set off in the morning. With every mile you can feel the gearbox loosening up, the engine smoothing out, the brakes growing warmer. It all reaches a climax as you approach that slip road you’ve grown to love, where you can dump the clutch, rev match second gear and plant it.

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As you’re thrown back into the soft MOMO leather, the speed at which the needle races to the red line is astonishing and is complemented by a soundtrack that must be heard to be believed. It’s Pavarotti in full battle cry.

Even after eight months of ownership, I am no less infatuated with my GT. If anything, I love it even more. The motoring media of 2004 weren’t overly smitten with the 3.2 variant, and I can see why – but only because I’ve started to understand the mind-set of the consumer advice-focused journalist.

For a potential city-slicker in 2004, the engine would have been largely useless unless they were a fire-breathing petrol-head with the patience of a saint. For me, however, the GT V6 is a supercar on a shoestring budget.

The ride is fidgety, the road noise fairly poor and the clutch comically heavy, while refinement is a joke and the servicing costs make me cry as I type. Weirdly, this is why I love my car.

Alfas are a hindrance to any owner, but for all the right reasons. When I turn the key for every cold start, the sound as the engine barks into life is just creamy, lumpy, oily fabulousness.

Can a Audi TT V6 or Mazda RX8 rival it? Not a chance. Not because they are bad cars, or because they weren’t deemed direct competition at the time, but because Alfas aren’t about getting somewhere the quickest, or having the best road manners. They’re about experiences – one crunchy gearchange at a time.

Photos courtesy of Max Holder

Max's further cheap Alfa Romeo ventures will continue next month. Please help him should you see Max at the side of the road.

All credit for the ‘Bangernomics’ term goes to journalists Steve Cropley and James Ruppert

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