Looking at a classic car through a modern lens shows the advancements over the years along with some of the things we’ve lost in the name of progress.
Let it be known from the outset that I am an unabashed Alfa Romeo admirer, and have owned numerous examples over the years. While my personal motoring history is also littered with Toyotas, Suzukis, VWs, Audis, BMWs and even a Jeep, my heart really still yearns for a temptress from Milan.
I’ve never before had the privilege of driving a modern GTV, however. I came close on several occasions, having had some time behind the wheels of both an early-1980s GTV 6 2.5 (precursor to this article’s subject) and an early-2000s GT V6, but have never experienced the GTV V6’s final evolution before this vivid red example showed up in my driveway.
Join me on this journey back to the 1990s, to experience what exotic motoring was all about when even mainstream cars still had distinct personalities and quirks. We’ll look at this model’s history, consider how well a 916 Alfa GTV would serve you as a driveable classic in modern conditions, and whether there are things to consider if you’re planning to buy an Alfa Romeo GTV of this era today.
The Alfa GTV lineage - How they fit together
Initially devised as the designation for the speediest (Veloce) variants of Alfa Romeo’s GT coupe, the “GT” and “Veloce” names were soon melded together to become one of Alfa’s most-revered nameplates: GTV. In one form or another, the GTV moniker has been applied to sporting Alfa coupes for many decades, having first appeared on the Type 105 Giulia Sprint in 1965.
When the Giulia model range was finally replaced by the Type 116 Alfetta in 1976, the GTV badge migrated to the sleek new-generation coupe body, and the introduction of the now-legendary 2.5-litre “Busso” V6 in 1980 added a “6” to the GTV label for the first time. South Africa played a significant role in the Busso V6’s evolution, because the firm’s local assembly plant developed the first 3.0-litre production version of the 12-valve SOHC engine for use in the Group One racing formula.
This early, Autodelta-derived 3.0 V6 engine had a different bore and stroke to the later versions, however, undoubtedly making the 212 unique Type 116 GTV 6 3.0 homologation specials built in Brits between 1984 and 1985 the most sought-after OEM GTV V6s of all time.
The second-generation Alfa GTV was offered internationally until 1987, before taking a break from the market after the Alfetta-based coupe was finally discontinued. The V6 remained available in the Alfa 75, 90 and 164 however, even though we never saw those models on local soil.
Fiat genes inserted into Alfa Romeo DNA
Due to chronic labour issues and an outdated model line, Fiat took over an embattled Alfa Romeo in 1986. This soon led to the entire Alfa Romeo model range moving over to front-wheel drive Fiat platforms, but, because Alfa still exclusively featured their own engines at that stage, the Busso V6 was re-engineered for FWD applications.
The purists weren’t happy about this switch in drive wheels for Alfa’s mainstream models, though. Alfa itself was also very conscious of the brand value attached to the GTV label, so the hallowed badge was put on the shelf until a worthy recipient could be devised in due course.
The 916 GTV V6 carried the flame of its ancestors
This successor finally arrived in 1994 in the form of the Type 916 GTV (coupe) and Spider (roadster). At its entry level, the 916 GTV featured Alfa’s then-new 16V Twin Spark 4-cylinder engine, but the halo models eventually employed the Busso V6 in its ultimate forms. The Spider could be had with the old 12V V6 from the outset, but GTV V6 3.0 only arrived with the upgraded 24V engine (162 kW/270 Nm) in 1997. This engine was stretched to 3.2-litres with 177 kW and 289 Nm for the Type 916’s final facelift in 2003.
Cognisant of the requirements of their traditional GTV clientele and with the weight of heritage on their shoulders, Alfa Romeo’s engineers put an extraordinary amount of effort into the Type 916’s development. They were required to base their new coupe on the compact Fiat “Tipo Due” platform already in use under the 145, 146, and 155 (along with a brace of rather unexceptional Fiats and Lancias), but they still wanted to include truly inspiring dynamic prowess to help their newcomer earn its revered name.
Turning a family Fiat into a worthy GTV wasn’t easy
All-wheel drive (as used in the Lancia Integrale-derived 155 Q4) was out of the question due to space-, cost- and weight concerns, and engineering a stand-alone RWD platform was out of the question. On top of the need for a new GTV, Alfa also needed to replace the then-30-year-old Spider, so they decided to develop the new GTV and Spider as one project. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Alfa then went all-out to make this FWD platform as capable and entertaining as possible.
The Tipo Due chassis was reworked with a much more rigid body structure to improve driving precision, an increased front caster angle to add steering feel and stability, and a quick-ratio steering setup (about 2 turns lock-to-lock) to sharpen the new car’s responses.
