Alfa Romeo 164 3.0 V6 Super vs BMW 530i E34 and Volvo 850 T5 Turbo

2014 Drive-My

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.

Volvo 850 T5 Turbo - test drive

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?

Alfa Romeo 164 3.0 V6 Super - test rive


Styling, engineering

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.


Performance

 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.

Performance

ACCELERATION (sec)

0-30

0-40

0-50

0-60

0-70

0-80

0-90

0-100 

30-80

Alfa Romeo

3.1

4.2

6.0

7.7

10.1

12.8

15.7

20.4

9.7

BMW

2.8

4.1

5.8

7.7

10.5

13.1

16.3

21.1

10.3

Volvo

3.1

4.4

5.7

7.1

9.3

11.6

14.3

18.1

8.5

IN FOURTH

30-50

40-60

50-70

60-80

70-90

80-100

Alfa Romeo

7.6

7.9

7.9

7.3

7.5

7.4

BMW

7.8

7.6

7.6

7.5

7.6

8.1 

Volvo

6.3

5.6

5.6

5.8

6.5

7.1  

SPEEDS IN GEARS (mph)

First

Second

Third

Fourth

Fifth

Alfa Romeo

40

69

99

130

144.7

BMW

38

63

96

128

142.4

Volvo

36

62

92

125

142.0

FUEL CONSUMPTION (mpg)

Test

Urban

56mph

75mph

Alfa Romeo

22.4

20.8

37.7

29.7   

BMW

21.5

18.2

35.3

28.8 

Volvo

23.0

21.9

40.9

33.2    

 

Roadholding, handling

In a straight line, the Alfa is a willing performer. And fling it down a fast, smooth A-road, and you’ll be further impressed. Steering that’s a touch light at low speed weights up as you travel faster, and the chassis balance through quick bends is lovely, a poised neutrality. Chuck the 164 at slower corners, though – especially ones that call for quick changes of direction – and there’s too much understeer, often accompanied by a lifting inside front wheel.

However, the Alfa Romeo 164 V6 has a more serious flaw. It’s the kind that shows up only on bumpy roads, when a second-gear overtaking manoeuvre is called for. We thought that Alfa Romeo had tamed the car’s wandering, but at least two staffers had experiences of the mystical kind, wondering whether to aim for the artic they were overtaking or the ditch on their right. Because the car doesn’t tug that badly under power on smooth surfaces, we’d have to surmise that the problem is caused by a combination of tramlining and torque-steer over less than perfect roads. Whatever, it’s disquieting.

Between them, the Volvo and the BMW serve up different types of pleasure.

The Volvo’s portfolio contains a superbly balanced chassis and truly wild power-on characteristics. Breaking the front wheels’ traction is a simple task, the car leaving a pall of tyre smoke out of second-gear corners if you’re less than subtle with your right foot.

Such is the forgiving nature of the chassis – lift-off tuck-in is so well controlled that it becomes entertaining oversteer – that this embarrassment of horsepower isn’t really a problem, although a bit of right-foot restraint is useful in the wet.

In T-5 guise, with stiffer springs and firmer damping, the 850’s chassis is excellent, but let down by steering that’s too light. The car copes much better with all types of bend than does the Alfa, suffering from less understeer and gaining from more initial front- end bite.

The BMW isn’t quite as entertaining, probably because it’s the most accomplished car here. The rear-drive chassis has the classic balance: power-off understeer, power-on neutrality and, if provoked too much, power oversteer. There’s too much body roll in transitional manoeuvres, but it turns in eagerly, and behaves impeccably through a bend. Like all three of these cars, though, its steering panders to the traffic-jam denizen, for it lacks the kind of feedback that turns an excellent chassis into one that you really look forward to driving.


Accommodation, comfort

Back-seat passengers had no doubt which was the best car here – and front-seat occupants agreed with them.

Without doubt, the Volvo best combines ride comfort, interior room and refinement.

It’s clearly the roomiest in the back, the BMW suffering from an appalling lack of legroom for such a big car, the Alfa losing out because of relatively limited rear headroom. It also has the most space for bigger people in the front, and the best front seats, too: the BMW’s feel skimpy in the cushion and are too hard, while the Alfa’s lack lateral and under-thigh support.

The Swedish car also has the most stowage space of the three cars, the door pockets easily swallowing drinks cans (a feat the other two couldn’t match) and the detritus of day- to-day driving. Against that, the Volvo has the smallest boot of the three, while the Alfa’s is sufficiently voluminous to carry kitchen sinks, if required.

 Minor styling modifications – bonnet and grille – mark out V8 5-series. Car classy, rides on neat alloys

Air-conditioning is standard on the Alfa, and optional on both the Volvo and the BMW: all three cars come with electrically operated sunroof and windows as standard. Volvo has a safety fetish, so it’s no surprise that the T-5 has a driver’s airbag as standard. The same item is an option on the BMW, and not available on the Alfa at all, which likewise doesn’t have the seatbelt pre- tensioners that are standard on the other two.

