CLASS v CUBES?

ALFA 1.6GT

WE COMPARE THE ALFA 1.6GT AND DATSUN 240 Z. IS IT…

The two top, under $6000 two-seaters show there are distinctly different routes to the coupe end. And both of them are full of fun.

FIVE OR SIX grand isn’t much to pay for a sporty car these days.

Take a look at the market. Nagaris cost $9000, Alfa Spiders $7000, you need to find $13,500 for the cheapest Porsche 911 and even the BMW sporty sedans start at six-and-a-half.

Of course, for a bit over five you can have a stripey local sedan — a quick, safe car — but you may be one of those people who don’t appreciate all that sheet metal. Anyway, 5-litre V8s are becoming rather anti-social these days.

So what are we left with? There is the Fiat 124 Sport coupe, the Renault 15/17, the Datsun 240Z and the cheapest Alfa coupe, the 1.6 GT. All but the last two are “compromise” sporties — with big interior dimensions and a certain boxiness of styling because they’re intended to carry plenty of passengers and luggage.

There can be no argument about it — the Alfa and the Datsun are the two “pure” sporty cars selling for under $6000. That’s why we’ve compared them.

The Datsun ($5085 with spoilers and radio and heated rear window) offers obvious value for money. It’s a torquey, robust, long-nosed hauler built in the old Healey 3000 mould. The Alfa, to one who hasn’t driven it, doesn’t appear to justify its $5830 in metal. But on the road it’s the real Italian sporty — compact, refined, quick, rotary and having an indefinable touch of the exotic car about it.

Neither car is new to Australia. That Alfa in the same body shape has been here since the early Sixties. In the form tested it uses the 1.6 litre version of the beautiful DOHC twin-Webered engine — the first Alfa powerplant Australians saw in volume.

The Datsun has been here — pretty well unchanged — since 1971.

Let’s analyse the cars in detail. ENGINES:

Both mills are reasonably sophisticated. The Alfa’s twin cam 1570 cc engine, though it’s quite an old design, can match the newer 1.6s for torque and power. The fact that it’s undersquare (bore is 78 mm, stroke 82 mm) accounts, at least partly, for its rather low redline (5700 rpm) and also for the fact that it will pull powerfully from 2200 in top, even though it wears a large pair of sidedraught Webers (which on lesser powerplants don’t exactly promote flexibility).

The car’s response to the throttle is clean and instant. You get the impression the engine wears quite a light flywheel because when the throttles are cracked the engine sings to its upper reaches without the wind-up that many other engines (the Datsun’s for example) seem to need.

One feature of the Alfa (and most Italian cars) which we loved was the twin choke and hand throttle controls mounted low on the dash. This allows the car to be thoroughly warmed before it’s driven off from cold. If you’re the type of person who likes to look after an engine — and it’s important with an Alfa — you can start it a few minutes before you leave for work in the morning, leave it idling at 1000 rpm or so on the hand throttle and rush back inside to clean your teeth. By the time you’re ready to drive away, the engine’s thoroughly warm and most of that disastrous cold-start engine and gearbox wear has been avoided.

The 240Z’s engine has a redline more than 1000 rpm higher than the Alfa’s yet the thing you remember most about the 2393 cc SOHC six is its smooth pulling power from low revs.

The truth of it is that the Datsun’s 7000 rpm redline is nonsensical. So is the 6500 rpm yellow sector. No doubt the engine will hang together when it reaches those speeds, but we found during our acceleration tests that persevering in a low gear above 5500 rpm was the way to record slower times. For the hardest road use, five grand or five-two was plenty.

The 240Z is so high geared and pulls so strongly at low revs that in normal motoring—even on highways with 60 or 70 mph limits — you need not exceed 3000 rpm.

The Datsun donk isn’t as responsive to the throttle as the Alfa, and it doesn’t have an inspiring exhaust note, but it’s still quite sporty in the way it pulls strongly to 5500 rpm and yet handles the high gearing very well. TRANSMISSIONS:

To our minds, the Datsun is geared quite a lot too high. In top it does 36 km/h (22.3 mph) per thousand revs which means it’s only pulling a shade over 4400 rpm at the ton and has 2500 rpm to go to the redline. That’s laudable from the low engine wear angle, but it’s also a waste of power.

