Are a searing soundtrack and dramatic lines enough to justify the Alfa Romeo GTV's legendary status, or is it a case of style over substance?
by Craig Toone
photography by Andrew@justy_media
Fire up a current Aston Martin and the words power, beauty, soul illuminate to greet you in a carefully curated fashion. The same stardust is applied to something called the ECU - Emotional Control Unit - in Gaydon speak. Everyone else just calls it the key. Somehow for the apex of British automotive cool this marketing chutzpah feels cynical, a little try hard.
Yet if an Alfa Romeo was so self indulgent we’d be tripping over ourselves to praise the process. It would probably be scribed in Italian or Latin. It might even be spelt wrong but it wouldn’t matter because no car manufacturer in existence has greater reach than Alfa Romeo. You’d buy a supercar or supermini off them and never question your decision. You’d pull up at the swankiest hotel in the Italian lakes in either and still act the playboy. Mercedes-Benz? Too clinical. Ford? Lacking cachet, no matter how many Le Mans wins the GT lineage hoovers up.
I’ve never driven one, but today I’m breaking my anatra - and what a way to break it - with a GTV V6 Cup no less. I’m ready and willing to be seduced, yet I’m also not here to regurgitate the same tired, romantic notions about the Milanese firm. I cherish cars that have soul, but not at the expense of dynamics; give me a Honda NSX over a Ferrari 348 any day of the week. Such sentimentality pulls a cloud of smoke and mirrors over the truth that Giulia Quadrafoglio aside, Alfa Romeo’s of recent memory have - to use a technical term - been a bit shit.
That’s the common belief at least, fuelled by a Top Gear anarchism that’s almost worn by devotees as a badge of honour. Immediately the GTV begins its charm offensive as the evocatively wrought serpent badge whispers sweet nothings in my ear - there’s enough front here to make the prancing horses of Maranello and Stuttgart wilt. It’s hard to believe this car is over a quarter of a century old - born in 1995 as a dizygotic twin to the Fiat Coupe, the GTV shares that car's Tipo platform underpinnings. You can stop sniggering at the back, because that means fully independent rear suspension.
From there both cars rapidly went their separate ways - where the pen of Chris Bangle behind the Fiat Coupe was gripped firmly and was aggressive and decisive in it’s movement, the pencil of Enrico Fumia at Pininfarina was held lightly and glided across the paper. You instinctively acknowledge the GTV as a good looking car, but it's the subtle flourishes you only notice with prolonged exposure that makes you fall in love. Note the chiselled panel work with the soft detailing, the quad headlamps and offset number plate. The iconic tele-dial alloys, the single strip rear light cluster, the deeply cowled instruments and perfectly stitched bucket seats. Then you pop the oversized clamshell-like bonnet and become exposed to one of the most beautiful engine bays at any price. The polished chrome intake plenums and exquisitely crackled cam covers are the perfect antidote to the sea of black plastic lurking beneath the bonnets of modern sports cars.
The GTV debuted with the willing four cylinder Twin Spark engine, which was undoubtedly a sweet motor, but hopeless in a fight against the rampant, turbocharged Fiat. What everyone wanted was a version blessed with the company's iconic Busso V6. After a brief dalliance with a turbocharged 2.0L V6, which sadly sounds more exciting than the reality; it was created to satisfy a punitive Italian tax law, although it did also give birth to the fearsome 2.0L twin turbo Maserati Ghibli. Fans of the marque finally got their wish in 1998 in 3.0L, 217bhp guise. It was enough for a 0-60mph time of circa 6.7 seconds, and a 150mph top speed.
When the GTV V6 first came out, it became known as an understeering, torque steering mess if you tried to grab the car by the scruff of the neck. The Busso engine was both the cars’ star asset and Achilles Heel, given the amount of weight it plonked over the front axle - many weren’t shy about championing the four cylinder 2.0 Twin Spark as the sweeter steer. Over the models lifespan there were a couple of minor facelifts, but to us the car peaked in 2001 with the limited edition Cup model. Created to celebrate the one make GTV race series of the same name, the Cup gained a body kit which included a new factory fitted front valance, rear spoiler and side skirts, plus new vents behind the front arches. The fabulous teledial alloys came in unique titanium silver and the only colour available was exclusive 130 Alfa Rosso. All UK cars came in V6 format, and also included a myriad of small detail changes including darker centre console trim, part leather seats and a commemorative plaque. In total, 155 Rhd cars were built out of a worldwide production run of 419.
And the news about this particular Cup gets better under the skin too, for this is ‘fully sorted’ with the understeer trait addressed via a Q2 limited slip differential, uprated dampers & springs plus modern Michelin PS4 tyres. There’s also a beautiful Momo steering wheel but best of all, this particular individual car is fitted with a full, unsilenced exhaust system that permits the Busso to go full Andrea Bocelli. It takes several minutes and a millennia of grin inducing burnt hydrocarbons before the novelty of blipping the throttle at a standstill wears off.
