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'One of the most charismatic engines in the world': remembering the Alfa Romeo GTV V6 (CAR+ archive, 1997)

Published: 01 July 2016

► First drive of Alfa's GTV V6 in 1997
► 220bhp through the front wheels!
► 'Words can't describe this glorious sound'

Some cars you just know you're going to enjoy — and the new, V6-engined Alfa Romeo GTV is one of them. Look at it: it's like a menu that combines your favourite starter, main course and sweet. The tantalising starter is the GTV's drop-dead looks, the main course (the heavy bit in the middle) its wonderful 24-valve V6, and the sweet (suite?) a brand-new pleated-leather interior. The perfect ingredients for a full automotive blowout. 

Yet I have a serious reservation (and I don't mean the best table by the window). The GTV V6 has to feed 220bhp through its front wheels — and there's no traction-control system. No viscous coupling or limited-slip diff, no clever electronic brain-computing wheel speeds to throttle back the engine or apply a brake to a spinning wheel. In this, the quickest, most powerful and most expensive GTV yet made, the traction-control system is your right foot. 

That's something to worry about later. Take a couple of minutes to drink in its clean, distinctive lines and note the new five-hole alloys — they'll be a doddle to soap on a Sunday morning. Through them you can see the V6's Brembo brakes with their red painted callipers, those at the front cast with the Alfa Romeo logo.

Turn your gaze inside, and you'll find the GTV's cabin no longer comes as a slight disappointment. Provided, that is, your car has the optional Momo trim. Simple red leather would have looked great on its own, but the pleated hide seats and door casings, red-stitched gear-lever and wheel, and red carpets create a truly special ambience — a cross between chain-saw massacre and stately drawing room. 

Twist the key and the 3.0-litre V6 churns into life. Without doubt, this is one of the most charismatic engines in the world — and the GTV was born to have it. Its gutsy, confident purr tells you instantly that performance won't be an issue. Alfa claims a top speed of 'over 240km/h' — 150mph — with 0-60mph in 6.5sec. 

The first thing that strikes you when you drive the GTV V6 (and it was the same in the last Alfa to bear the name) is the lightness of the steering. The four-pot model has a strong self-centring action that feels vaguely artificial, but the V6's chunky wheel spins left and right with ease. It's an effortless car to thread smoothly through traffic: the torquey motor has a creamy throttle action to match its delivery, while the clutch is light and beautifully progressive, making silky gear-changes a doddle. 

No words can adequately describe the glorious sound this engine makes. And it's such a docile, flexible motor you can just tool around town, batting the gearlever up and down the 'box for no better reason than to hear that growl as the V6 hauls between 2500 and 3000rpm. 

To shoehorn this engine into the GTV, Alfa had to make some changes: the oil pump is now crank-driven, the timing gear has been tidied up, and the tubular exhaust manifolds are more compact. Then, of course, the car's suspension had to be tweaked to cope with the heavier engine. As a result, the GTV V6 is a little more nose-heavy but you don't feel it until you encounter sharp ridges, which have the suspension crashing uncomfortably. Dynamically, the V6 feels every bit as agile as lesser GTVs. The stiffer front end is complemented by a subtle rework of the self-steering rear axle, and the car tracks through fast curves perfectly flat. Those seats aren't as effective as they look, however. Lateral thigh support is very good but shoulder bolstering isn't, so you find yourself hanging onto the wheel when the going gets seriously twisty. 

It's here that a weakness of the four-cylinder car would show up; a few miles of fast second-and third-gear work would have the brakes wilting to the point of total fade. It'll be interesting to see how the V6's Brembos fare — but even more interesting to see how the front-drive chassis copes with a healthy and ever-ready 220bhp. 

The answer is, simply, brilliantly. Alfa has come a long way with front-drive since the original V6 164. Never mind corners, under full power that car was a handful in a straight line. In fact, it wouldn't go in a straight line. The GTV V6 is on another plane altogether. In fact, it's one of the best front-drivers I've driven, and possibly the best with over 200bhp. 

It's hard to believe that all that power is deployed by tyres that are barely wider than the four-cylinder versions' — 205/50s — but that may well be the key; the V6 progressively spins away power through an inside wheel, while at the same time maintaining its cornering line. But don't assume that it leaves black lines and blue tyre smoke at each tight corner like a Volvo 850 T5; the GTV is very grippy because it isn't given to roll, so you really have to push to break traction.

Slice into a turn and the nose goes precisely where you want it to. Pour on the power and it simply hauls itself out on the exact line. Next corner, try even harder, get on the power sooner, and you'll sense the in-side wheel starting to lose traction, but the line stays the same. Back off now and de-spite the extra weight in the nose — some 35kg over the four-pot — the GTV -V6 tucks in neatly and benignly. And if you brake when cornering, it'll drift its tail round like a Clio 

Williams. It's a precise driver's car, this Alfa. What's more, the powerful Brembo brakes have shown not the slightest hint of weakness. Can we have them on the rest of the range, please? 

I knew the GTV V6 would be desirable, but I hadn't expected it to handle with such flair. The four-cylinder car is very good but I reckoned the extra weight of the six-pot engine, plus the lack of traction control, would spoil it. How wrong. It's even better, even more enjoyable than its specification suggests. 

The GTV remains a poorly packaged coupe, with a briefcase-sized boot and tiny rear seats, but that seems to matter less with the V6 up front. It'll be priced some 25 percent higher than the four-cylinder version if (which really should be 'when', Alfa) it arrives here late next year: around £25,000 in basic form and probably closer to £28,000 in Lusso trim with the Momo interior. In my book, that makes it a bargain. 

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