1998 Alfa Romeo 164 2.5 TD European Review

Vojta Dobe
by Vojta Dobe
1998 alfa romeo 164 2 5 td european review

One clever man who likes powaaah, steaks and punching people once said that you are not a real petrolhead until you’ve owned an Alfa Romeo. Seeing how Alfas are either considered terrible, unreliable crap by sane and rational people or totally revered by devoted fans, I assumed there has to be something about them. Maybe it really is that fabled “automotive soul” everyone talks about.

When I drove modern Alfas, I tended to lean towards the “they’re crap” crowd. The Mito is just a Fiat Punto that’s been made worse and more expensive, while the Giulietta can be a hoot to drive, but you want to douse it in gasoline and light on fire every time you need to use it as transportation. It’s like someone did the first 90% of development and then decided to have some chianti instead of finishing the rest. Which is probably what happened.

As usual, the fanboys say the older cars are the “real” Alfas, before the brand was ruined by someone or something (usually Fiat or GM). And with the prices of 156, 166 and even the FWD iteration of GTV from ’90s laughably low, I’ve been eying an older Alfa, preferably with the famous Busso V6 engine, for some time now. But with my tight budget not allowing for two cars at once, I always ended up going for something bigger, more comfortable and (supposedly) more reliable – like an old Mercedes E-class, Chrysler LHS, borrowed Lincoln or also-borrowed Chevy Van.

Only recently did a perfect opportunity to get an Alfa present itself. I managed to find some poor soul who was willing to give me actual money for the Chrysler and a friend of mine needed to get rid of her old Alfa as she was getting a newer one (a diesel 159 Wagon). The car in question was a 164 Super, highly optioned and from the last year of the model’s manufacture, wearing some “cosmetic flaws” (= it looks like some crazy Italian drove it around Rome for a month, drunk) and motivated by diesel.

A diesel engine kind of ruins the point of proving you are a petrolhead. Also, I hate them. I never understood why American auto enthusiasts, with their access to cheap gas and powerful engines, lust for diesel cars so much. Diesel stinks, rattles and booms, and it’s slow. It doesn’t rev, which kind of spoils the point of stick shift. Even worse, the 164 is powered by the infamous VM Motori 2.5 TD four-cylinder with one head per cylinder, well known for ruining the reliability score of Chrysler Europe when it was used in Voyagers and Cherokees.

On the other hand, the car had its merits. First of all, it was free. Second, the diesel four-cylinders tend to be quite economical, which is a welcome change after several years of pouring expensive European gas into a series of American cars while broke. And third, it’s still an Alfa from the “better times” (even though it was developed in cooperation with Fiat, Lancia and Saab), so it should be interesting at least. And fourth, as I learnt soon after being offered the car, it’s got a wooden steering wheel, which is insanely cool and in itself enough reason for me to want it.

So when the time came for me to pick up my new vehicle, I was quite excited. Save for the various press loaners with their fancy new common-rail engines and a friend’s old Mercedes W124 300D-24, I’ve never really driven a diesel manual car in a while. Also, my last four daily drivers (see above) were invariably automatics with quite powerful engines, but with totally numb steering and suspension setup for comfort. Will the Alfa feel like a someone put an old tractor engine in it? Will it have the terrible turbo-lag the old turbodiesels were known for? And can a diesel powered, Saab-and-Fiat-based Alfa show any signs of the famed Alfa Romeo soul?

The last question was answered right after I placed my bottom into the bluish-green cloth seat. Remember all those ramblings about the ape-like driving position of old Italian sportscars? The modern Alfas don’t have it. Even the 156 didn’t have it. But once you sit in the 164, you instantly feel like you’re in an old Italian movie. You instantly forget about “proper” seating position, with nearly vertical backrest and steering wheel close to your chest, and instead find a relaxed position, leaning back slightly and with the steering wheel seemingly too far in your lap and far more horizontal than you would find acceptable in a modern car.

It’s interesting how the seating position changes your attitude towards driving. While it reminds me of old Italian sports cars, it’s definitely not sporty in your classical “sit straight and focus on the apexes” way. Instead, it makes you want to drive in an Italian way. Fast and with joyful abandon instead of precision. You can just imagine yourself bombing around the Rome with a smoke in the corner of your mouth, blasting through tight streets and narrowly missing scooters and tiny Fiats. Or, sometimes, not missing them, as evidenced by the beat-up state of the car (in fact, it was scoff-free when it came to Czech Republic, but it just looks like it was driven in Rome).

The steering position is not the only part of the interior that feels alien to someone used to new cars. There’s, of course, thin body pillars and the fact that the 164, although it was the biggest Alfa of its time and quite a large vehicle by any (European) means, feels slightly cramped with its windscreen right in front of you within arm’s reach. But there are weirder bits. Its full instrumentation with a cool layout – large speedo and tach in the upper part, voltage, oil pressure, water temperature and fuel in the lower row – and crazy center panel with rows of buttons that resemble an ’80s cassette recorder. Or the power window controls, with buttons for front windows on the doors and for the rear windows on the center console.

