Style over substance. Let’s get one thing out of the way here: the Alfa Romeo Brera isn’t as good as it looks. How could it be? In a world awash with androgynous sporting coupes, it stands out as a beacon of taste and flair – it’s an example of Giugiaro working at the height of his powers and, wherever you go in one, heads are turned. When was the last time you strained your neck to check out the Audi TT driving past you in town?
Launched some five years ago to replace the rakish GTV, to be fair, it moved the game on significantly for Alfa. My cousin once visited me in a GTV Spider that was all of six months old. Painted black and trimmed in gorgeous tan leather upholstery, I fell immediately in lust with it but after ten minutes behind its wheel I’d had enough. Because it started to rain. It wasn’t the operation of its roof that was the problem or the cabin noise that angered me. It was the fact that rainwater was entering the driver’s footwell in alarming quantities. On a six month old car? Come on! Absolutely disgraceful.
Alfa Romeo knew damn well that it had to sharpen up its act with the Brera. Having wowed potential customers with the ItalDesign show car in 2003, the company bowed to public pressure and put it into production. The show car had been based on a Maserati but the production model ended up being built around the architecture of the less exotic Alfa Romeo 159, with which it shares some obvious design cues inside and out, as well as engines and transmissions.
And it’s design that the Brera scores so highly on. It’s an absolutely beautiful thing to behold and still looks as fresh today as it did in late 2005, when us hacks first got to experience it. It does look a bit dumpy when viewed from the side but from the rear, the front or front/rear three quarters, it’s sensational. A high waist and low roof line give an unmistakable coupé stance and the triple lamp arrangement up front lends an angry, macho look that perfectly combines with the feminine touches elsewhere. The dark glass roof panel that my car was fitted with looks brilliant, too.
But it’s not all sweetness and light with the Brera, as you might have guessed. Open the door and climb in. First impressions? Light years ahead of the GTV this thing replaced. The dashboard design shows Alfa’s priority is the driver with the aluminium trimmed centre console angled towards him or her. Deeply cowled instruments nestle behind the wheel – very Alfa – and the wheel itself is nicely styled. It all looks lovely.
However, the seats are positioned so high that taller drivers may have to get their coupé thrills elsewhere, especially if the Brera in question hasn’t been fitted with that glass roof. The column stalks look nice enough but their edges are rough and cheap to the touch, while the gear shifter feels similarly nasty. But it’s in the rear accommodation that the joke wears rather thin because the rear seats are totally, utterly useless. We’re used to smallish coupés having cramped rears but the Brera takes this to another level. For amputees only.
The rear load area isn’t so bad, though, with a useful 300 litre capacity – impressive for a car of its type. But even here Alfa has allowed substance to give way to style because the shape of the hatch opening makes it awkward to load heavy or bulky items. Practical this ain’t. But forget that sensible nonsense – this is an Alfa! What’s it like where it matters most – on the open road?
Ok, actually, but not brilliant. First, the good bits: it sounds nice, even with a diesel engine but especially with the 3.2-litre V6 petrol unit.
In 2007 the Brera range was extended with a 2.4-litre, five cylinder JTDm engine and I’ve driven both this and the V6 models. It’s comfortable, too, unless you’re in a Brera S, which features a lower ride height and stiffer suspension. This causes the car to crash about on uneven road surfaces and structural rigidity isn’t exactly a Brera strong point.
The steering is very quick, indeed, which gives a feeling of agility at low speeds but, once you start upping the pace a bit, it makes the Brera feel nervous and twitchy – something that wouldn’t be so bad if there was any real poke to its performance. The fact is though, that no Brera, not even the lusty V6, feels anything like fast. It’s a heavy car, particularly in V6 form because that comes with four-wheel drive. With the diesel motor there’s horrendous turbo lag to contend with, as if things weren’t bad enough already. Seriously, come out of a bend at a fairly normal speed and, if you’ve allowed the revs to come off the boil, when you put your foot down…. nothing. You find yourself checking the rev counter to see if the engine’s still running and looking in the rear view mirror to make sure nobody’s about to smack into the back of you.
Get up enough speed to start attacking some twisty road sections and the Brera simply understeers, something that’s particularly noticeable in the four-wheel drive V6. It’s as though apexes and Breras are, and always will be, complete strangers. So the only way to get any real enjoyment in a Brera is to adjust your driving style, forgetting any sporting connotations and recalibrating your brain to see it as more of a relaxed cruiser.
Do this, calm it down and lower your expectations and then this Alfa makes much more sense. The gearbox does feel notchy so perhaps sir would prefer an automatic? Well if we’re viewing it as more of a relaxed cruiser rather than a sports coupé, then what the hell? Slushbox it is, then.
Perhaps you think I’m being unduly harsh on the Brera but we need to be. Because it simply isn’t good enough to worry the likes of the Audi TT, Nissan 370Z or BMW 1 Series Coupé. Even the Peugeot RCZ has it licked in practically every area and, in light of the really rather good Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the Brera feels hopelessly outdated.
Yet I still find myself lusting after a Brera from time to time while scouring the classifieds. Cars that are just four years old can be had for a third of what they cost new and the depreciation curve won’t get any less steep over the next few years. Pretty soon you’ll be able to pick one up for the price of a decent laptop and that’s when I think I’ll take the plunge. I won’t drive it anywhere, though, oh no. I’ll just look at it.
When the Brera’s replacement comes along, if Alfa can continue the fine progress it’s made recently with the Mito and Giulietta, and if the looks remain as sexy as this, it could be a truly exceptional car. For now, the Brera is a true example of style over substance and, for some, that doesn’t matter one bit. If all you want from a coupé is individuality then look no further. But if you want it to thrill you when you’re behind the wheel and possibly seat a couple of passengers in the rear, there’s a growing choice out there that won’t include this Alfa Romeo.