“Did you hit your head on something?”
That was the first thing my former boss, a Holden workshop manager, asked me back in August of 2014 when I told him I had bought a car, and showed a picture of a [slightly faded] red 2003 Alfa Romeo GTV V6 that had just come off a car transporter from Queensland that morning. He was not the only one who doubted my mental health that day. Nobody in that dealership could possibly fathom why I, a first year apprentice mechanic, would waste my money on buying an Alfa Romeo. An overvalued, overly-complicated, difficult to work on poor man’s Ferrari that would surely break down every time I drove it. The answer was simple; it was a leap of faith.
I was almost off my green P-plates and I was looking for something else. Something unusual and interesting. Something that wasn’t a Commodore or a Falcon. A manual sports car from the ‘90s or early ‘00s (something with at least front airbags and ABS) that was decently-powerful and fun to drive. I was an avid watcher of Jeremy Clarkson’s antics on Top Gear back in the day. Clarkson would sing Alfa Romeos praise whenever he could. He claimed they were special somehow, that they had “soul”. That was enough for me to start researching various Alfa Romeo models. I found an Alfa Red GTV with the rarer, more powerful 3.2-litre 176kW V6 for sale (only 512 of the coupes were made worldwide with the 3.2). I bought it with almost no hesitation. After finalising the sale, I excitedly waited for this red Italian beauty to arrive in Sydney.
I was not disappointed, at least not by the looks. It’s hard to describe how beautiful these cars are until you see one in real life. The long, slender classic “shield” grille and the sweeping bonnet lines over the signature quad headlight cut outs. The curves of the front end are caught by sharp, angled lines along the sides of the car, and met with a slanting “kamm tail” at the end. Across the rear, is a simple, yet stylish solitary red light bar. While a light bar like this is certainly not exclusive to the GTV, it still feels like it’s an oddly unique feature on the car’s exterior. I climbed inside (well, “excitedly scuttled” would probably be more accurate), and was met instantly with the strangely-refreshing aroma of classic Italian leather, the source of which were the elegant, comfortable stitched Momo leather seats. The dash was surrounded by silver (not fake chrome) plastics, which tied the whole Italian ensemble together nicely. I also noticed the fuel gauge, the clock and the temperature gauge were all slightly angled towards the driver. You could tell that the designers at Alfa Romeo and Pininfarina were no stranger to creating a good looking car, inside and out.
I turned the key and heard the V6 roar to life. I fell in love with the car a second time over. I revved the engine and was introduced one of the most thrilling and intoxicating sounds I had ever heard. There was no doubting that this engine was designed and built by the Italians. The engine is a thing of mechanical beauty, in every single way. All the way down to the chrome intake runners. The “Busso” V6 manages to make the car feel and sound a lot faster than it actually is, and that’s not something every engine can accomplish. The V6 has an almost primal feel to it. It’s a feisty lump that revs freely and begs to be driven as hard as the speed limit allows it. To round it off, both the throttle and 6-speed transmission are crisp and responsive, and feel like they were made for each other. The gear lever has a nice long throw to it, which you don’t usually come across in modern manual transmissions. It’s a very engaging experience overall, and you’d be hard-pressed to find yourself bored while driving this car (unless you’re stuck in Sydney traffic, of course).
However, it’s not all sunshine and ravioli in this car. Even though it’s far more mechanically reliable than most people are led to believe, the GTV isn’t without its problems. The first is pretty obvious, and it’s something you notice if you drive the car spiritedly, especially around corners. A problem inherent of the GTV’s Fiat hatchback-derived drivetrain. Here’s some basic maths: A 1445kg FWD sports car plus a 176kW aluminium V6 (weighing in at about 172kg) mounted transversely and sitting rather far forward over the front end equals….. Yep; torque steer, understeer and a noticeable-amount of body roll. Sure, these can be remedied somewhat with an upgraded front differential and some aftermarket suspension upgrades, but you still can’t push the car as much as the V6 begs it to be pushed. The suspension set up is already rather harsh and feels rather fussy over bumps, so ride comfort would likely be compromised further with a stiffer suspension set up. It’s certainly not as balanced or “sorted” as the lighter, RWD Alfa Romeos of old.
On the subject of ride comfort, the seats, while beautiful and comfortable, lack any prominent side support. You tend to find yourself bracing against whatever you can if you take corners or roundabouts quickly enough. The rear seats, while not entirely useless for passengers (considering it’s a 2+2 coupe) are just as bad.
If you expect much in the way or storage space or practicality when you’re buying an Italian sports car, you’re going to have a bad time. The boot is rather short, yet deep, but only has a total capacity of 155 litres. The space-saver spare tyre also resides in the boot, taking up even more precious space. The glove box is basically a small shelf exclusively made for storing the service book and owner’s manual, and the centre console can barely hold more than a packet of painkillers. There is also a glaring lack of cupholders anywhere in the cabin. I considered the latter deliberate on Alfa Romeo’s part. You can’t spill anything on the fancy leather upholstery if there’s nowhere to put your drinks.
The frameless windows, while a stylish design cue, are not without their issues. These windows are notorious for their alignment issues. After owning the car for a while, I was introduced to the entertaining game of “Where’s the wind noise coming from now?” It’s a little bit like “I spy” except you’re driving at highway speeds and you’re trying to find where the annoying howling noise is coming from without crashing.
Despite it’s shortcomings, after driving this car for a few months, I finally understood what Mr Clarkson was talking about. Why people even buy older Alfa Romeos in the first place given their reputation. Perhaps it’s something you never truly understand until you’ve bought one. I had no idea what buying and owning that strange, but wonderful car would be like. It was a leap of faith, and I have no regrets. Not one.
MORE: Everything Alfa Romeo