Alfa Romeo Brera Prodrive S. What happens when your Italian sports-car just isn’t sporty? Dial Prodrive. But did they rescue the Brera? Hard-drive Brit-developed coupe goes home. Does Slough to Banbury sound like a fun road trip? Not really – unless you go via the Cotswolds and do it in the driver’s seat of an Alfa Brera Prodrive. Words Nathan Chadwick. Photography Adam Shorrock.
Brera of good news. Built by Italians, honed by the Brits – Alfa Romeo Brera Prodrive.
Any Alfa Romeo coupé has a lot to live up to. Indeed, any new Alfa V6 has to be something special to match up to Giuseppe Busso’s chromed intake marvel. Unfortunately, the 2005 Brera didn’t quite do the business on either front. Giorgetto Giugiaro’s 2002 Geneva Motor Show Concept had a 400bhp Maserati V8 and RWD. The production car shared half its platform with the FWD / 4WD 159 and its V6 was half Holden. Cue lots of disappointment and ripped-up deposits.
The Brera wasn’t a bad car, but it was more relaxing GT than Alfisti-approved sportster, so Alfa Romeo UK’s head of marketing asked motorsport engineering specialist Prodrive to apply its genius to the Brera’s chassis. The Brera Prodrive project took one year and £1m, and created 250 2.2-litre fours and 250 3.2-litre V6s.
Ten years on from its launch, we’re taking one of the V6s from Alfa’s UK base in Slough to Prodrive’s Banbury HQ. Was it all worth it? Is it a proper sporty Alfa? Let’s take in some of the UK’s finest rural asphalt to find out.
This Brera certainly lives up to Another Alfa pre-requisite – stunning looks. The dismal gloom of Slough in the grim midwinter would make any car sexy, but the aggressive yet also sensuous Brera parked in front of Alfa UK’s HQ really is a looker.
From any angle there’s always something intriguing going on, from the SZ-aping six-headlight array to the steeply-raked nose that gives way to an elegant wraparound bodyline. The rear is the opposite of the front, a truly voluptuous behind to which Brazilian glamour models can only aspire. It’s all cohesive, exciting, enticing – and with Prodrive’s 10mm suspension drop, tantalisingly sporty.
That’s something you couldn’t really say of the original Brera. Alfa’s product benchmarking had shifted from the sporty stylings of BMW to the colder but more premium quality of Audi. The Brera and 159 were designed to be sturdier, better built and safer than any other Alfa, which is obviously great, but the trade-off for this new breed of Alfa was a reduction in dynamic flair. Journalists took a pop at the cars for being heavy, though in fact the Alfas were competitive.
The problem lies with the engines. Leaving aside the diesels for a minute, the early Breras had either a 2.2-litre four-cylinder or a 3.2-litre V6, and Prodrive didn’t change the outputs so it’s important to make a good decision Prodrive insiders prefer the handling purity of the lighter, 185bhp four-cylinder, but like last month’s Focus ST170, the 2.2’s gears are long and the engine’s not in a great deal of a hurry to get through the rev range. Nor is it particularly quick.
So we’ve plumped for the 3.2-litre V6. This engine is a long way from the beloved Busso engine: it’s actually a GM Holden unit, with some revisions from Alfa. The 89mm bore, 85.6 mm stroke and chain-driven camshafts are stock Holden, the Italians adding variable valve timing (cam-phasing on the inlet and exhaust cams) and direct injection. They also raised the compression ratio to 11.25:1.
That all provided a small bump in headline horsepower over the old Busso engine, but 256bhp still wasn’t enough – the standard Brera weighed 1630kg. It just didn’t excite. And while the Prodrive is much lighter – more on that later – as I press the start button, the engine’s hardly bringing my arm-hairs to attention either. For those bred on a diet of raucous Alfa engines, it’s whisper is disappointing and makes me consider what might have been. Alfa was developing a GTA version of the 159 that used a twin-turbocharged version of this engine.
This configuration, first seen in the Ital Design-Alfa Visconti concept car, chucked out 399bhp. Sadly, neither the engine or either car turned up. The engine is nicely refined at low speeds and as we trickle through the urban sprawl the Prodrive’s ride is a pleasant surprise, given the premium brand sports hardware at each corner.
We’re talking Bilstein dampers and 50 per cent stiffer-than-standard Eibach springs, so I was expecting this car to charm the fillings from my smile, but it doesn’t. It’s firmer than a standard Brera, but the absence of body roll is a decent compromise; standard Breras can feel like a listing galleon in extremis. The Prodrive exhibits a little pitch under accelerating and braking, but there’s nothing to cause you to reach for the Gaviscon.
