The special ones Alfa Brera Prodrive v GTV Cup v Fiat Coupe Plus. Three modern coupe classics, pinnacles of desirability and rarity: the scarce Alfa GTV 3.0 Cup, top-spec Fiat Coupe 20V Turbo Plus and Prodrive’s tweaked Alfa Brera ‘S’. Which gets our hearts beating fastest? Story by Richard Bremner. Photography by Michael Ward.
Sexy, slinky, seductive and speedy – coupes are supposed to be all these things, and Italy’s coupes hit that target more often than any other country’s. True, we’re enduring a bit of a shortage of Latin coupe hardware right now, with absences from Fiat, Lancia, Alfa Romeo and even Maserati. Given today’s infatuation with SUVs, it’s easy to see why coupes come a long way down car makers’ to-do lists. More than that, we know that soon-to-die Lancia will never make another coupe, while Fiat is heading towards offering city cars only. At least Alfa has promised us a Giulia-based, rear-wheel drive (at last!) GTV, with a spectacular 640hp in its most potent hybrid form, while Maserati is readying its Alfieri.
As ever, there’s always the used option, in the distinctive shapes of the 916-generation Alfa GTV, the Fiat Coupe and Alfa’s Brera. These are cars that many readers will know, along with their considerable pluses and familiar minuses. But there is more than one version of each, and some versions are better than others. How, then, do the very best examples of this trio – Prodrive’s take on the Alfa Romeo Brera, the limited edition Alfa GTV 3.0 Cup and the Fiat Coupe 20V Turbo Plus – score for desirability?
Alfa-Romeo GTV 3.0 V6 Cup Type 916
There aren’t many used cars advertised with the name of their engine’s designer mentioned in the headline, but that’s often how you’ll see V6 versions of Alfa’s GTV 916 appear in the classifieds. And no, ‘Busso’, is not a mis-spelling of the Lusso trim level. Drive an Alfa with a Giuseppe Busso-designed V6, and you’ll begin to understand why it’s worth headlining. Especially as Alfa’s later V6 was adulterated with General Motors components, and not possessed of nearly the same magic.
That magic is both aural – thrillingly so – and physical, the V6’s 220hp thrust enough to propel this relatively light car to 62mph in 6.8 seconds. That’s quick, even by today’s power-crazed standards. It feels instantly lively, this Alfa, and will romp through the gears via a surprisingly long-throw but clean shift to sixth. It still pulls hard even then, before eventually making 148mph.
Thrust is one thing, the V6 soundtrack another. Get familiar with it, and you’ll know the speed at which this engine revs from the noise it makes, and not because it sounds stressed either. Lowish revs under load will produce a welling, mellow, bass froth of mechanical meshings, this morphing to a mid-range wail that escalates towards the electrifying as the tacho needle nears its danger point. It’s borderline musical and a whole lot more entertaining than the subdued industrial hum that you hear from most moderns, adding considerably to the joy of driving this car.
“The mid-range wail escalates towards the electrifying as the tacho needle nears its danger point”
You’ll also enjoy steering that’s reactive enough to surprise at first. Familiarity, and the fact that such agility is underwritten with strong roadholding and relatively limited understeer, soon provides enough reassurance for one to indulge. Thank the multilink rear suspension for that, this sophisticated expense demanded by then-Fiat boss Paolo Cantarella, who wanted something better than Fiat Tipo rear suspension could provide. The GTV and Spider used the same platform as Fiat’s now forgotten 1989 European Car of the Year winner, though you wouldn’t know it to look at or drive them. Fiat’s extra spending was wise.
Even the 2.0-litre Twin Spark was fast enough to make good use of it, never mind the 24-valve V6 used by this one-make race-inspired limited edition Cup car. Later, there would be a 240hp, 3.2-litre, 158mph GTV with easily enough power to overwhelm a Tipo rear axle. Like the Tipo, the GTV is still as individual as it was when unveiled 24 years ago. From the elegant canopy of a composite bonnet punctured with apertures for grille and lights, to the aggressively rising wedge of its waistline and visor-like windscreen, this coupe resembles no other. The limited edition Cup, only 155 of which were made in RHD, were all red. Differences included spoilers front and rear, side skirts, front wing vents, titanium-finish 17-inch alloys, leather upholstery and a numbered plaque.
