To DIE-HARD Alfisti, the news that the 164 was to be a front-drive car was absolutely earth-shattering. Unlike the Milano that preceded it, you can't pitch the 164 into a turn and then exit in your finest power-on, opposite-lock imitation of Tazio Nuvolari. But the chassis 164 chassis is incredibly rewarding to drive. Starting with the basic platform shared with the Saab 9000, Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema, Alfa went its own way with different suspension design, chassis tuning and styling, while retaining the very best thing of the Milano, its 3.0-liter sohc V-6.
And what an engine it is. Though a little soft on torque at low rpm, the Alfa's 183-bhp V-6 climbs to its 6500-rpm redline with a vengeance, peaking at 185 lb-ft. at 4400 rpm, making truly satisfying mechanical sounds all the way up. And the gearbox, despite its recalcitrant engagement of reverse, is a joy, with a rod-actuated gearshift linkage that manages to feel mechanically direct yet operates with a light touch.
Though at 3325 lb. the Alfa is the heaviest car of the pack, it's one of the most stiffly sprung and feels as if it has the least body roll. But don't equate this firmness with a lack of suspension compliance; the 164 exhibited leechlike roadholding when negotiating the twisty parts, with near-neutral handling (no doubt helped by shifting some weight rearward with a trunk-mounted battery) and impressive grip. Nor is it so stiff that a cross-country trip would be uncomfortable. Aiding and abetting the suspension are steering and braking systems with the same enjoyable mechanical honesty that the engine and transmission exhibit.
If a sore spot exists, it's the interior or, more precisely, the driving position. One needs an extra-long set of arms and a correspondingly stubby set of legs to deal comfortably with the steering wheel and pedal locations, seemingly a trademark of Italian cars. The steering wheel, which telescopes but doesn't tilt for adjustment, obscures a large portion of the tachometer for anyone who stands more than 6ft. tall. But the seats are comfortable and properly bolstered, and the rear-seat passengers, in addition to enjoying a decent amount of space, have the niceties of pull-up sunshades and a storage box built into the shelf behind the seats.
And then there's the 164 subtle wedge shape, handsome from any angle, and looking like nothing else from the front with its distinctive triangular grille dipping into the bumper. Many of us were taken by the styling and handling, but turned off by little flaws in the interior - a sunroof that rattled in the vent position, the shoddy trap door that swings up when the console-mounted parking brake is set, the wobbly feel of the look-alike rows of buttons for the ventilation system on the dash, the electric seat-height adjustment that refused to work. But Alfa owners have always put up with the little eccentricities to enjoy the sporting attributes of their cars, and so the tradition continues.
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