They also designed a unique multi-link rear suspension, which turned out to be an evolutionary dead end that was used only in these two models. This fancy rear axle didn’t feature in any subsequent Alfa or Fiat Group product, because it sacrificed a lot of cabin- and luggage space on the altar of exceptional handling balance, but it did endow the GTV and Spider with splendid on-road behaviour.
The front-end modifications did make their way to other Alfas in due course, however, and went a long way towards breathing life into the hitherto lackluster dynamics of the 145/146 and 155 after their eventual facelifts.
Radical in its time, understated and classy today
This mechanical wizardry was wrapped in a radical wedge-shaped body, styled by Pininfarina and refined by Walter de Silva. The front end featured the classic Alfa Romeo shield grille as its focal point, the side view was dominated by a pronounced crease that sloped up from the front bumper to the C-pillar’s base, and the truncated tail combined with a wide track to create a purposeful appearance from all angles.
At the time of its arrival, that side crease was a bone of contention among pundits, but it successfully withstood the test of time and even looks graceful and understated in today’s world of exaggerated swoops, bumps, and scallops. This is perhaps because there are no other gimmicks in the styling or surface treatments, and because the GTV’s forward-thrusting proportions suggest forward motion even at a standstill.
Driving the 916 GTV with the benefit of hindsight
The engineers’ hard work to develop and calibrate a bespoke suspension system certainly paid off in the 916’s driving experience. At the time of its launch, the GTV and Spider were lauded for their exceptional dynamic balance, responsive steering, and predictable handling. This still holds true three decades later, even after extensive exposure to the best on offer in modern motoring.
It must be remembered that, by the time the 916 was conceived, Alfa had already acquired decades of expertise in developing “wrong-wheel drive” cars with sparkling dynamics. Starting with the immortal 1971 Alfasud, which is still regarded as one of the best-handling FWD platforms ever made, purpose-built FWD Alfas were always a cut above the herd.
This expertise, combined with its painstaking development, endowed the 916 platform with driving thrills which rewrote the rulebook for FWD cars of its era. It remained unsurpassed until other makers of powerful FWD machines started adding limited-slip differentials and electronic torque vectoring to their hardware. But, even then, those modern newcomers barely beat the 916’s cornering ability, which was achieved without any such add-ons.
The chassis is downright stunning, even compared to modern cars
How good is the 916 GTV in the modern world? Well, the hydraulically-assisted steering can still be counted as exceptionally responsive, communicative and precise, especially in the comparison to the majority of electrically-assisted systems we have today. There’s no slack or delay on initial turn-in, the steering effort builds linearly in line with the questions asked from the front rubber, and understeer and torque steer are banished in all conditions except full-throttle applications in the lowest two gears.
The handling balance is also spot-on and accessible even to drivers of only moderate ability, and will make any enthusiast feel like a hero after tackling a series of bends with gusto. Turn-in is immediate and there is grip aplenty, and the steering wheel and body motions clearly telegraph the car’s intentions in transient maneuvers. The lighter twin-spark 4-cylinder GTV is said to be even more crisp in this regard, but even that heavy V6 way out in front doesn’t really detract from the 916’s overall balance.
Nasty surprises such as lift-off oversteer, which could be problematic in most FWD cars, are completely absent, with sudden mid-corner throttle lifts merely tightening the car’s trajectory. And, when the grip limits have been reached, the level of stability and cooperation from the chassis verges on the supernatural. In terms of dynamic behaviour, this 30-year-old Alfa can still mix it with the best on offer in the modern landscape - and probably teach them a thing or two, if shod with comparable rubber.
The Busso V6 oozes charisma
The powertrain is also very special, especially in comparison to the downsized engines and dual-clutch gearboxes to which we’ve grown accustomed. In the GTV V6, the driver needs to work with the engine to extract its best effort, and falling into a rhythm with the rise and fall of the rev counter is rewarding in a manner you simply can’t find anywhere anymore.
Forget about instant torque at low revs, because this V6 thrives on high RPMs. It obviously also helps that the Busso V6 sounds best when it is wrung out to its 7 000 r/min redline, emitting a howling soundtrack that invariably makes its driver smile. The noise alone makes the effort of extracting the most from this legendary V6 worthwhile.
Stirring the gearbox to prod the engine to life isn’t any hardship, either, because the clutch take-up is progressive and the gear selection of the 6-speed manual gearbox is surprisingly easy for an old Alfa. Given its inevitable shift quality degradation due to pure old age wearing out the selector bushes, the gearchange in this car was pretty good, even if not up to Honda standards, and imparted a wonderfully mechanical feel to the proceedings.
