Motoring / Road Test: First-rate engine and styling are marred by a hard, cramped ride

ALFA ROMEO's assets include a history studded with wonderful cars, famous victories and illustrious names. But a glorious past is not the same as a successful present. Alfa was struggling to survive until Fiat, Italy's omnivorous industrial giant, gained control five years ago. The company must now convince potential customers that today's cars are not just Fiat clones.

There is no apparent trace of Fiat in the 164 range of elegant and well-equipped saloons whose prices start at pounds 16,850 for the 2.0-litre version. The recently revised line-up's top model has a 3.0-litre engine, costs pounds 28,100 and is called the Cloverleaf. What appears to be a strange name for a car is explained by the emblem first seen on a high-performance Alfa in the Twenties.

The Cloverleaf's smooth, snarling V6 has always been regarded as a truly great engine. All of pounds 25m has been spent to make it even better, the most notable improvement being the change from two to four valves per cylinder, which can be likened to giving an athlete bigger lungs. More efficient breathing helps to account for the 15 per cent power increase that gives the driver of this eye-catching and high-spirited car 230bhp to play with. The engine sings like a tenor at La Scala, looks beautiful, and makes the 164 Cloverleaf one of the world's swiftest saloons.

However, that is a lot of power to feed through the front tyres. Hard acceleration can make the steering wheel twitch, notably on wet roads. What the 164 Cloverleaf needs is a traction-control system as efficient as the one that tames the Cadillac STS's much bigger engine.

Long journeys focus attention on the comfortable front seats, which combine leather upholstery with the convenience of push-button adjustments. But the rear compartment only just passes muster in terms of space for adults. I would not want to travel very far sitting behind a tall, long-legged driver. Although the boot swallows a lot of luggage, heavy items have to be lifted over a high sill.

Clear labels have improved what used to be a cluttered dashboard. But do we need more than a dozen controls, clustered in a two-tier console, to operate the air-conditioning and ventilation systems?

Heated door mirrors are expensive and vulnerable. Thoughtful features include a button that swivels them flush with the windows, effectively reducing the car's width by several inches. The comprehensive specification also provides alloy wheels, anti-lock braking, an anti-theft system, and a compact-disc player, but does not include cruise control.

Efficient suspension and big Pirelli P700-Z tyres give this powerful Alfa the sort of agility and grip you expect from such a high-spirited saloon. But the automatic suspension-control system that should complement the Cloverleaf's character is this vigorous car's least satisfactory feature. The 'auto' setting gives a distinctly firm ride on anything other than surfaces as smooth as the cheeks of an alabaster angel. It should be far softer. Switching to the 'sport' model prompts jokes about being able to tell whether the coin that you have just run over was heads or tails.

The 210bhp 164 Super is the alternative if you want the big Alfa's considerable appeal and a more refined ride. It is not much slower than the Cloverleaf, shares most of its equipment and costs pounds 3,000 less.

SPECIFICATIONS

Alfa Romeo 164 Cloverleaf, pounds 28,100. Six-cylinder, 3.0-litre engine producing 230bhp at 6,300rpm. Five-speed manual gearbox. Maximum speed 152mph, 0-60mph in 7.6 seconds. Average fuel consumption 26.4mpg.

COMPARISONS

Audi 100 2.8E Quattro, pounds 25,960. A worthy contender at an attractive price. Permanent four-wheel drive can be a life-saver. Lacks the Alfa 164's character and pace, but should hold its price better.

BMW 525i Sport, pounds 28,325. A front-runner in one of the world's most accomplished saloon car ranges. Excellent build quality and elegant styling complement smooth, strong performance from an engine that is very good, but not quite as inspirational as the Alfa's V6.

Ford Scorpio 2.9-24V, pounds 27,175. Leather upholstery adds pounds 600 to the price of Ford's flagship, which is vastly improved by the 24-valve, 195bhp V6 engine. Staid, dated styling belies a car that has a distinctly sporting character.

Jaguar 4.0, pounds 28,950. Few big cars can match Jaguar's very British blend of class, refinement and quiet, smooth-riding performance. The 4.0-litre is less exhilarating than the 164 Cloverleaf, but not much slower in a straight line.

(Photograph omitted)

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