Sadly given the links to the one make race series, the GTV isn’t suddenly transformed into a backroad savant, but it doesn’t completely deteriorate into that feared hot mess once hustled. It’s still a car that prefers to operate well within the limits of its comfort zone, rather than the limits of adhesion, hoping for a sweeping A-road over a spaghetti B. But at least that limit is now higher, more trustworthy and the car more accurate when you approach it - you know you’ve found it when the suspension starts bottoming out rather than awkwardly attempting to turn into a corner and the car decides it would much rather continue straight on…
Holme Moss is our test location for today. It's a Peak District road with two distinct personalities. Assuming you’re heading south, the climb to the summit is a true test of tyre and torque due to the punishing gradient and Guitar Hero stream of tight corners. It feels like a wide hill climb circuit and there's little wonder it's used in the British leg of the Tour de France. Here the GTV feels all at sea because you get sucked into driving the road and not the car. The steering is too light at low speed and enforces all the willingness to change direction of a sundial, despite its 2.2 turns lock to lock. The basic control weights are all over the place - the clutch is hee-man heavy yet the gearbox is light and delicate - and that's not in the good sense. Fragile might be a more appropriate description. Even though owner Alex has fitted a short shifter kit, there’s still no accuracy or guidance from the lever as you try and slot home a new ratio. Alex points out with a forgiving paternal smile the throw was so long beforehand going for third gear nearly always knocked the radio off.
Then there’s the brakes, which for all their touted Brembo alliance offer such little pedal feel and bite you’re increasing braking distances with every corner. In fact you’re soon coming off the throttle and coasting away some speed before calling the stoppers to task because it’s a more pleasant experience. It's clear all is not well - these are some of the worst brakes I’ve ever experienced.
Yet you’re almost prepared to forgive all sins the instant you give the famous V6 it’s head. It’s not the fastest car, although it feels good for Alex’s 230bhp claim. There is a wonderful moment of clarity around 3,000rpm when suddenly all the zings and vibrations melt away into a creamy smoothness that no turbo could hope to compensate for. There’s no sudden rampant charge to a 7,000rpm redline, just a spellbinding soundtrack that is pure Lancia Stratos with a steady gathering of momentum. Even at part throttle it somehow manages to mimic a Dino 246 GT along the Mulsanne. This engine is more than a musical instrument, it's a time machine.
Once you breach the summit, the road transforms. The descent down towards Woodhead Reservoir is fast and flowing, the gradient much shallower but it's not all plain sailing because the boggy moorlands up here are rather prone to subsiding. This amplifies the bumps you can see - and the ones you can’t - with one particular yump capable of separating tyre from tarmac if you’re brave enough.
From here you can skirt around the water before ricocheting off the Devil’s Elbow towards Glossop. Completing a loop and returning back up to the summit, the Alfa and I find our groove. Carving into corners rather than throwing the car at them, I start to appreciate the benefits of the Q2 differential and the added composure the uprated dampers bring. Noted RUSH Alfa acolyte Kotto thinks it's sacrilege this GTV is shod in Michelin and not Pirelli tyres, but he’s not a man to be reasoned with, no matter how much torque steer quelling and increased steering response the French rubber brings to the GTV’s front end. My time in the car is admittedly much shorter than I’d like, but to be honest the GTV isn’t the kind of driving device that demands you delve into the minutiae of its handling; the feelgood factor is as important as the feedback and when an engine sounds this good, it’s hard to concentrate on anything else!
Still, it’s enough to have you bemoaning the mismatched control weights again, which is such a shame because the pedals are spaced out perfectly for dancing feet. Whether you classify the woeful brakes and inconsistent controls a part of being involved in the drive - a quirk to master - or a fatal breakdown of fundamental principles is down to personal taste. There is little doubt you are forced to concentrate on every input when driving the GTV hard, even if it doesn't pose the inherent risk of an unbalanced handling TVR or widowmaker 911 - it certainly won’t soothe away a fluffed gear change with calculated electronic intervention.
Ultimately you’ll back off and find a rhythm around 7/10th’s, basking in the glory of the Busso opera. But what about the practical considerations of using the GTV on a more frequent basis or a long trip? There’s no way you could live without such a noise in your life but surely the sonic assault of an unsilenced exhaust will wear off when the sun isn’t shining and you’re stuck on the M6 at 9am on Monday morning. Then there’s the sobering thought of a cambelt service and the dwindling parts supply. The 70 litre fuel tank is at odds with a cramped boot and shoehorned into the rear seats, young children will quickly be asking “are we there yet” because their knees will be forced so close to their chests there won’t be room for their iPads.
I mention to Alex my criticisms of the car but nothing can put a dent in his ownership grin. In fact I realise we’ve all been pretty much smiling the entire time in the presence of this car. As much time is spent admiring it as driving it. At the end of the day, buying a coupe isn’t a rational decision, but a selfish one. And so is buying an Alfa Romeo. Objectively, the GTV Cup remains a difficult car to recommend because the more powerful and equally stylish 147 GTA hatch is a much wiser buy - for a smaller outlay. After today I’ve no desire to rush out and buy an Alfa Romeo, however as Alex jumps back behind the wheel and howls off into the distance, I can’t help feeling green with envy.