In traffic, the 916 GTV V6 still feels quite at home, and offers something we’ve now almost forgotten once existed: A good view from the driver’s seat. When it was new, the GTV was often slated for its compromised outward visibility due to its high tail and low windscreen header, but in comparison to today’s cars with their thick roof pillars and gunslit side windows, this Alfa offers an exceptional view to the outside.
You do sit very low in the beautiful bucket seats, however, and this could make heavy traffic polluted with hordes of SUVs a somewhat intimidating prospect. It doesn’t really help that the 916 is a small car with a very low seating position by modern standards, either, but this problem is prevalent in the newest sports cars as well. If one can get past the fear of literally being overlooked by a distracted soccer mom in her big SUV, the GTV will be easy enough to drive.
Practicality is a different matter altogether, however. Thanks to its low roofline and long doors, entry and egress in confined spaces can be challenging, and the rear seats are entirely useless except as extra storage space. You will need that added storage space too, because the door pockets are tiny and awkwardly-shaped, general oddment space is almost non-existent, and the glove box has exactly that: Space for one glove.
And that is without even mentioning the idiosyncratic arrangement of some secondary controls. While the indicators, lights, wipers, and ventilation controls are quite in line with modern norms, the luggage compartment can only be opened via a tiny pushbutton hidden on the roof of the glove box. The trunk itself is tiny, because that trick rear suspension eats up much of the available space.
Meanwhile, the bonnet release is hidden away next to the steering column in a spot where you’ll need a torch, a full instruction manual and one very slim, quadruple-jointed finger to release it. Bleeding knuckles can be expected if this usually simple task is attempted without proper preparation. These are all “classic Alfa Romeo” oddities, though, and add to the GTV’s exotic charm.
Should you buy a used Alfa Romeo GTV?
If you love driving and can’t resist the attraction of one of the most melodious engines ever created, you will adore the Type 916 Alfa GTV. There are some practical issues to consider, however, and those relate mainly to this model’s rarity. Fewer than 42 000 GTVs were made in this generation, and only a fraction of those came to South Africa. This means that accident and body repairs will be costly, with parts that are difficult to find and very expensive to buy because every exterior component is unique to the GTV and Spider.
The Busso V6 is also highly specialised, and, while it doesn’t suffer from serious design flaws, it needs rigorous maintenance to remain reliable. The key component here is the cambelt and its tensioners, which should be replaced every 3 years or 50 000 km, whichever comes first. Failure to do so will result in pistons and valves kissing, which can easily destroy the engine and thus send an otherwise good car to the breaker’s yard.
The cambelt kit costs around R 7 000 at today’s prices, but good preventative maintenance practices for this engine dictate that the coolant pump and various oil seals should ideally be replaced at the same time, which will easily add another R 3 000 to the parts bill. And, because the engine is such a tight fit under that sleek bonnet, this operation requires the engine to be removed, which will entail at least 8 hours of labour. General serviceability is also poor due to restricted access, and replacing the rear bank of spark plugs will entail removing a section of the intake manifold.
Old age will also bring other issues to the fore, such as the front suspension’s control arms often needing renewal due to their rubber bushings perishing with time. The parts alone for this will likely run past R 4 000, along with 4 hours of labour to install. And, this being an Alfa, be sure that some special tools and tricks will be needed, so home mechanics need not apply - unless they have a penchant for self-mutilation.
Would an Alfa Romeo GTV be a good investment?
A solid Type 916 Alfa Romeo GTV V6 with a watertight service history can currently be bought in South Africa for around R 180 000. Such a car will have its suspension issues addressed already, and will also boast a fresh cambelt at that price. A running GTV V6 in need of some maintenance work should only cost about R 60 000, though, so buying a slightly neglected one and then spending as much again on the needed repairs will still make sense. Just ensure that it is checked by an independent expert before buying, as hidden defects could potentially run that restoration bill way beyond the car’s market value.
Unfortunately, due to the costly maintenance often being deferred, many otherwise sound GTVs have come to premature ends in the hands of careless owners. This means that the value of survivors is already climbing, and this trend will only continue as the attrition rate of poorly-maintained examples increases.
Seen in this light, the Type 916 Alfa GTV V6 could be a good long-term proposition for a dedicated owner. Its value is likely to appreciate, and it could consequently be a sound investment, provided its owner accepts that it will cost a bomb to maintain that appreciating value.
If you like the style and dynamics of the GTV (or its equivalent Spider) but don’t want to spend a fortune on maintenance, a 2.0 Twin Spark will give you 80% of the joy for about 50% of the entry price, and will be a lot easier and less expensive to run. However, a 4-cylinder GTV or Spider simply isn’t as desirable as one with the V6, so those variants are also less likely to appreciate in value over time.
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