For my latest weekend rental from Zurich airport, I’d reserved an SUV, simply to make sure I got a different car type from the ones I’d already experienced over the last few months. When I arrived, they’d not got anything from the class of car I’d reserved, though they had found something with all-wheel drive, which they had allocated to me, a Subaru Legacy Wagon. It was a 3.0 litre model, but an automatic. I was quite prepared to take this, but just thought I would ask if they had anything else available, and was immediately offered an Alfa GT. No question, then, which to take! It is no secret that I am a huge Alfa fan. from 1995 to 2003, I had a series of three different Alfa models as my own car, a 164, then a GTV and finally a 156 V6, and I loved them all. Sadly, something of a falling out between our Fleet Management and Alfa GB meant that in 2003 I was no longer able to order another one, and after a few months with a Volvo C70, I switched over to Audi. Whilst the Audi models I’ve had have been excellent in their own way, there is no doubt that my heart still says Alfa. For four years, I failed to drive one, then on my last trip to Zurich, last month, Hertz put me behind the wheel of a 147 and I found that the reality was just as good as the memories. I had noticed that they also had the GT on fleet, and so was very keen to try one. Now was my chance, and I grabbed it.
The GT is one of a pair of Alfa models conceived to replace the 916 series GTV. The other, the Brera, is the more costly of the two, and is positioned more as a sports car, leaving the GT to provide an option to those who in the past would have chosen a Ford Capri or a Vauxhall Calibra, both cars which combined coupe style with enough practicality to cope with family needs as well. The GT was first to market, launched at the 2003 Geneva Show, with production starting late in that year. Very obviously an Alfa from its appearance, this was a stand-alone design from Bertone, as opposed to being a coupe version of the regular saloons and hatches. Under the skin, it shares much with the 156, based on an updated version of that car’s platform, but with a number of changes including stiffer anti-roll bars, revised dampers and, interestingly, softer springs. The GT bears the same internal code – type 937 – as the 147 hatch and some of the visible body panels, such as the front wings and bonnet are shared with the GTA version of that model and a number of less visible items including the firewall, steering column, climate control, pedal box and much of the dashboard are also from the 147. A range of 4 and 6 cylinder petrol engines and a 4 cylinder diesel were offered from launch, and there have only been relatively minor changes as well as some additional trim versions added to the range since then.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the test car had Alfa’s 1.9 JTD engine, the same unit as was fitted in the 147 I drove a few weeks earlier. It develops 148 bhp, and comes coupled to a 6 speed gearbox. This car had done more miles than the 147 so it may be that the engine was freed up better, and it does have an extra 10 bhp compared to its installation in the 147, though the car itself is actually heavier. It certainly felt more willing and eager, smooth in operation and with near seamless torque from 1500 to 4500 rpm. It lacks the distinctive Alfa sound that you get with such classics as the Twin Spark petrol engines, of course, but the noise it makes is not unpleasant and nor is it intrusive, and I would say to anyone who turns their nose up at the idea of a diesel-powered Alfa not to be so hasty in their judgement, as this is a cracking engine. Of great interest in this test was how the car would cope not just leaving Zurich and on the autobahn but also up in the mountains. On the autobahn, all is good. The car is quiet, and although the engine is spinning at just 2200 rpm at 70 mph, this is also the point where the full torque, all 225 lb/ft of it, is developed, so there is excellent acceleration even without having to change down a gear.
I took it up over the Klausen Pass, location of a race for the brave in the 1930s, which, like all the Alpine Passes is a good test of any car, requiring lots of low down torque as you accelerate away from the many tight hairpins, and where the gears will be used lots. Also like the 147, the gearlever here is quite long and a bit wand like, but the actual change quality is good, and the lever does slot neatly into gear, as I would find out when going between 2nd and 3rd a lot on the ascent. The only exception to this was getting into reverse, which proved surprisingly stiff. Again overall this was better here than in that 147. The torque characteristics of the diesel were perfect for this sort of road, and I was also able to enjoy the other driving characteristics, notably the quick steering, just 2.2 turns from lock to lock, the good levels of grip and the good handling. The downside of that quick steering is that the turning circle is not small, so manoeuvering and turning will require more space or more back and forth than you might expect. Having owned a couple of Alfa models, I was well used to this. The brakes get a good test on roads like these, too, and those of this Alfa were not found wanting. What impressed me even more was that even though this was a truly sporty car to drive, it also ticked all the liveability boxes. It rode well, and noise levels were low, important attributes for the daily commute. Like many coupe designs, visibility can be a challenge. The rear window is quite steeply angled, so you cannot see the back of the car, but the tail is fairly short beyond the base of the rear window. Perhaps of more concern was the over-the-shoulder view which was not good, meaning care was required at oblique junctions.
