Review and road test of the Alfa Romeo 146 (1995 - 2000)
PASSION, WITH PRACTICALITY
BY JONATHAN CROUCH
Alfa Romeo's five-door 146 introduced Italian flair and elegant, flowing lines to a family car market, that had previously expected only practicality. As the direct successor to the company's 33 range, the 146 was further evidence of Alfa's rebirth as a maker of sensible yet, still characterful cars.
The 146 first appeared in May 1995, offering buyers a wide choice of four-cylinder engines. These were initially the traditional 'boxer' style, carried over from the 33. Later, powerful 'Twin Spark' units arrived; offering better refinement and performance.
For the used buyer, any of these cars makes an interesting and sensible buy, particularly when you consider the vastly improved quality and reliability compared to older Alfa products.
Models Covered:146 - MAY 1995 TO DATE [1.6, 1.6L, 1.6 TWIN SPARK, 1.7 16V, 1.8 TWIN SPARK, 2.0 TI]
The 146 arrived to a considerable build up of interest. Many buyers who loved the 145's looks, but needed a five-door car had eagerly awaited the new arrival.
Though mechanically identical to the 145, the styling of this new family car was, like the supposed tastes of its targeted buyers, a little more conservative. Engines and model names were identical to the 145, initially, with only 1.6 and 16-valve1.7-litre 'boxer' engines available.
At the start of 1996, however, Alfa released what many consider to be the definitive version, the 146ti, which gained the 2.0-litre, 16-valve Twin Spark engine from the bigger 155 executive saloon. (Incidentally, 145s with this engine are called 'Cloverleaf').
In March 1997, the old 1.6 and 1.7-litre 'boxer' engines, whose origins could be traced to the Alfasud of the early '70s, were at last, laid to rest. Their 1.6 and 1.8-litre replacements featured Alfa's trademark system of two sparkplugs for each of the four cylinders. Both these 16-valve units are closely related to the bigger 2.0-litre engines, which remained unchanged in the ti flagship.
The last round of 146 changes came in May 1999 when the car received a new nose section and slight equipment revisions. The 146 was replaced by the all-new 147 early in 2000.
What You Get
Roominess is what family car buyers traditionally look for and the 146 is by no means disgraced by its competitors. To show how determined the 146's designers were to ensure adequate space, they placed the split-folding rear bench lower than in the 145 in order to increase headroom.
Other practicalities include capacious luggage space, reasonable economy and, thank goodness, a driving position that doesn't require you to be a gawky Italian (long legs and short arms) as on Milanese models of not so distant memory.
There's also plenty of equipment. Power steering, electric front windows, an engine immobiliser, central locking and a driver's airbag are standard on virtually every model.
What to Look For
There are one or two unusual areas of concern with these cars. Check with the seller that the car has had its driver's-side airbag checked by a dealer. Both 145 and 146 were recalled after several reported cases of random inflation.
The first 1.6 and 1.7-litre cars encouraged a driving style in which enthusiastic revving of the engine was often needed to keep things moving along. For this reason, some examples may have suffered at the hands of drivers fancying themselves as Fangio on the Mille Miglia.
Owners of these boxer-engined cars also ignore service intervals at their peril. Though largely reliable units, the 1.6 and 1.7-litre motors will almost certainly have a short life if oil changes have been neglected. The later Twin Spark units are more modern and more dependable, if you get a car with a full service history, there should be few problems.
Check under the engine filler cap and dipstick - the colour and texture of the oil should never be black or show signs of sludge build-up and the exhaust should, naturally, be smoke-free at idle.
(approx based on a 146 1.8 TS) A clutch assembly will be around £127, while the rear section of the exhaust system should be just under £230. An alternator will be about £199 and a replacement headlamp is close to £119. Major servicing is needed every 60,000 miles.
On the Road
When Alfa came to develop the 1.6 and 1.8-litre 'Twin Spark' engines for the revised 146, refinement was given priority over resonance. Even the `Alfisti` (enthusiasts) admit that these powerplants were more universally acceptable as well as being cleaner, smoother and more powerful than their predecessors. All the engines available show off the impressive handling abilities of the cars, which have also been combined with a compliant ride. The seats are particularly well designed in the 146, offering both comfort and support.
Stylish and sensible, roomy and reliable. The current Alfa renaissance has a lot to do with the impressive reputation of the 146.
Alfa Romeo 146 (1995 - 2000) review by JONATHAN CROUCH