All three cars cope extremely well with hammering along our motorways. The Alfa has the noisiest engine at the 85mph mark, but it’s a sweet din. It also suffers the most wind whip around the A-pillars, but tyre rumble is muted. The BMW suffers from the most road noise, while the Volvo is ultimately the quietest of all – although it must be said that all three are refined and genteel tourers.

blocky. Wind, road noise subdued

The Volvo also rides the best, although – yet again – it’s a close-run thing. Well damped and benefiting from excellent body control, the 850 suffers a touch from lateral rock-roll motion on motorways, but its composure is barely affected by broken surfaces. Only when taking dips and crests at speed is there a tendency to bottom out and go onto tiptoes.

The Alfa also rides well, but there’s some jiggliness at high speed, and the car can become agitated over broken surfaces. It never feels as composed as the other two, and ultimate body control isn’t as good. The BMW rides most surfaces with aplomb. It behaves slightly better than the Volvo at high speed on the motorway, but suffers slightly from lateral motion on twisty country roads as well as exhibiting slightly less composure over bumps.


Driver appeal

The BMW oozes class, from the moment you open its solid door. The plastics used inside are excellent, and there are tasteful wood cappings on the centre console, gearlever, facia and door cappings; the fabrics used for the headlining and carpets are of outstanding quality. (Our car was fitted with optional leather on the seats.) The classiness continues when you settle behind the wheel: the stalks are meatily weighted, the pedals are progressively fluid, and the instrument panel is both attractive and sensibly laid out.

This excellence is repeated throughout the cabin. The heater controls are the best on offer here, and the minor switchgear is pleasant and convenient. However, for a £30,000 car it lacks kit: there are front armrests, an electric sunroof and windows, along with an on-board computer, but that’s regulation issue and no more. The driving position is less than perfect: you’re perched too high relative to the instruments, at which you peer down. Visibility is excellent, though, and the car’s tactile feel is the best of the bunch, for it has the most fluent gearchange.

The Alfa has the most exciting-sounding engine, but otherwise it falls behind the BMW. The plastics used lack the perceived quality of the German car’s, the carpeting looks tacky, and the seat covering isn’t quite as plush as BMW’s standard cloth. The dials, too, lack clarity compared with the BMW’s. However, for sheer inconvenience, nothing can compete with the air- conditioning controls, which would look more at home on a Hammond organ.

The Alfa’s switches aren’t quite as nicely weighted as the BMW’s, and the gearchange isn’t as sweet, either. The brakes work well, but the pedal’s initial spongy feel is off-putting. The driving position is marginally better than the BMW’s, but – again – you sit too high, while visibility isn’t quite as good as in the German car. However, the sculpting of the interior is appealing in a distinctively Italian way, and it has the best equipment levels here, including a fine six-speaker sound system, electric front- seat adjustment, air- conditioning, electric sunroof and windows, and door mirrors that can be folded flat at the touch of a button.

The Volvo has the lowest initial showroom impact here, mainly because of its slab- sided interior surfaces. Excepting the steering wheel, there’s hardly a curved surface throughout the cabin, but that’s offset by clever use of contrasting fabrics and colours: the leather-edged seats, which have velour centre panels, look especially good. The materials seem to be of high quality, while the stalks and switches have crisp actions. Visibility is the best of all the three cars here, and it’s helped by superb door mirrors.

The T-5 also has the best driving position of the three The instruments, particular!, are sensibly sited, and the seats are the most supportive.

The instrument panel is cleanly designed, and the heater and radio controls are easy to operate. Standard equipment includes electric windows, mirrors and sunroof, and a driver’s airbag, but air- con and electric seats are on the options list. Its major controls are the least good, though: the clutch and brakes are soft and dead, while the gearchange is slightly notchy and vague in its actions.


Conclusion

Any upwardly mobile executive would be happy to be seen in any of these three fine sports saloons. We knew the BMW would be good – the 5-series’ reputation is high, and the lure of the V8 makes it appear even more attractive. However, the new engine is the least impressive aspect of a car which is supremely competent but fails ever to excite. It handles well, but it always feels a bit too measured: where the Alfa has soul, the BMW is sterile. Moreover, the car is just too expensive, and the level of rear-seat legroom is something of a joke.

Because of its glorious looks and wonderful engine, the Alfa is the most seductive of the three, but its cause is badly undermined by its behaviour under hard acceleration in the lower gears, which is frankly unacceptable. Despite its relatively cramped rear quarters and a ride that can be fidgety, it would have been a strong contender for overall honours were it not for the torque-steer. In the office key test – the clamour for cars to take home at the end of the day – everyone went for the Alfa ahead of the BMW.