The M40 beckons, which gives us the first opportunity to stretch the Prodrive’s legs. Up to now the engine has been inert at low revs, but the welcome presence of blue tin and an open slipway banishes such thoughts.
Plant the throttle and the engine stirs from its lean-burn slumber below 1500rpm. It only starts to get going at 3000rpm, peaking at 4500rpm – but you can hang on all the way to 7000rpm. And hang on you must: though the engine’s keen to hit the high notes, the gearing is very long.
So are the gaps across the gate and the gearshift throw. As such, this really isn’t a pure B-road thriller. The shift is chunkily robust in your hand though, with a richly mechanical and satisfying feel. The engine is vocal too, but it doesn’t quite hit the operatic heights of the Busso engine it replaced. It’s got a smooth, rumbling fizz that turns into a slightly muted metallic blare as you trouble the exciting side of the rev counter, similar to non-M straight sixes.
It sounds good and, with a healthy dose of torque, it feels good, but it’s not quite as emotionally engaging as its illustrious forebear; that sounds and feels like stepping on a firework. There’s nothing emotionally engaging about the M40 either, but it plays into this Alfa’s biggest strength: cruising. As the Brera thrums along the outside lane, it comes alive as a GT car. It’s truly exquisite inhere. The gorgeous, deeply cushioned yet supportive leather chairs hold you in place perfectly. There’s lovely red stitching, a beautifully sculpted dash and evocative silver-trimmed instrument binnacles. It feels every inch the mini-Maserati, though it’s a little tight for anyone north of 6ft. It’s not all looks, either – everything feels solid and very Audi-like.
The brown tourist signs of The Cotswolds beckon, a welcome change to straight-line monotony. Prodrive may be best known for its race and rally endeavours, but its road car engineering pedigree is also top notch, as owners of the Subaru Impreza P1 will happily confirm.
Given the Brera’s less than ideal starting point, could Prodrive’s nous turn this into a handling hero? As any engineer will tell you, reducing weight is critical to improving handling, so Prodrive ditched the four-wheel-drive system, saving 100kg. Those gorgeous 19in 8C Competizione-aping alloy wheels are 2in bigger than the originals, but they save 2kg a corner.
Alfa had already put the face-lifted car on a diet, with items like aluminium suspension uprights in the package. But were all these efforts in vain? Emphatically not. The steering is sharp around the centre in the best Alfa tradition, but where the steering feel might go light and become uneasy over mid-corner cambers, as with the 147 GTA, the Prodrive simply sticks. You’re not overloaded with front-end feedback but there’s more than enough data for you to place the Brera with precision. Mid-corner articulation feels controlled and the Brera clamps to the apex like a beartrap.
Lean a little further and you can feel the electronically-controlled, torque-biasing Q2 front diff digging in its heels. It’s astounding how little you feel the V6’s weight – of course, if you do go in heavy-footed you will eventually edge the nose wide, but you can adjust mid-corner without threatening the hedges.
You really can hustle this car in a way that belies its admittedly still porky 1532kg kerb weight. Where previous Alfa suspensions struggled with pockmarked roads, the Brera Prodrive manages to cosset and entertain at the same time. Get this Alfa fully lit up and, where its predecessors would fight you all the way, the Brera Prodrive engages with clean accuracy.
As the sun starts to set, it’s time to leave the Cotswolds and take the Brera back to Banbury, and for us to get up close and personal with some motorsport heroes. It’s a chance to settle back and let the Brera glide us there, and allow time for reflection. The Brera Prodrive handles so well, it’s a car that deserves to transcend the Alfisti-only niche. It’s easily the best-handling, most cohesive Alfa Romeo of the front-wheel-drive era.
Verdict / The Modern Classics view
Though it pains me to say this, as an Alfa enthusiast and multiple owner, most of the Italian firm’s cars aren’t for everyone. To own and love an Alfa requires a certain understanding, a willingness to forgive, and a sense of comradeship with similarly ‘afflicted’ fans of the marque.
The Brera Prodrive rips up this rulebook. This is an Alfa Romeo you can recommend to everyone. It’s well built, comfortable and great to drive. Better still, it’s stopped depreciating and prices are on the up. It’s much better-looking and engaging to drive than natural rivals like the BMW 130i M Sport or MkII Audi TT. It certainly rides a lot better than either of those.
