The three year review

IMG_2310_ed_800_494fb7fb136ec-lightboxBut firstly, how was the car holding up, after 3 years and 44k miles? When I bought the car, even many Alfisti seemed certain that GTA’s needed new suspension bushes and anti roll bars/drop links every 20k miles, ate front tyres for breakfast, and had horrendous economy. I had been prepared to change the car at around three years old, so it was time to take stock of how the car was holding up to daily use and above-average mileage. Very well, is the answer. Cosmetically, a handful of tiny stone chips had occurred on areas not protected by the armourfend, but the paintwork and interior have responded to regular TLC by looking like new.

In terms of reliability, my air con compressor may work somewhat sporadically each “summer” (not much of a problem with the weather we’ve had in recent years!). And there was the one-off incident with the indicators, but overall as the car went out of its warranty period I was not as nervous as when I bought it. As with my previous V6 Alfa, the engine always starts immediately, and is utterly consistent in its behaviour in all weathers, in traffic or when being given a workout. It is using less oil (from a very acceptable start point) and feeling markedly stronger as time goes by. The suspension has held up well – there is perhaps the tiniest amount of play at the front, probably the lower wishbone bushes (I should point out I am very sensitive to things like this and notice something similar on our 30k mile A4) but the dampers are still performing well. The steering is A1, the gearbox slicker but with no signs of looseness, and the brakes (still on the original pads/discs) strong.

Most pleasingly, considering the press nonsense about Alfa build quality, the rattle that the car had from new (fixed early in its life) is the only one the car has ever had, and with the sort of roads I drive regularly now, I’d notice! I still regularly sit in other, better reviewed and newer, cars and marvel that their interior materials quality and  interior style is nowhere near the GTA’s, which was released in 2002, 4 years into the basic car’s life. The GTA’s interior is a lovely place to be, and since my GTA (as an estate in a dark colour) is pretty subtle, it stands out; especially the high-back sports seats and the two-tone leather. I still love the driving position, the seats and leather are like new, and the cowled red dials make it a great environment to be in at night time. As I was reminded when I was given a similar-age 156 hire car, the GTA interior is highly bespoke compared to the basic car’s (which itself is nice) a point that was rarely noted in reviews at the time.

As mentioned, the biggest challenge to the GTA’s place in my life was a change of commute. As my earlier articles suggest, I felt the car had been seriously under-rated by the press, as the driving experience was so much better than the reviews I had read suggested it would be. They did have one common gripe I was about to agree with, however, and that was that bumpy roads are not the car’s forte. A change of job meant a change from smooth A-road and some motorway miles, where the car excels, to a 70 mile daily drive on badly maintained, yet fast, B and unclassified roads. I had been impressed with the damping and overall stability of the car compared to the 156 V6 I had once had, but whenever the roads were clear and I was minded to make progress, the V6’s music was joined by the plastic engine undertray scraping the tarmac through the worst of the dips and cambers. It only happens a few times a journey, if that, and then only when pressing on somewhat, but it is annoying nonetheless.

I would suggest the GTA is somewhat underdamped as standard; helping its comfort on smooth roads, and keeping it in check even in enthusiastic driving on good surfaces by a well-judged choice of spring and ARB rates. But when you start requiring greater body control on poor roads, especially with big undulations rather than small bumps, the car’s composure suffers. In this respect, our similar-age A4 2.0T Avant S-Line is the exact opposite – I would say it is over-damped as a road car. It fidgets on motorways and especially quick B roads with many small imperfections, making it a far less comfortable GT than the Alfa on some routes. But really attack a road with a lot of crests and dips and really big holes, and it never comes close to grounding, with rock solid body control.

So I faced the fact that the GTA was no longer the ideal companion for the driving I was doing, at the same time as I had a minor windfall that gave me sufficient budget to replace it with something that cost the same. It was also out of warranty, fuel prices were starting to creep sky-high, and dear Darling had pencilled in £450 per year tax costs for all GTA owners regardless of the fact they made their purchase decisions well before this “incentive” was mooted. As a result, I cast around for alternatives. But I didn’t find many – my tastes are quite restrictive. I resent paying the excessive prices some premium brands seem to attract. I’ve driven and really enjoyed cars like the 350Z but rear seats and enough boot space for a couple of bikes are a must, and rear doors are highly useful to me. And anyway, few coupes, even 2-seaters, seem to offer the weight advantage one might expect over more practical cars (the GTA SW only weighs 1490kg, not bad for a well-equipped estate with a 3.2 litre old-school engine.)

Engines are the biggest problem for me, however. I do not just have a “Top Trumps” style obsession with good normally aspirated engines with more than four cylinders. I derive massive pleasure from them, on every journey. The noise of 4-cylinder engines rarely excites.

Various journalists have written than the VAG 2.0T engine in our Audi is “lag free”. It is not – it is a lot better than turbos of old, especially at high revs, but seriously lacking character and response. I drove it daily for a few weeks to see what it was like, and there are plenty of places (often turning into T-junctions in 30mph limit areas) that I take smoothly and responsively in the Alfa in third gear, where I was having to change down to second in the Audi to avoid it chugging, or just having no acceleration out of the corner. And when I got back into the Alfa I realised how much more pleasurable it is to extract the performance from it, it is truly a joy to rev the engine and hear it sing, whereas revving the Audi is just a means to an end. Add in the asthmatic noise the 4-pot makes at startup, and the lack of the instant throttle response so useful when pressing on, and I was determined to stick with a charismatic engine.

Big normally aspirated engines also produce far better real-world mpg compared to the “official” figures in my experience than turbo 4-pots (petrol or diesel). I can easily average 20-25% better than the “official” combined mpg for my car on the sort of flowing B-roads I now drive, not hanging around, but respecting urban speed limits and not going crazy. Only urban driving hammers the economy. When the petrol prices spiked I discovered I could commute at well over 30mpg if I really wanted to. Plus, if you intend to keep a car for some time, it is worth considering how much of a fuel saving you need to pay for a new turbo every few years, if that is your choice.

I was also determined to stick with a car that is rare, is quick but doesn’t shout about it’s performance, and genuinely beautiful inside and out. In the end, the fact the GTA still looks and feels so special, the surprising practicality (child seats fit well, the seats fold easily to reveal a big stowage area) and comfort (I would really miss the sculpted, heated seats now, and the Bose), meant the Alfa was going to stay in my possession for some time.

The final clincher was the size – besides lacking the sporty edge and performance of the GTA, something like a 159 SW is just a much bigger car than I need. “Compact execs” of the 156, IS200, and E36 3-series ilk really are compact and UK roads, especially country lanes and parking spaces, are not set up for big cars. So the plan is to carry out a bunch of preventative maintenance tasks and minor enhancements to the car while I still have some money in my pocket, and keep it for a few more years! More on that next time…

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James Wyatt