Alfa Romeo 164 3-0 V6 Super

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Description: Giant test - Alfa Romeo 164 3.0 V6 Super vs BMW 530i E34 and Volvo 850 T5 Turbo. The sports saloon market is hotting up. As well as improved cars from...

Giant test - Alfa Romeo 164 3.0 V6 Super vs BMW 530i E34 and Volvo 850 T5 Turbo. The sports saloon market is hotting up. As well as improved cars from Alfa Romeo and BMW, there’s an unlikely turbo contender from Volvo. Photographs by Tim Andrew. Ever since its introduction in 1988, the 5-series BMW has been the sporting saloon that other manufacturers have been trying to beat. Their task has been made even harder of late the Bavarians have fitted their successful mid-ranger with a compact and neat V8 powerplant - in displacements of 3.0 M60 and 4.0 litres M60 - to replace the old straight-six, which continues only in 2.0- and 2.5-litre forms. On paper, at least, a desirable car has been made even more alluring.

But the executive in a hurry now has a couple of interesting, able and more affordable alternatives vying for his or her attention. Alfa Romeo revamped its 164 range at the end of 1992, and slotted the 24-valve quad-cam version of its delectable V6, complete with a power hike of 26bhp over the old Lusso, into a smoothed-up bodyshell.

The unlikeliest contender in this battle comes from Sweden. And no, it’s not a Saab. The Volvo 850. introduced at the end of 1991, elevated the Swedish maker onto a new plane - and those fun-loving Swedes have boosted their pretensions with a turbocharged version. The T-5 Turbo has also given the Swedes an excuse to tidy up the styling by fitting new headlamps, bumpers and a front spoiler.

Underlining its new aggressiveness, Volvo has pitched the T-5’s price extremely competitively. At £23,995, it undercuts the £25,400 Alfa Romeo 164 by more than £1400. Both cars are considerably cheaper than the BMW E34, which now costs £30,650. Is the blue and white spinning propeller really worth that much of a premium over this sharpened opposition?

If looks are enough to win you over, then the Alfa does the best job. In Super guise, the 164’s already sleek Pininfarina styling looks even more elegant. On most cars, larger bumpers, a new grille and the anodised strip would look clumsy, but they’re perfectly integrated.

When it slotted the V8s into the familiar 5-series shell, BMW mildly tweaked the grille and fitted a larger raised section to the bonnet. It’s not as handsome as the Alfa, but it’s still a very good-looking machine that has a muscular, purposeful stance, thanks to BBS-like alloys shod with 225- section tyres - the hunkiest footwear of the three here.

Against these two, the Volvo is onto a loser in the styling stakes. There’s little doubt that the T-5’s 16in five- spoke alloy wheels and neat rear spoiler give it more visual impact than the standard 850, but it still retains the firm’s bland and boxy corporate style. It looks different, but then so does an anteater.

All three cars offer distinctly different powertrains and chassis. The Alfa uses the latest quad-cam 24-valve 3.0-litre version of the company’s long-lived V6, which has to be one of the most appealing engines to look at. The 210 horses are developed at 6300rpm, and maximum torque of 200Ib ft arrives at a relatively giddy 5000rpm. The engine is mounted transversely, and drives the front wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox. Suspension is by MacPherson struts all round, located at the front by lower wishbones, and at the back by radius arms and transverse links.

BMW’s V8 has clearly beer ‘designed’ to look good underneath the 530i’s bonne- but it appears bland alongside the Alfa’s sculpted powerplant. In its smallest form, the quad-cam 32-valve V8 displaces 3.0 litres, and delivers its 218bhp at 5800rpm, while 214lb ft of torque arrives at 4500rpm. t sits longitudinally, driving the rear wheels through a five-speed box. Suspension is by double wishbones up front, aided by an anti-roll bar, and by BMW's sophisticated multi-link/trailing arm arrangement at the back.

For its most sporting car yet, Volvo has opted to turbocharge its excellent five- cylinder 20-valve powerplant. In this incarnation, capacity is reduced from 2435cc to 2319cc by using a smaller (81mm) bore. This engine is mounted transversely, and drives the front wheels. It’s the most powerful of the trio, producing 225bhp at 5300rpm and 221 lb ft between 2000rpm and 5200rpm. MacPherson struts and an anti-roll bar are employed at the front, while at the rear Volvo’s ‘Delta link’ trailing arm set-up incorporates a measure of rear-wheel steer.

In the real world, where tyre-smoking starts attract the wrong sort of attention and irritate the locals, ability from rest is far less important than overtaking potency. On the latter score, the Volvo is awesome, putting in fourth-gear acceleration figures that rival those of several supercars, let alone the BMW and Alfa, which only narrow the gap above 80mph. From a standing start, the Volvo is also fastest.

Volvo 850 has plenty of grip, and body roll kept in check. Strong power can induce wheelspin in slower bends.

In practice, the Volvo’s flat- looking torque curve has a bit of peakiness about it, the five-cylinder seeming to come on stronger beyond 3500rpm. However, because this turbo installation is so good, it passes for mild camminess, no more. Below 2000rpm, it's as recalcitrant as a five-year- old whose trip to the toy shop has just been cancelled, but once the five is revving, the Volvo is seriously quick. It makes a good noise, too, growling away in a gruff and businesslike manner.

The most enjoyable engine of the three is the Alfa’s, which makes the kind of throaty rasp and creamy wail you thought had been banned by the fun police. It also revs itself seemingly to death, the tacho needle whizzing around in suicidal fashion from the low threes to the 7000rpm ignition cut-out.

It’s not as rapid - either off the mark or in the gears - as the Volvo, but its fine midrange muscle provides very strong urge, and it was the fastest all-out of the trio.

The BMW’s V8 is the least impressive of the powerplants on offer here, but that’s a bit like saying that a Canaletto isn’t as good as a Matisse.

The 530i is a brisk performer, - and a distinctive one, too. This motor doesn’t really sound like a V8, its high- pitched yet muted growl turning into a bit of a whine as you extend it towards the 6600rpm red line. Low down, its responses are flaccid, but once you’re into the threes it pulls strongly. Whether the new engine is an advance over the old six-cylinder unit is debatable, though.

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