|Ten years ago I was driving around in an Alfa GTV. Resplendent in its Tropical Green paint, this was the first car I had owned that was not a four door saloon. It replaced my much loved Alfa 164, and I had spotted it on our returned cars list when the 164’s lease was up. I was waiting to get a test drive in the recently launched Alfa 156, which at the time were on something like a 1 year lead time. Yes, really. So I ending up taking the GTV for the balance of its lease, some eighteen months, knowing that it was a far from practical car, with marginal rear seats and an even more impractical boot. Needless to say, I loved it, even though mine was only the 2.0 Twin Spark Lusso model. Most GTV owners loved their cars, even if some of them still had the odd Alfa moment to remind their owners that these cars could be a bit like the proverbial Italian mistress (mine did not!). When it became clear that the GTV would be replaced by not one, but two different cars, you could guess that the Alfisti were all salivating at the thought of what could be their next new car.First model to hit the streets, with an Italian launch in 2003, was the GT, a gorgeous four seater coupe that was based on a hybrid of the 156 and 147 platforms. However, it soon became apparent that this was the junior, but more practical, of the duo, and the high end replacement would be something that bit more exotic. Appetites had been wetted by a concept car, named Brera, that debuted at the Geneva Show in 2002, and excitement grew as it became clear that Alfa were planning to launch a production version of this car as their new high end coupe. The production model Brera, whilst retaining the overall shape and ethos of the concept car, was quite different in detail, as we found out when it made its commercial debut at the 2005 Geneva Show. Unlike the outgoing GTV and Spider, even among the afficionados, opinions about this car were somewhat mixed, with both praise and disappointment being expressed, and it has sold in relatively small numbers, meaning it is still not that common a sighting on the roads of Britain. I first sampled a Brera in early 2008, when I tested the 3.2 litre V6 model, a car about which I too had mixed feelings. When I spotted that Hertz UK had recently acquired some more Brera onto their fleet, the combination of a propitious weather forecast and the availability of a car from Hertz’ Bristol location proved too much to resist and I decided to renew my acquaintance with the model for another assessment. Unlike the previous Brera test, this time I did not get the V6 model, but the lesser powered 4 cylinder 2.2 JTS car. Given that the V6 model, saddled with the very heavy platform that was developed by Alfa and SAAB was no ball of fire, the prospects for the 4 cylinder car were not that auspicious. 185 bhp might sound like a decent output, but not when you look at the weight that these horses have to propel. The Brera did indeed prove not to be particularly brisk. Indeed, take off from rest was almost sluggish. Rev the engine hard, which certainly did not sound to be any hardship, and there was decent enough acceleration, but you really were in the upper reaches of the rev range in so doing. With the old 2.0 Twin Spark engines that would have been a real aural pleasure, as the noise from that engine, at any point in the power band from idle to the red line was one of life’s pleasures, with a glorious sound to reward every prod of the go pedal. Not so in this car, sadly, with a distinctly ordinary sound to react to your right foot.The 2. 2 JTS engine is smooth enough, but there is no fun and no joy from it, it just feels like any other mass-produced petrol engine, there to do a job. And that is a real pity. If the engine was something of a let down, then the gear change, at least, is something of an improvement over Alfa boxes of yore. Gone is the slightly vague wand like feel you got on some Alfas, and the short and stubby lever in this car slots very cleanly between the ratios, with relatively small movements in so doing. There are six forward speeds. Sixth gear is definitely a cruising ratio, making the Brera restful at motorway speeds. Fifth is not much lower geared, so there is not a whole lot of acceleration from this ratio either. Indeed, cruising is what the Brera does well, and therein lies perhaps a clue. I thought the steering was quite light, but getting back into my Audi at the end of the test persuaded me that these things are all relative, as the S6’s steering is consistently lighter. In the Brera, it is light, but not quite vague in the straight ahead position and does acquire some weighting as you turn the wheel more and more. Gone is the really quick steering with the limited number of turns from lock to lock which generated both praise and criticism on the 155 and 156, but that also means that the turning circle is not quite the challenge that it was on those cars. I found no issues with the handling, and the test weekend included a day spent up in the Brecon Beacons, on some fun roads, which were blessed with remarkably little traffic. I am sure that in extremis, it would fall foul of the deficiencies of a front wheel drive car, but for the motoring I did, it was just fine.However, the Brera does not really succeed as a fun to drive car, because the engine lets the side down. It does ride quite well, though, and it is quiet, comfortable and refined. I would forgive it a trade off in these respects for more fun, though, as, I suspect, would many prospective purchasers.There is one other serious challenge associated with driving it: visibility. The problem is over your shoulder, where the huge rear pillar means there is a massive area that you simply cannot see. Despite the decent door mirror coverage and the surprisingly good view out of quite a small and steeply angled rear window, there is a large blind area where you can see simply nothing. On the plus side, fuel economy was surprisingly good. the trip computer reported 28.9 mpg, but I had not reset it from the previous renters of the car, and if I recalculate based on the fuel I put in the Brera and the miles I drove, it comes out at 32.5 mpg. Considering the nature of the driving on a mix of motorway, A roads and the mountains, that is not a bad result.