Being an Alfa, one would expect it to break. And, stereotypically, it does. The cool buttons on the center panel work only sometimes, and the trunk button often activates the hazard lights. Or the hazard lights activate themselves. Or the trunk unlocks while driving. And the HVAC control display doesn’t work. Nor do the power locks.

But a proper Alfa should also be fragile mechanically and prone to rust, at least if you believe the popular opinions, which makes it kind of strange the most pervasive feeling from the whole car is that of robustness and solidity. It may be that my example is in better shape mechanically, but it doesn’t feel any less substantial than the same-era Mercedes E-class. And, unlike the Mercedes, it doesn’t show any signs of rust – probably the result of Alfa’s disaster with Alfasud (which was usually already rusty on the showroom floor) and its drive to prevent any similar problems in the future.

At the same time, there’s still a bit of Alfa Romeo’s sportiness differing the 164 from its siblings – the Thema, Croma and Saab 9000 (or at least people who have driven all of them say so). For someone who’s used to large American cars and old Benzes, or brand new cars with their numb electric steering racks, the Alfa’s helm is fantastically direct and full of feel. The shift action is not nearly as great, but that’s compensated by pedals perfectly laid out for heel-and-toe downshifting.

Of course, the large diesel kind of spoils the fun. It’s much smoother than one would expect from an oil-burner that’s almost two decades old compared to, say, the 1.9 TDI/66kW from VW. It has almost zero turbo lag and it pulls linearly from 1200 rpm. When driven leisurely, it’s quite a pleasant engine, but try any kind of spirited driving and you’re in for a disappointment. It’s still an old diesel, so it’s noisy, unrefined and it seems to hate revving above 3500 rpm. Also, the VM Motori four, with its four fragile cylinder heads, is prone to overheating and subsequent head failures.

Even with this in mind, I couldn’t resist taking the Alfa to our last trackday/cheap car race event, but at almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit, I was pretty scared of blowing the head gasket and never found the courage to really push the engine. Even so, the Alfa showed some pretty interesting handling. With the large and heavy diesel in the front, one would expect it to understeer like crazy. In reality, the 164 is pretty well balanced. On old winter tires, it was pretty easy to adjust it from understeer to oversteer by lifting the throttle and even throw it into pretty spectacular four-wheel slides.

The Verdict

Though it may be Saab-related and diesel-powered, the 164 is still able to give you a taste of the Alfa Romeo soul. It’s interesting to drive and, after a series of large American cars, it made me understand how US enthusiasts can consider diesel manual cars as something really cool. It also seems to be, contrary to the public opinion, quite reliable (except for electrical stuff) and it’s definitely one of the cheapest cars I’ve ever had to run. Even if I had to buy it at market value (probably $500 or so), it would be dirt cheap transportation. On the other hand, the Italian suspension and driving position, together with cool Pininfarina design, will always make me think about how cool this car would be with a proper engine – the illustrious V6 “Busso”. Since 164s with V6s are almost extinct, I’m starting to think that there’s a Busso-powered 166 in my near future. You have to have a proper Alfa, at least once, to be a proper petrolhead.

@VojtaDobes is motoring journalist from Czech Republic who previously worked for local editions of Autocar and TopGear magazines. Today, he runs his own website, www.Autickar.cz. After a failed adventure with importing classic American cars to Europe, he is utterly broke, so he drives an Alfa 164 Diesel he got for free. His previous cars included a 1988 Caprice in NYC Taxi livery, a hot-rodded Opel Diplomat, two Dodge Coronets, a Simca, a Fiat 600 and Austin Maestro. He has never owned a diesel, manual wagon.


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4 of 55 comments
  • CincyDavid CincyDavid on Jun 20, 2015

    I am attracted to the IDEA of owning an Alfa, and have looked at several used ones over the years, but it seemed like they were always bright red-faded to pink, and I just don't like bright red cars, especially 4 door cars. That, and I am afraid of reliability gremlins. In real-world North American daily driver use, I wonder how this would fare compared to an Audi or SAAB from the same era.

  • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Jun 23, 2015

    Though these were developed together, both the 9000 and the Thema seemed like larger cars to me. Was the platform stretched on those two? Or is it just styling fooling me?

    • See 1 previous
    • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Jun 23, 2015

      @krhodes1 I remember the one I checked out for sale once had a ton of space in it, green over camel leather. And the 9000 Aero had the best wheel design probably of the 80s or 90s, IMO. I am partial to the extra rare and not-for-US (overpriced by far) Thema 8.32.

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