The windscreen feels visor-like from within. Less appealingly, perhaps, you sit higher relative to the dashboard than you might expect, as if falling towards it. The GTV certainly isn’t uncomfortable though, unless you’re forced on to the torture chamber seats behind, the lack of space here, and the small boot, the product of a shortened Tipo floorpan and the rear suspension’s bulk.
No matter – coupes aren’t usually bought for their practicality. Comfort isn’t the highest priority for buyers either, although grand touring should be more than tolerable. It certainly is on smooth roads, but one never-cured irritation of these 916 series Alfas is a ride that fails to settle. Better, then, to enjoy the V6, the grip and the go. There are enough of all three to make the V6 GTV a beguiling buy.
24 years on, the GTV still looks fresh. Cup version – always painted red – has unique bodykit add-ons.
TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS ALFA ROMEO GTV 3.0 CUP
ENGINE: 2959cc V6
MAX POWER: 220hp @ 6300rpm / DIN
MAX TORQUE: 199lb ft @ 5000rpm / DIN
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
TOP SPEED: 148mph
Alfa-Romeo Brera 2.2 Prodrive S Type 939
It’s still a sensational-looking car, the Brera, eight years after the last one was built, and 16 years after the debut of the Maserati-powered, ItalDesign concept that inspired it. A much bigger car than the GTV it replaced, the Brera was built on the same platform as the 159, fatefully shared with General Motors.
Fatefully, because this architecture was to be shared with Saab. Nothing wrong with that, you might think, except that Saab’s US-market safety requirements added structure and weight. Ironically, neither Saab nor any GM brand ultimately used this platform. The Alfas were certainly rigid and performed well in crash tests, the 159 winning five NCAP stars in 2006, but the weight blunted the Brera’s performance, reduced its agility and tested its brakes.
After much press criticism, a version was specially developed for the UK in conjunction with Prodrive. The rally specialist spent a year on the Brera, ultimately choosing 50 per cent stiffer Eibach springs that lowered the ride height by 10mm, complemented by Bilstein dampers. There were new Brembo brakes, and a shedding of no less than 100kg for the 3.2 V6, although this was partly achieved by switching from four-wheel drive to two. Nevertheless, Alfa itself had put the Brera on a diet, swapping some steel suspension parts for aluminium pieces.
The Prodrive upgrade could also be had with the 185hp 2.2 four-cylinder engine, this choice having the merit of still less weight over the front wheels, if less power than the 260hp V6. Neither engine was altered by Prodrive, which concentrated only on chassis dynamics. And mostly to good effect. There’s less body roll, as you might expect with much stiffer springs, the car feels well balanced and best of all, its steering is finely weighted and usefully more communicative than the standard car’s, the sum total being a more fluent and satisfying drive. Though less so if the roads are turbulent, a less absorbent ride being the obvious corollary of the suspension changes.
“Rally specialist Prodrive concentrated on chassis dynamics, mostly to good effect”
Still, the 2.2 S sampled here rides adequately and corners with pleasingly little body roll, the accurate steering heightening the feeling of composure. But compared to the GTV, it feels brisk rather than fast, even if the 2.2 pulls with pleasing vigour at higher revs. That’s an unfortunate contrast to the engine’s behaviour at 3000rpm, where there’s a flat spot that Breras are known for. Chipping the engine management can sort it, apparently, and so can circumventing it with gear changes, using a shift that feels surprisingly mechanical given that this is a front-drive car whose transmission lies some distance from the lever.
All of which produces quite a sophisticated drive that’s reinforced by a high-grade cabin, a good driving position and a substantial dashboard that looks modern enough for the absence of an infotainment screen to be a surprise. As you might hope, the Brera feels structurally robust, too – much better than the GTV in this respect – a quality underlined by the fact that this example has done 122,000 miles but feels like it’s travelled 80,000 fewer. Sophisticated it may be, but as a 2.2, this Prodrive Brera is no more than brisk, if well balanced. It also has legendarily poor rear seat packaging, so-so visibility and a steering lock poor enough to be occasionally embarrassing. But it’s very handsome, comfortable, fun on the right road and – as one of only 500 made – collectable too.
Prodrive addressed Brera criticisms with revised suspension, lower ride height and Brembo brakes.
TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS ALFA ROMEO BRERA 2.2 PRODRIVE S
ENGINE: 2198cc 4-cyl
MAX POWER: 185hp @ 6500rpm / DIN
MAX TORQUE: 169lb ft @ 4500rpm / DIN
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
TOP SPEED: 139mph
Fiat Coupe 20V Turbo Plus Type 175
Like the GTV, this Fiat is loosely based on the Tipo hatchback, but as with the Alfa, you’d never know it. Its still-extraordinary styling, never beautiful but always compelling, remains a strong draw, as does an interior lifted with splashes of body colour trim, neat detailing and an airiness produced by its surprising ability to swallow four adults. For that reason, it’s the most practical of the three cars here, and it doesn’t suffer too much for having less sophisticated rear suspension either. Grip is strong, to the point that in fast sweepers the Fiat feels so under control that it’s almost dull, its trajectory little changed by the throttle. The stabilizing effects of the Viscodrive limited slip differential are responsible for that, a standard fitment for the 20V Turbo that also tidies the Fiat through tight turns, making the less-precise GTV the slightly livelier car to drive.
But there are compensations. The Fiat feels a little more robust, perhaps because the Alfa’s frameless door glass twitters. At times it’s remarkably fast, the combination of 2.0 litres, five cylinders and that turbo producing memorably sustained surges of power. Those five cylinders sing great sounds, too – not as cultured as the GTV’s V6, but a distinctive beat that’s more diverting than the conventional hum of the Brera’s ‘four’.
During its seven-year life, Fiat sold the Coupe with four different engines, the 2.0 16-valve and 16-valve turbo at launch replaced in 1996 by a five-cylinder, this also available in naturally aspirated and turbocharged tunes. All of these engines are good ones, the four-cylinder a derivative of Fiat’s long-lived and excellent twin cam, which in turbo form had recently powered the Lancia Delta Integrale to World Rally Championship victories. But it’s hard not to want the most powerful of them all, the 20V turbo delivering a strong 217bhp and 229lb ft of torque, the latter eclipsing the GTV’s 199lb ft, while the four-cylinder Brera obviously trails both.
For many, the most desirable Fiat Coupe is the LE (for Limited Edition, imaginatively) – a numbered run, of which the UK is thought to have received between 100 and 200. This featured many detail add-ons and changes, most obviously sill skirts and a front spoiler extension. Various items were given a titanium finish, including the door mirrors, rear lamp surrounds, headlamp inners, alloy wheels and flip-up fuel filler, while the brake callipers were red and the front discs drilled in an effort to combat fade.
Inside were upgraded Recaro seats with red leather inserts, complemented by other red highlights around the interior including a separate (red) starter button. Under the bonnet the changes were few, but there was a strut brace (in red), a powder-coated cam cover (also in red) and most usefully of all, a sixth speed (probably not red). This special edition was soon followed by the Turbo Plus, which featured much the same kit list, but with more subtly applied highlights and a different grille. It’s one of these, freshly imported from Japan, that you see here.
Turbo Plus featured most of the upgrades of the desirable LE special edition. 20V engine still feels special.
TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS FIAT COUPE 20V TURBO PLUS
ENGINE: 1998cc 5-cyl turbo
MAX POWER: 220hp @ 5750rpm / DIN
MAX TORQUE: 229lb ft @ 2500rpm / DIN
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
TOP SPEED: 155mph
For sheer entertainment, if sometimes crudely delivered, the GTV is the winner here. It’s fizzingly enthusiastic, genuinely quick, reactive, compact and sounds magnificent. The driving position is odd, the cabin is cramped, it torque steers out of tight twists and it does rattle and squeak, but if you want unadulterated fun, the GTV edges ahead.
But the Fiat is close. It’s actually better mannered close to the limit, but inert with it, leaving you to marvel at its grip more than its finesse. It too has a marvellous engine, both for its voice and its in-gear pull, and it’s decidedly more practical, with four real seats, a bigger boot and a better driving position.
The Brera feels the most grown up, as befits its more sophisticated style and higher quality cabin. The 2.2 Prodrive Brera S is better balanced than the V6, but its performance is no more than characterfully tame compared to the other two (and indeed the Brera V6). The 2.2, then, is a well-mannered two-plus-two cruiser of charm, and a more pleasant car to drive daily.