Say the gearing was 3 2 km/h (20 mph)/1000 revs. That’d mean the car would be pulling 5000 rpm at the ton — its comfortable cruising maximum — and would have improved mid-range acceleration. And top speed should still be close to 193 km/h (120 mph) just as it is now.

Just as important, the car would have more engine braking— a property which gives the driver better control over weight transfer when he’s throttle steering in quicker bends.

The Alfa gearing is spot on. Fifth is a beautiful, useful gear which makes maximum use of engine power and revs in the upper speed ranges — it wastes nothing. In Italy they’re not afraid to gear their cars in a way which demands plenty of revs.

Both cars have five-speed gearboxes. The Datsun’s feel distinctly Japanese in its change action, though it’s considerably slower than some of the small-car flick-change boxes that come from there. The hold-up is caused by slow syncro action rather than awkward movement. The placement of the lever at a slightly bent arm’s length is superb for all drivers.

The Alfa gearbox seems to “flow” between ratios — it doesn’t have the same “click-click” action as the Datsun. The action is terribly well defined, the lever seems to s-l-i-d-e between slots.

The Alfa clutch is a bit more sudden than the 240Z’s. It had a sporty action and a very strong bite, though the pedal itself wasn’t all that heavy. The Datsun’s is much more of a “sedan car” clutch — it’s light, has a long travel and a gentle takeup. The distance your foot has to move in and out on the pedal can be a damn nuisance in city driving.

PERFORMANCE:

The Datsun doesn’t have quite the edge you’d expect in a straight line. Sure, it’s faster than the Alfa, but only by a second to 80 km/h (50 mph) and most of that is caused by the Alfa’s slower initial acceleration (between standstill and 30 km/h.

The Datsun beats the Alfa across the standing quarter mile by 1.2 seconds (our best 240Z time was 16.4 sec) but the gap widens considerably as the cars get up around the 160 km/h mark.

On roads where speeds stay below 130 km/h, the Alfa’s superb road manners and steering accuracy keep it ahead of the 240Z, but over that, the bigger car’s power and torque come into their own.

RIDE:

Neither car rides really well — the Alfa because it’s set up with very firm springs and dampers for good handling on smooth roads; the Datsun because its damper rates don’t suit the car at all and allow a good deal of bouncing and lurching over bumps.

In other words, the rides of the cars are poles apart.

The Alfa rode surprisingly quietly and felt solid, though it couldn’t be thumped over bad bumps. We had no argument with that arrangement because the resulting handling was so very good.

But the Datsun, if it had been ours, would have been into the nearest suspension tuners for a set of stiffer (probably adjustable) shockers. Fast. It surprised us that even though the Datsun seemed to use a great deal of suspension travel, it actually bottomed only a few times during our 1600 kilometre test.

And it positively amazed us that while the body was jumping around so much, the car inevitably pointed in the right direction, refusing to be thrown off line by irregularities even though they were tossing the occupants around.

These are the qualities of a good rally car.

HANDLING:

You all know the answer. The Alfa has the edge around corners. It rolls very little under high cornering forces, points truly with just a touch of initial understeer and can be made to oversteer if the driver is prepared to provoke it enough.

The response to throttle back off is superbly quick and very stable. As we said the nose has a slight tendency to wash-out on corners taken with plenty of power on. To tuck it back into line that half-degree all you have to do is ease off the power for a second — you don’t actually decelerate, you just stop accelerating. In time, the habit becomes second nature to you and almost imperceptible to any but the most sensitive passengers.

Above 145 km/h (90 mph) the Alfa becomes rather tippy-toes and has a tendency to wander rather a lot in cross-winds. It’s the only small chink we could find in the Alfa’s armor.

The Datsun, while capable of cornering hard and neutrally on smooth surfaces, just doesn’t have the Alfa’s refinement. Actual handling characteristics — mild understeer changing to oversteer at the limit — are similar to the 1.6 GT’s, but there isn’t the same stability or that feeling of being “in touch” with the road.