Anyone familiar with the Alfa 159 will immediately feel at home in the cockpit of the Brera, as the two are all but identical. The inside of this test car proved to look exactly the same as that of the 3.2 V6 model I drove previously. A large dash moulding is angled to the driver, and comprises a cowled set of instruments, that are redolent of Alfas of yore, and there are dials for olio, acqua and benzina (that is how they are marked) in the centre of the dash to complement the speedo and rev counter that are in front of the driver. In between the two main dials is a display area for both information such as the trip computer functions, controlled by a button on the right hand wiper stalk, and for things like speed warning system controlled by a button the left hand indicator stalk. There is also a lower left hand stalk for the cruise control. The main lights functions are controlled by a further thumb wheel in the indicator stalk, with switches on the lower right of the dash for parking and fog lights. In the centre of the dash under the three dials is a stereo system, with large and easy to operate buttons (unlike the particularly fiddly buttoned systems that Alfa fitted a few years ago) and the dual zone climate control system.Everything is nearly presented, and the quality is an order of magnitude better than used to be the case. Dash plastics are reasonably soft and of decent quality. The centre of the dash on this car was in a dark gunmetal grey satin finish that I rather liked, and there were lighter grey aluminium effect inlays on the passenger side of the dash and the doors. Whilst Audi still have nothing to fear, it is of an ambience rather better than the Italians used to produce, and it all fitted well together with no rattles and squeaks (though the test car was brand new, with only 650 miles on the clock when I collected it). The high backed leather seats, complete with a Brera monogram in the upper part of the back rest are beautifully presented, and look and feel far nicer than almost any other comparably priced car.
Where the Brera really struggles is with practicality. If I thought the GTV had its challenges, they were nothing compared to this car. Accommodation is tight. The front seats do have a wide range of adjustments, and I was surprised to find an electric control for the seat backrest, but a manual lever to bring the seat back and forth. I would have liked to set the driver’s seat rather lower than I was able to get it. The resulting position meant that headroom was a bit marginal for me, though in all other respects, the driving position was fine, thanks to the reach and range adjustment available for the steering wheel. There are two seats in the back, separated by an oddments tray. However, with the front seat set well back, there was literally no leg room at all, and even with the front seat set well forward, as it proved to be for me, leg room was in short supply. I did get in the back, and I could just about sit “behind myself”, with just about enough head room, but taller adults would at best be not very comfortable in there, and at worst would simply not fit at all. In practical terms, then, this is a two seater.
That being the case, then luggage space is less of an issue. The boot is reasonably generous, as it is deep, and a reasonably regular shape. This is far more usable than the GTV boot. which was a real struggle, and in the Brera, the space saver lies under the boot floor. The rear seats can be folded forward, so as a two seater, there would be more than enough luggage space for the occupants. In the cabin there is a meagre glove box, some tiny door pockets, a small oddments tray and a bit of space under the central armrest for odds and ends. Again, not much for a Grand Tourer.
As a confirmed Alfista, it pains me to say that I cannot really give the thumbs up to the Brera. Whatever you think of the styling – and I think it looks tremendous from some angles, but rather gawky from others, especially side on where the wheelbase simply appears too short – it just does not really deliver on what you would want from a car like this. I’d love to say that the problems are just down to the underwhelming 2.2 JTS engine, and it is true that this power plant does not help. Alfa recently replaced this engine in the 159 models with the highly acclaimed 1750 TBi engine, and I am sure that this motor will find its way under the bonnet of the Brera. That will help, but it will not solve all the problems, I fear. There are just too many other compromises, without enough of the sense of fun that a car like this should generate. I did stop and think hard about what the alternatives might be. With a list price of just over £25,000 for this Brera, I submit that the 3 series Coupe is not really in contention, as you would need another 20% more money for the cheapest 320i.
An entry level Audi A5 is similar money to the Alfa, and its 2.0 TFSI engine has similar levels of power in another rather heavy car. However, the real problem for Alfa is the existence of the VW Scirocco. Ignoring the R model, all versions of the VW are cheaper than the Alfa, have more space in them, and most of them are more powerful, as well as being lighter. I haven’t driven one yet. Hertz UK have them, but they always appear sold out, so I need to keep on trying, but everything I read suggests that I would find it an enjoyable car. Were I in the market for a 2+2 coupe, much as I would love to have some more Cuore Sportivo, I really think I would have to head to the VW dealer for their take on coupe styling.