Solace for the Alfa haters?

supportduties_494bc59ac3550-lightboxMany owners – of all sorts of marques – like to hide their car’s problems while pointing the finger at others, but that is not what Auto-Journals is about! So here is a look into the dark underbelly of Alfa ownership during my three years with the car.

Firstly, let’s talk about build quality and quality control. I have always contended that Alfas from the 156 era onwards are made of largely high quality parts; certainly the materials used and the feel of controls like the stalks in both my 156s were a class above the Passat V6 and the Hondas and Fords we have owned from the same era. However, the way they are bolted together is not up there with the best in class. Whereas the Passat’s (suicidally dull) interior had a perfect fit and finish, if some cheap materials and switches, the Alfas both had some areas where things just did not fit well – the fuse box cover and glove box door being among the most obvious. This is not a massive issue to me, especially as the alfa interiors look interesting, have worn well and are made of nice materials, but it’s worthy of note. And on the positive side neither of my 156’s has developed rattles or visible wear as time has passed, unlike our Focus that has developed countless small defects and a whole colony of squeaky mice.

If the materials are good, and the build quality acceptable, the quality control is not. My first 156 was an ex-demonstrator but still came with a (standard fit) stereo that needed re-wiring. It had been dreadfully fitted with wires just shoved into connectors and not held in place. My current GTA arrived new with a pre-delivery inspection stamp but with the mother of all creaks somewhere at the back, a badly fitted wheel arch lining, and a poorly seated screw in the rear seat fold mechanism that prevented it from folding. Those issues would have been obvious during a half-competent pre-delivery inspection.

Then the dealers… Dealer 1, my local fully accredited dealer “only” 30 miles away, was asked in advance to look into the issues above at the 12k service (I was doing a lot of miles when I got the car, and the creak was not apparent on the motorway so not a critical issue). They simply serviced it, gave it back, and said “we need to book it in again to look into anything else”. This seems to be the nature of modern car dealers, but it’s infuriating when you’ve asked in advance for extra work to be done. On my next visit, the courtesy car I’d booked was “not available” so I had taken a day working from home and made a 60 mile round trip for nothing. Then when the car was finally booked in again, the courtesy car was AWOL once more – this time they saw the look in my eye and gave me an old Saab off of the forecourt. It was to no avail, as when I collected the car they had spent all day looking into the creaking, unsuccessfully, and had not changed the wheel arch trim. They said an engineer from Alfa would be summoned, and that they’d call me with his availability. They never called, and I never dealt with them again either! A bizarre footnote to this sorry tale was that, a week later, the creaking stopped- permanently. The car was then, and is now, devoid of any rattle or creak of any kind. Was it something they lubricated (possibly with the can of lube they left rolling around in my footwell)? Possibly. In all, however, a risible piece of customer service.

So then, on to Dealer 2 to carry out the 24k service and refit the wheel arch lining, plus mend my indicators – which died a sudden and total death after around a year. Dealer 2 is over 30 miles away – meaning 120 miles per visit, at my expense. They had the car for three separate whole days trying to sort the indicators out, claiming that Alfa sent a replacement control box that was itself faulty. They charged for insurance for the courtesy cars – a pet hate of mine – and used nasty little cars for the purpose. Then on one occasion I collected my car from them and drove off their forecourt into heavy traffic to discover that my steering wheel had been put back on about 45degrees out of line. It took me some time to turn around and get back in rush hour traffic, and the mechanic’s comment “oh, I didn’t realise those wheels could be put on out of line” was not reassuring. Thus ended my relationship with Dealer 2.

I then found Dealer 3 – only 15 miles away (hurrah!) but having lost their sales franchise. Still, they were accredited service agents, and I was in need of help once more as my air con had intermittently stopped blowing cold air around 18 months into ownership. Initial impressions were good – the service manager was helpful, the car was cleaned on my first visit (the first of these three dealers to do this) and while the courtesy cars were teensy oriental things, they were at least plentiful and free. However, after 2 separate whole days in dealer 3’s premises the air con was the same as before. The onset of winter meant I had no idea if the thing was blowing cold air or not, so I said to them “as long as the fact it will be covered by the third year (dealer) warranty, I’ll leave it until the spring”. Error!