The only issue is that, for the Alfisti, it might not be exciting enough. At the £12k+ required for 3.2-litre Brera Prodrive ownership, you can revel in the monstrous engine of a mint 147 GTA whose wayward handling has been rectified by proven aftermarket mods. The Brera, though still pulse-rampingly quick and heart-stoppingly pretty, doesn’t offer the same thrilling, serrated-edge rawness.
The decision is a battle between passion and pragmatism. For some, the lure of the GTA’s Busso motor will easily outweigh the car’s occasional flimsiness. For everyone else, the Brera Prodrive offers an irresistible injection of Italian flair, bolstered with a chassis honed by some of the UK’s finest engineering talent, backed up by genuine solidity.
An Alfa Romeo for everyone? Where do we sign…
Tech and photos
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2008 ALFA ROMEO BRERA PRODRIVE S 3.2
Engine 3195cc, 6-cyl, DOHC
Transmission FWD, 6-speed manual
Power 256bhp @ 6300rpm / DIN nett
Torque 237lb-ft @ 4500rpm / DIN nett
Top speed 155mph
I BOUGHT ONE TIM ALLEN
With an Aston Martin V8 Vantage and an Alfa Spider in the garage, the Brera you see here had to be special for Tim. ‘I felt it looked like a worthy successor to the GTV6 I had in the 1980s. The car has real character and has detailing that elevates it to special. It’s practical when I need it to be and it’s amazingly well built. It’s stunning how close it gets to my Vantage in the driving department – and I’m a big Aston fan.’
BUILT IT PETER CAMBRIDGE
‘The standard Brera was a GT cruiser and not set up for sporty driving. Prodrive originally built a prototype Brera 3.2 with four-wheel drive and a supercharger. It didn’t suit Alfa’s plans at the time, but Alfa UK still wanted to improve steering response.
‘We started with the wheel and tyre set-up, choosing lightweight 19in alloys with Pirelli P-Zero tyres. Then we increased the spring rate by more than 50 per cent front and rear.
‘We made our own coilovers to do the protytyping side of it and to allow us to change the spring rates quickly. We lowered the ride height by 10mm to 15mm to improve the stance.
‘The 3.2 engine was the biggest challenge due to its weight. Getting the right steering feel meant compromising ride comfort relative to the 2.2. ‘It’s the best project I’ve done, and owners seem to love the car.’
THE FINER POINTS
1 Just 500 Breras got to wear this seat-mounted badge.
2 Six-headlamp style evokes memories of the 1980s SZ.
3 It may not be the lightest gearshift to use, but it’s satisfying to manipulate.
4, 5, 6 The beauty of any Alfa is in the details. The 8C-style alloys are our favourite bit.
7 Thankfully, you don’t need to watch these like a hawk.
8 Not many duffers bearing this name.
WHERE WE WENT: THE COTSWOLDS
We left the M40 at junction 8 on the A40, heading towards Oxford. A brief rest stop just off the A40 in Bibury at the Swan Hotel gave us the energy for the flowing bends of the A40 as we approached Cheltenham. From there we headed north on the A435 and A46 towards Hinton-on-the- Green, where we turned right, heading past Childswickham. On the A44, we headed east and up the fantastic switchbacks of Fish Hill – you’ll want to do this more than once – before arriving in Chipping Norton. Once you’ve finished flinging bacon slices at former PMs, head north on the A361 towards Bloxham, and then on towards Banbury and Prodrive.
START ALFA UK This super-shiny glass building is the UK base for Fiat, Jeep and Alfa Romeo. It’s probably the best-looking thing in Slough, which isn’t hard…
FINISH PRODRIVE OK, so the word Banbury may not stir the soul as Maranello or Sant’Agata might, but Prodrive’s HQ is equally impressive. Find out why in a few pages’ time.
‘THE BRERA AND 159 WERE DESIGNED TO BE STURDIER, BETTER BUILT A D SAFER THAN ANY OTHER ALFA’
‘IT’S WELL BUILT, COMFORTABLE AND ENGAGING… AND PRICES ARE RISING’
155 UK cars left Abumgood enough to squeeze.
A cabin full of Alfa flair but also quality.
The only time Nathan hit an apex all day. He could be happier about it.
Big overhangs disguise the surprisingly short wheelbase.
Says Alfa, but is a Holden. Sort of.
What the Brera could have been from day 1.
WHAT TO PAY
THANKS To Ian Chester and the Alfa Romeo Owners Club, plus Jackie Irwin and Ben Sayer at Prodrive.