There are revised instrument graphics, with a plenty of red featuring, and a different texture to the main moulding, but otherwise the dashboard is essentially the same as you will find in a 147, and that is generally no bad thing. There is a chunky leather-wrapped steering wheel which was pleasant to hold. Combine that with the metallised gear knob, the use of metal-effect inlays around the gearlever and outer air vents, along with the drilled pedals and the use of two colours for the leather on the seats and the door casings and the interior looks like something special. The instruments are presented in a single group under a curved binnacle, with two larger dials for the speedometer and rev counter mounted so their top is lower than the central pair of water temperature and fuel gauge which sit between them and above the trip computer display area. The dials are clearly marked with lots of red colouring. There are chunky column stalks for the indicators, wipers and lights. The steering column boss has audio repeater and cruise control buttons. There is what looks almost like a separate pod high in the centre of the dash with air vents in it, much as was fitted to late model 156s. Beneath this is the audio unit, which has some very small buttons on it, which required real precision to operate – they really were too small even for my one-time pianist’s fingers. Two pop-out cup holders sit below this and then at the base of the central are of the dash are the three dials for the climate control. Although these look to be of rotary type, you press buttons which are set within them, again a bit fiddly. The quality of the materials used and the way they all fitted together was good.
The seats were leather trimmed, with a combination of black outer and a sort of off-white/pale grey inner portion and some nice stitching. The leather is of good quality and looks as pleasing as it was to sit on. Seat adjustment was all manual, with a bar under the cushion for fore/aft and levers on the side for backrest angle and seat height, and a lumbar adjuster also featured, a nice touch. There is a telescoping steering column. I found it easy to get comfortable, with no evidence of the traditional Italian driving position issues that some still complain about. But then I do have relatively long arms and short legs, so I am of Italianate proportions. The seat was very comfortable, though I do wonder if I were of larger build whether I would say the same thing.
You don’t buy a coupe if space in the back seats is a high priority, but as I found out when I had my GTV, there are times when you do want to carry adults there, and this can be where the limitations imposed by the stylish body become all too apparent. Alfa’s solution to this, so typically Italian, of course, was to produce two completely different coupe models, the Brera, where rear space really is at a premium and the GT where there really is enough space for two adults to sit and not feel unduly cramped. For sure, you will need a certain athleticism to get in, with the usual small gap between the door pillar and the folded forward front seat backrest, but once in, there is actually quite generous space. For two. There is a third belt, but the middle occupant would get a rather harder central section rather than the buckets on either side, and there is a notable, though quite narrow central tunnel which would require the legs to be placed astride. Better to use the central drop down armrest to increase the comfort for the two occupants here.
The GT’s boot is also far more accommodating that of the Brera, and is good for this class of car. It is deep from top to bottom, and a nice regular shape. The boot floor is lower than the base of the tailgate, so getting heavy items out would require you to lift them. There is a ski hatch in the rear seats and they also fold down. They are asymmetrically split and simply drop down onto the rear seat cushions, giving a lengthy and almost flat load platform. Inside the passenger compartment, there is a reasonable sized glovebox, some rather narrow but quite long pockets on the doors, a lidded area in front of the gearlever and there is a small recess in the centre console between the seats as well as coin slot. Not a lot, all told, but it was enough for me.
Alfa do offer a number of different GT models, with the engine being the biggest difference between them. Petrol engines are in 140 bhp 1.8 Twin Spark (though this has not been offered in the UK) and the 165 bhp 2.0 litre JTS unit both with 4 cylinders and a 5 speed manual gearbox or the Selespeed automated manual in the 2 litre car and the top of the range is the potent 3.2 litre V6 unit with a 6 speed manual ‘box, slightly detuned from its application in the 147 and 156 GTA cars. This puts out 240 bhp, but notably, the torque from the 150 bhp 1.9 litre diesel as in my test car is slightly higher. In the UK, the 4 cylinder cars came in Turismo spec and the V6 as a Lusso. V6 models have twin exhaust pipes and larger 17″ multi-spoke alloy wheels, though spotting these will require a sharp eye. In October 2006, a Q2 version of the 1.9 diesel was introduced which added a limited slip diff to the standard spec. Standard features in all models include alloy wheels, front fog lights, power steering, a trip computer, reverse assist, dual-zone automated climate control, airbags (including ‘curtain’ airbags) with internal passenger sensors to decide remotely which airbags to deploy, heated mirrors, and cruise control, height adjustable front seats with lumbar support, plus options like seat warmers, leather interior, ten CD changer, satellite radio controls and auto wipers.
I did like this GT. To my eyes it is one of the best-looking cars of recent times. Although lacking the legendary sound of an Alfa, it went well, with the torque proving particularly useful on mountain roads and of course the diesel engine is considerably more economical than the petrols would be. It was fun to drive, as all Alfa models should be. Inside, there is a certain style, and whilst some of the ergonomics are not perhaps ideal, there was nothing that would be a deal breaker. If only our Fleet Management and Alfa UK would make their peace, this would be on the short list for my next car, due in 2008. It’s certainly a rental car I will be trying to get again.