Come spring, it had not magically cured itself, so I booked the car back into a noticeably less helpful Dealer 3. They didn’t wash it, didn’t call me with updates and when I came to collect it (hoping it would be cured) they said it needed a new compressor – covered under the 3rd year warranty – but that I would have to pay £37.50 to change the warranty into my name first. The car had been pre-registered (to Fiat UK themselves) when I bought it new, and thus the warranty was in their name. The fact that I had filled in all the relevant forms when I bought the car, and obviously the 3rd year warranty had been taken out at the end of year 2 when it was mine, and it had a FSH, made no difference. Anyone except the first owner pays for the transfer, whenever they buy the car – not my definition of a “three year warranty”, personally.

At this point, my normally placid demeanour had been tested to bursting point. No, I won’t pay the £37.50 to sort out a problem you should have mended last summer when it was still in its 2 year manufacturer’s warranty period, thanks. Instead, I wrote to ARUK Customer Services asking them to pay for the warranty transfer in return for the hundreds of miles I’d driven at my expense on wasted trips to sort out warranty issues with the car. When I initially logged a complaint on their online system asking for a call back which was assured “within 20 minutes” I was not called back all day. On a whim, I logged a call request as a potential 159 buyer (which I am, as we are due to replace my wife’s car soon) and received a call in about a nanosecond.

ARUK’s eventual – and poorly written – response could be summarised as follows. “We won’t pay for your warranty transfer. We wouldn’t anyway, but the fact you are a very naughty boy and bought from a broker means we doubly will not. And our dealers are being improved, thanks.” This did not make me feel like buying a 159…

So then, Alfas remain a questionable minority option for people obsessed with their looks and engine characteristics and that want something different…. Right? Not quite. Despite the flippancy of their customer services, ARUK have been culling their dealerships at a ferocious rate and raising the standards required.  Since the travails above I have exclusively used one of their new dealers, Meridien Milano of Portsmouth and they were a class apart. The service manager could not have been more helpful, even offering to give me a discount on the 36k service to help cover the warranty transfer fee. They then fixed my air con and serviced the car on one trip- the air con problem was only a loose connection! The car was cleaned expertly, the dealership was covered in new Alfas, and the staff were friendly. There was no charge for the loan car, which was a 159 sportwagon – a very pleasant and comfortable drive, retaining the Alfa DNA while offering the levels of comfort and refinement a typical car driver would want. They could not have been better, overall.

Additionally, ARUK has introduced a new, thorough pre-delivery inspection to it’s import/storage facility. Given that all my initial problems were delivery issues that ought to be spotted by this new service, that can only be a good thing – if it works.

So there is hope – and let’s not forget that, at discounted new and typical second-hand prices the cars are fantastic value. I find them no less reliable than other marques we have had except the Japanese manufacturers, and it is worthy of note than in 6 years and 130k miles in 156s I have never had a more serious issue than occasional indicator or air con failure – I have never been close to being unable to drive the car. My last 156 was better than new at 90k miles-using barely any oil, feeling more powerful, and perfectly tight. The GTA feels like it will be the same. I find the core engineering of the cars fantastic – the engines and gearboxes are solid and a joy to use, and my GTA was fantastically equipped as standard, for example using 4-pot Brembo brakes that humble the poor efforts on the £50k new M3. It has been the failure of pre-delivery inspections and the dealers to sort out issues that has been the problem.

If, and it’s a big if, the cars can be delivered in A1 condition and the dealers become more numerous and attentive, then Alfa’s sales may look up. Fiat is doing well, and Alfa is their next target for sales success. My experience of the newer Alfas is that while they suit my idiosyncratic tastes less than the lighter, more raw cars of old, they have lost the real-world drawbacks like grounding, poor ride, and tiny steering lock while still offering a great deal of overall driving and ownership enjoyment. There is hope, alfisti, there is hope…

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James Wyatt