23 Oct 2013

Living with - Alfa Romeo GT

The car - 2005 Alfa Romeo GT JTD
Owner - Stu Rush

I promised to do an honest non-biased write up of owning and driving daily my Alfa GT JTD. I suppose if I had to use a phrase, it would be "Living with", quite fortunate then that this is exactly what it is.

A little history

I'm fortunate that I've known my GT since new as it was first owned by my Alfa-fanatic boss. She had it serviced on the dot and never went above 2000 revs when the engine was cold. It was their third car on the driveway, so had lower than average miles. It was well maintained, hence why I bought it as soon as she mentioned she was thinking about selling. I bought this in September 2011 with 51000 miles on the clock, the car was first registered on January 1st 2006.

First Impressions

The Alfa Romeo GT was launched in 2004, making it nine years old now.  So how does the exterior styling hold up? Has the Italian bella lost her looks? This depends on where you stand, literally. Viewed from the front the headlights are similar to the hatchback cousin the 147 and Great Aunt the 156, dating it as far back then as 1998 and yes, it's looking a little tired.

No multi LEDs here or even blue tinted halogens, but the grille is still unique, that great big Alfa shield taking centre stage like a knight's standard, which is exactly how it was intended to be. This makes it easily identifiable and with the registration plate out on the left hand side it makes a change from the norm.

I have discovered a drawback to this, if you enter the prepay parking car park at *London Olympia, you will still have to get out and speak to the attendant as the automatic number plate recognition cameras cannot see the whole of the plate.  Not a big inconvenience, unless you were one of the several cars stuck behind me the other day.

*other car parks are available

From the sides though this car is still simply gorgeous, not at all dated. The panels and doors that look like they were sculpted from Italian marble by Michelangelo on his victory lap are wonderful, but are also magnets for supermarket shopping trolleys and people-carrier passenger doors, due to the lack of protective strip. Which had they been there would have ruined the aforementioned handy work of Mr Angelo. The rear is, erm...tidy. The high boot does cause some slight visibility issues when reversing, coupled with the smallish rear window, but hey, you spend 99% of the time going forwards right? And it does have rear parking sensors for the squeamish.

Inside, and the toys

Now, opinions are split between us GT owners on this. Yes, leather seats were standard and jolly good they are too with firm sports style bum holders with good lumbar support and after a few hours you still feel pretty much ok. I've owned a 2005 Mondeo and a 2002 Volvo V40 and both had better comfort on long journeys but I think Alfa got the mix of style and substance right considering this is a GT coupe and not a large repmobile or mini cab. The downside though is the plastic dashboard, looking old and even a tad cheap, which is a shame when I think of what they could have done for the same money. Let's remember though that the interior also shares a lot with the 147 and it was cheaper and easier to 'borrow' that rather than start all over again. Poor show there from the purse holders at Fiat.

So what do you get in the GT? Mine is the first batch, not a special edition Blackline or Cloverleaf or even a Q2, so no Bose sound system. The stereo headunit is functional, CD player, 18 presets etc etc. On the plus side, stereo control from the steering wheel is standard, very handy as the head unit buttons are obviously designed for delicate Italian hands and not the rest of us, who bizarrely may actually want to change stations on the motorway at 70mph!

Standard again are aircon and heated front & rear screens and now this is good - individual heater settings. So should your passenger insist that they cannot travel below 25.5°C they can, whilst you relax at a chilly 24°C. Genius. Of course, I'm being sarcastic.  Why bother with that but not improve the dash? I know what I would prefer. The layout of the dials and gauges really is superb for the driver - sporty, easy to read and at night when illuminated, just damn sexy.

The trip computer is basic but useful and has fuel consumption, temperature and tells you the amount of miles left in the tank, though experience tells me to advise you not to trust that. Imagine being in the foot hills of Tuscany at 3am and asking a friendly Italian chap if he thinks you have enough fuel to get to the nearest petrol station -  lots of arm waving & Si Si but you're still not convinced he's telling you the truth or the football scores from Serie A.

Also as standard are ABS and traction control, which can be switched off for erm.. fun.

I digress. The rear seats collapse forward, making the inside huge, thus revealing what many already guessed. The GT is based on the 156 saloon running gear, giving you a very large two door coupe with saloon car boot space. I've had two greyhounds and two suitcases in there on a 3 hour journey, with the dogs stretched out fully and there's still space for your girlfriends shoes, so you know I'm talking serious cavern back there.