Because of its higher gearing, the Datsun’s engine braking and therefore weight transfer to the front wheels during throttle back-off wasn’t as great as we’d have liked.

BRAKES:

Both cars stop very well. The Alfa’s all-disc system feels more powerful than the Datsun’s disc/drum layout but it’s a rather fine distinction.

Pressed to the point of absurdity, the Datsun’s rears will lock up first but at that stage the car feels as though it’s being ground into the road by braking force. Our test car showed no tendency to slew right or left, even after lockup was provoked.

The Alfa stops with just as much efficiency as the Datsun but less drama because there’s far less nose dive and no lockup, something that has been evident in many other Alfa GTs we have driven. STEERING:

Even though there are only 2.7 turns from lock to lock, the Datsun’s steering isn’t all that heavy at low speeds — it’s certainly light enough for a woman to use around town. The system does, however, get heavier as the cornering forces rise.

The Alfa offers less on paper — 3.7 turns from lock to lock and recirculating ball operation, but it’s ultimately the sharper, more sensitive system. The Alfa needs little effort to steer and it seems a pity to us that the steering ratio isn’t a bit quicker.

NOISE:

As we said before the Alfa engine — both valve gear and exhaust — makes noises which the enthusiast will love, but there’s very little suspension noise. The thing which dates the Bertone body design more than anything is the enormity of the wind noise at higher speeds —above 130 km/h. The Datsun, a more recent design, seems to cleave the air much better though its suspension noise over rough going can be intrusive. Probably because there’s just so much moving going on.

DRIVING POSITION:

One of the major reasons for the Datsun’s first class highway cruising ability is its seating position. The buckets support you well (particularly in the small of the back where you can get unbearably tired after just an hour or two in the wrong seats) and there’s an excellent range of fore/aft movement. A man would have to be close to six and a half feet tall to use the rearmost driver’s seat position.

The wheel is very well placed, both in relation to the seat and to the gearlever. It’s fairly high, which gives large drivers plenty of knee room and angled just right. Seatbelts are poorly located from the comfort angle and they’re hard to adjust.

The Alfa driving seat strikes you immediately as being less roomy all round than the Datsun’s, lower to the road, but nevertheless giving a more commanding view of the bonnet and the road. Despite the age of the design, the Alfa has more glass and a lower waistline than the 240Z. Knee and elbow room is adequate in the Alfa, but it’s not generous. Australian drivers will miss the face-level air vents most new cars provide.

The buckets support you well, despite an initial impression that they’re rather thin. The pedals which pivot at the floor in the decades-old Porsche/ Alfa style look as though they’re going to be bad news, but once your size tens get used to the “different” action, they’re easy to use.

EQUIPMENT:

The Alfa looks fairly spartan (in fact it’s a “Belmont” version of the 2-litre GTV) with its plastic steering wheel and minor gauges hung onto the underside of the dash, not set into it as with the grander Alfas. Fortunately, the equipment area is the only one in which Alfa has economised with the 1.6 GT.

The Datsun’s biggest bonus feature is its third door at the rear. This provides access to a very generous boot space (for a two-seater). Its main disadvantage is that all the goodies in the boot can’t be hidden. It has a radio and heated rear window as standard equipment.

FINISH:

The Datsun isn’t finished spectacularly in terms of paintwork and panel fit, though it’s quite good enough to compete with local assembly jobs. But we were particularly impressed with its body regidity and suspension strength. It could be really wrung out over the rough stuff and would come back for more — smiling!

We feel that this strength, and the long-lasting qualities of its seven-bearing, low-stressed six cylinder donk, would make the Datsun a long-lasting car even in unsympathetic hands.

The Alfa, by virtue of its specification — hard working engine, stiff suspension — and the fact that it encourages you to use it hard, would need a sympathetic owner if it were to match the Datsun for longevity. Still, there are many enthusiasts who relish the thought of owning a car of character, tender in spots but capable of offering much, much more than transport.

The Datsun has many things going for it. Horny good looks, excellent straight line performance, conspicuously good value and lasting ability are the principal ones. But to us, and we dare say to nearly any other enthusiast who drives the two cars together, the Alfa has to be preferable.