The Volvo, on the other hand, is the most entertaining drive. It has an excellent chassis that gets better the harder you drive it, and the kind of tyre-smoking performance that belies the badge it carries. Its interior is the most sensible – if the least stylish – thanks to the most generous accommodation. Its ride is also the best controlled. It’s the most complete package – and there’s an extra appeal in the unlikeliness of driving a Volvo that goes this hard.

However, it’s not perfect, because its controls lack the tactility that can make every journey a pleasure, and although you get used to the cabin ambience, you’ll never delight in that brick-shaped styling. Volvo’s discreet roadburner wins here – but if Alfa could cure the 164’s rough-road manners, we’d have to think again.

Tech information
Car

Alfa Romeo 164 3.0 V6 Super

BMW 530i E34

Volvo 850 T5 Turbo

ENGINE

Configuration Capacity (cc)

Bore (mm)

Stroke (mm)

Compression (to one)

Valve gear

Aspiration

Power (DIN/rpm)

Torque (DIN/rpm)

Power-to-weight ratio

V6 2959

93.0

72.6

10.0

Dohc, 24-valve

Fuel injection

210 bhp/6300

200lb ft/5000

147bhp per ton

V8 2997 M60 B30

84.0

67.6

10.5

Dohc, 32-valve

Fuel injection

218bhp/5800

214lb ft/4500

143bhp per ton

In-line five 2319

90.0

81.0

8.5

Dohc, 20-valve

Fuel injection, turbocharger

225bhp/5200

221lb ft/2000-5200

159bhp per ton

TRANSMISSION

Type

Five-speed manual

Five-speed manual

Five-speed manual

Ratios (mph/1000rpm)

First

3.75(5.7)

4.20(5.7)

3.07(5.5)

Second

2.18(9.8)

2.49 (9.6)

1.77(9.5)

Third

1.52 (14.1)

1.67(14.5)

1.19(14.1)

Fourth

1.16(18.5)

1.24 (19.4)

0.87 (19.3)

Fifth

0.92 (23.3)

1.00(24.0)

0.70 (24.0)

Final-drive ratio (to one)

3.35

3.23

4.10

CHASSIS AND BODY

Construction

Steel monocoque

Steel monocoque

Steel monocoque

Drag factor

Cd 0.30

Cd 0.35

Cd 0.32

Front suspension

MacPherson struts, lower wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar

Double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar

MacPherson struts, lower wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar

Rear suspension

  

Struts with trailing and transverse arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar

Semi-trailing arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar

Semi-independent, trailing arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar

Steering, type

Rack and pinion, power-assisted

Ball and nut, power-assisted

Rack and pinion, power-assisted

Turns, lock to lock

3.2

3.6

3.1

Turning circle (ft)

35.4

36.1

34.8

Wheels

6.0×15

7.0×15

6.5×16

Tyres

205/65 ZR15

225/65 ZR15

205/55 ZR16

Brakes, type

Discs all round, ventilated at front, ABS

Discs all round, ventilated at front, ABS

Discs all round, ventilated at front, ABS

DIMENSIONS (in)   

Wheelbase

104.7

108.7

105.1

Front track

59.6

57.9

59.8

Rear track

58.6

58.9

57.9

Overall length

183.7

185.8

183.5

Overall width

69.3 (excl mirrors)

68.9 (excl mirrors)

69.3 (excl mirrors)

Fuel tank capacity (gal)

15.4

17.6

16.0

Kerb weight (lb)

3183

3414

3163

CABIN DIMENSIONS (in)

Front headroom (max/min)

35.5/34.0

36.5/35.0

37.0/35.0

Front legroom (max/min)

41.0/35.0

40.0/32.5

43.0/35.0

Rear legroom (max/min)

35.0/28.5

33.5/25.5

35.0/26.5

Rear headroom

33.5

34.5

35.0

Front shoulder room

58.5

54.5

57.0

Rear shoulder room

58.5

55.0

56.5

Luggage capacity (cu ft)

17.8

16.2

14.7

STANDARD EQUIPMENT   

Automatic transmission

£1400

£1650

£905

Anti-lock brakes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Air-conditioning

Yes

£1610

£965

Leather upholstery

£1600

£1300

£895

Cruise control

No

£375

£195

Electric front seats

Yes

£995

£990

Heated front seats

Yes

£260

Yes

Alloy wheels

Yes

Yes

Yes

Airbag

No

£615

Yes

SERVICING

Cost (frequency)

£48 (12,000)

£53 (oil service)

£93 (10,000)

£179(60,000)

£108 (Inspection 1)

£91 (20,000)

Number of UK dealers

82

£204 (Inspection 2) 157

237

COST (including VAT)   

Price without extras

£25,400

£30,650

£23,995

GUARANTEE

 

12 months/ unlimited mileage 6yr anti-perforation

12 months/ unlimited mileage 8yr anti-perforation

12 months/ unlimited mileage ‘Lifetime Care’

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