Engine and other oily bits

Mine is the 1.9 JTD 16v. This is shared with the Fiat Ducato and Vauxhall Vectra, making it a little cheaper for some parts then going to an Alfa dealer (please note that I would never recommend going to an Alfa dealer for an out of warranty service or part, unless you have more time than God and more money than a high street coffee shop chain on tax returns day). The engine gave 150bhp from the factory and it's pretty torquey, with lots of low down power throughout the six gears. Aside from typical diesel turbo lag, it's a great if a little noisy power plant - and on the motorway is a lot quieter.

You can easily cruise at 90mph (not in this country, and of course that is hearsay) all day long. I've had mine remapped to 190bhp, which got rid of a lot of the turbo lag and gives me smoother acceleration in higher gears. I'm no boy racer any longer but it's nice to have. Of course, this can lead to early turbo and transmission/clutch woes but it was my choice. There are several recommended tuning houses with Alfa experience.

This engine in the JTD Alfa's is noted for EGR clogging issues, but it can be removed by a competent DIYer and cleaned, replaced and as good as new. Mine failed but I bought a new one that was fitted by my local indy Alfa/Fiat garage, not too cheap but my skills and patience are limited. Other than that, it's a good strong engine and unless you have ragged it, even the turbo is known to last a long time.

One important tip though is to check when the timing belt is due to be changed. Alfa handbook says 72000 miles, however owners will tell you from experience that 50,000, or even 35,000 miles is the max. The main reason is that the the water pump is connected to this same pulleys, and this has a notoriously bad plastic design, which can give way therefore taking your timing belt and valves with it. Ignore this advice at your peril!

The gearbox is good, with usual diesel short ratio 1st gear but great leggy higher gears for long pulls throughout the rev range. It's worth noting that the GT has a heavy clutch as normal, but you soon get used to this.

The Fun Stuff

OK, so is it worth the niggles of owning an ageing Alfa Romeo? Yes. What? I have to explain more? OK, let's talk grin factor. Huge, huge amounts for a non supercar or high spec Beamer or Audi. It handles fantastically on corners, even the heavier oil burner. It's a firm ride sure, but it's a GT coupe after all.

On a safe, smooth (yeah, good luck finding one) country lane on a quiet afternoon you can give the impression to other motorists that you are on various happy pills and have possibly just escaped from an institution for the mentally unstable because all they will see is your dumb, grinning face as you exit a bend or crest a hill. This is the main reason to buy the GT, it is so much fun to drive, even on busier roads. I have had many cars but this is the most fun. The double wishbone suspension is efficient and feels safe and firm in a turn. The turbo diesel gives a nice pace, and I'm talking the standard 150bhp here. Not a great car to race from the lights, with an official time for 0-60 at a shade over 9 seconds but when you get going it's plenty for legal use. I cannot praise the torque on this car enough, it feels like it will last for ever.

Daily Driving

I use my GT every day to work and back and weekends, like the rest of you for trips to the shops. I do around 140 miles per week and return on average 42mpg. Of course on motorway journey it goes way way higher, in to the 50's. My commute is 10 miles each way at 50-60mph, which is nice as it keeps that EGR clean with regular driving to flush out those nasty carbon deposits. Oil use is surprisingly low, I had the 2.0 twinspark 156 petrol previously and that uses a lot more than the diesel during it's healthy state. Oh, and avoid potholes, as the firm ride acerbates these and this can result in early demise of your suspension, see Niggles below.

Niggles and What To Look For

Apart from the aforementioned timing belt (and I cannot stress enough the need to check that on this engine) there are not too may notable regular failings. The biggest is probably the suspension - the upper wishbones are notorious for failing early, sometimes as little as 15-20,000 miles and the lower wishbones are not much better, with bushes coming a close third. This is annoying because it's a quality issue Alfa knew about way before the GT was designed. It was first noted on the 156, which you recall has the same running gear as the GT and 147. Again, bad form from Alfa on that one. To get my uppers and track control arm replaced cost around £300. Finally, lower turbo hose is a common failure, as there's a screw or bolt on the gearbox that can rub against it and pierce it. Easily fixed by getting a silicon one with lifetime guarantee for around £50, which is what I did before mine failed, as a preventative measure.

And in conclusion...

Of course I love it, it's why I keep it on the road. It's far from perfect of course but touch wood, it's never let me down in 18 months and 15000 miles. Would I change anything? Yes, I''d get the V6 with it's 3.2 petrol engine. However that's not practical for my wallet, so as a daily driver this car is great. Diesel frugality with sports handling and Italian goddess looks, all for 5k. Feel free to ask me anything about this and I'll be honest with you.