The cars we loved.
The concept of the hot hatch had taken off around the world by the mid 1980’s, but it’s counterpoint the hot compact sedan was still in its infancy. Europe was the early leader in this segment with notable efforts from Audi and BMW. The Germans were great performers, but it took the Italians to heat up the segment with an affordable hot sedan in the form of Alfa Romeo’s 75/Milano. The Milano was a red-blooded compact executive sedan with performance very much in the spirit of famous Alfas of the past.
The Alfa Romeo 75 was the popular successor to the Giulietta sedan. It was sold from 1985 to 1992 and marked a few important milestones for Alfa. The name of the 75 was derived from Alfa’s 75th year anniversary (in the US it was called the Milano). More importantly it was the last Alfa developed before Fiat took over and one of the last RWD Alfa sedan to be sold in the United States.
Like most road going Italians, the 75 was exciting to look at. The extreme wedge shape was unique, even among boxy 80’s cars. Styled in Italy by Alfa’s design studios, it managed to be both striking and purposeful looking at the same time. While most of the automotive world was being influenced by Audi and Ford’s new aerodynamic look, the Milano was a bold departure, almost deconstructivist with its sharp angles and conflicting volumes. The seemingly un-aerodynamic design still managed a respectable cd of .034, putting it in line with the typical sedan of the period.
The US cars differed from their European counterparts by the use of large rubber moldings on the bumpers to conform to US crash and safety regulations. There were other differences, mostly related to options like cruise control (nearly all US cars had it) otherwise they were almost identical in appearance.
The compact dimensions of the 75 combined with its 2.5 l V6 meant spirited performance. 0 to 60 times were reported at just under 8 seconds. Top speed was around 140 mph. All of this was achieved while delivering near 30 mpg on the highway. With an nearly perfect 50/50 front to rear weight distribution, the 75 had ideal track manners and was a joy to drive in the curves. A five speed gearbox connected to the rear wheels helped propel the 75 to top ten lists in the European and American automotive press. To put the Milano’s performance in perspective, it was often compared with Porsche, BMW and even Ferrari in terms of driving dynamics. In essence, it was the Italian equilovent of BMW’s 3 series, slightly before it became the Ultimate Driving machine in the minds of performance minded Americans. The Milano was by no means a typical sedan. It developed a reputation as being a hard-core enthusiast’s car while BMW’s 3 series (which offered similar performance) became the poster car for the upwardly mobile.
Alfa produced a number of limited edition specialty 75s, that never made it to the US market. In Europe engine displacements taxes favored smaller engines below 2.5 l. As a result, smaller displacements often became the basis of high performance cars. For Alfa, this meant using turbocharging on the 2.5 and 1.8 L engines. Very few of these cars were built using the 2.5 and eventually the engine was modified to 3.0 l and sold as the “America” in Europe with American style bumpers and the option of a catalytic converter. There were usually separate assembly lines for North American and European bound cars.
The rarest of the 75s was the Turbo Evoluzione of 1987. 500 were built to meet the requirements of Group A racing and were sold in Europe only. The car was built around a 1.8 l turbo inline 4 producing 155 hp. Though not a lot of power, it was more tuner friendly. It was instantly recognizable due to its aggressive ground effects and low racing car. Stylistic attributes of the Evoluzione would find its way to other 75/Milanos, mostly in the form of ground effects and wheel designs.
Outside of the US, the 75 was available in no less than six configurations ranging from inline fours, turbos to a 3 litre V6. In the US, only the 155 hp 2.5 V6 was available initially. There were three US trim levels: Silver, Gold or Platinum. Platinum cars had, air, alloy wheels and leather interior. In 1987 a new model called the QV (Quadrifoglio Verde) was added using a 3.0 l V6.
The new engine produced 183 hp and like all Milano’s used Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection. The QV name was usually reserved for Alfas top performing regular production models as the QV was in the US.
With the 75/Milano, the QV exterior appearance was similar to the aggressive looking Evoluzione. Standard items for the QV were mostly performance bits, including a 5-speed manual transmission coupled with a limited-slip rear differential. Many included a Recardo leather interior and a computer controlled engine monitoring system (similar to what was being used in certain Cadillac and Nissans). The complexity of the 75/Milano did not end with interior options. Mechanically, Alfa offered some advanced and sometimes unusual technology. A laundry list of modern mechanical principles were employed in the 75 including limited slip differentials, twin cams with two sparks per cylinder and variable valve timing.
By the late 80’s some of these technologies were still in their infancy. For Alfa, the aggressive use of so many advance technologies in one car meant that the possibility of problems developing was greater under normal use conditions, especially for a car design to be driven aggressively. Like many Italian cars from the era, the Milano developed electrical problems and other small quality control issues. Sales were good, but mounting recalls, improved competition from Japan and unfavorable exchange rates all conspired to force Alfa and other smaller European car makers out of the US market.
Today road going Milanos are a rare sight. Often Milano basically had robust mechanicals but require a bit more maintaince than the typical American or Japanese car of the same vintage. For that reason used ones usually end up pampered by their owners, if not downright abused by would be tuners and weekend racers. The 75 continued in Europe where it still is a popular model. Today’s equilovant in Alfa’s line is the 159, a sedan that comes in 4 and 5 door configurations. There was talk at one time of Alfa returning completely to the US with a string of new products via Chrysler. It’s very likely that a new compact Alfa sedan in the US will be just as bit as compelling as the Milano was in the 80’s. One can only hope that it will be more reliable.