The cars we loved.
In America, we think of Alfa Romeos as passionately designed red-hot thoroughbreds with Ferrari like aspirations at more reasonable prices. Films like the Graduate forever etched Alfa Romeo as a fun-loving brand for the young at heart. Romantic views aside, most Americans experienced Alfa quality as poor and its cars as being mechanically fussy. It was part of the reason that Alfa Romeo left the US market in 1995.
Alfa was aware of its quality reputation and sought out to change it with a partnership with Nissan, who was considered to be on the opposite end of the quality charts. On paper it should have worked out for both parties. Alfa wanted better quality and reliability and who better than the robot building Japanese in the form of Nissan to help. For Nissan, it wanted more visibility in Europe and desperately wanted to hang out with the Italians, to gain continental street cred for future products. It seemed like the makings of an 80’s teen comedy where the nerd gets a date with a cheerleader and tricks her into baring a lovechild.
The child of this union would be Alfa’s Arna. The name was an acronym meaning Alfa Romeo Nissan Autoveicoli. Whatever it meant, it looked like the Nissan Cherry/Pulsar that it was based on. The Pulsar could very well have been the poster child the generic “Japanese Car” . The kind of car that was the target of so many “Buy America” witch hunts and smash ups in the States during the 80’s. Its geometric hard edges looked modern and even attractive, but did not fit well or relate to anything else in Alfa’s line up. Remove the Alfa badge from the front and the Arna could be mistaken for almost any Pulsar or Mazda 323 out there. The car it replaced, the beloved Alfasud had far more personality (if not better reliability). The front wheel drive Arna came in 3 or 5 door hatch configurations. Two SOHC boxer fours in 1.2 or 1.3L displacements were initially available. There were three trims available including the base L, SL and Ti with its 1.5L after 1983.
The construction process was a convoluted one that no doubt added to the cost of the Arna. Body panels were constructed in Japan and shipped to Alfa’s Pratol Serra factory in Italy for final assembly. Japanese mechanicals with Italian design sounded like a good match. Other Japanese companies were flirting with global ventures like Honda’s successful deal with England’s Sterling Motors. Unfortunately, the very problems that Nissan and Alfa’s union hoped to alleviate were made worse – somehow. On paper it all added up to what should have been a capable little car. The small engines produced anywhere from 67 to 94hp. When coupled with the standard 5 speed manual transmission, the Arna could get up to 37 mpg.
Performance was more or less an afterthought. At less than 2,000lb., the Arna had the potential to be a spirited performer, although it was neither best or worse in its class. Top speeds of 110mph and sub 11 second 0 to 60 times were typical of smaller rivals, most of which were more exciting to look at than the Arna. The Arna suffered from some of the same issues that made the Alfasud unreliable but had none of its charm to make up for it. Even with a fully independent Nissan built rear suspension, the Arna was never able to capture the imagination of the press or public, despite being touted for its fun to drive factory in Alfa promotional materials.
The interior was simple, but sporty with a functional and handsome dashboard layout. That is where the Arna’s attributes seemed to end. Many were sold with 13’ styled steel wheels, making them look like cheap rental cars. Sales were dismal. In the four or so years that they were for sale, less than 54,000 were produced. Ford sold more Taurus sedans than that in just one of its bad years. The Arna lacked Alfa style and Nissan reliability and was shun by fans of both. After just four years on the market, Alfa threw in the towel in 1983 and replaced the Arna with the Alfa 33, a proper evolution of the old Alfasud. Nissan on the other hand decided that it would be better off gaining a foot hold in Europe by building its own factory in England and starting from scratch. It has been building successful European market cars from there ever since. It had seemed that the mating of the computer nerd with the cheerleader resulted in a dysfunctional and unloved child. A 2008 survey from an Italian newspaper revealed that the Arna as Italy’s ugliest car ever, taking 16% of the total votes. A lot has changed with Alfa’s small cars and quality control. With exciting products like the MiTo and Giulietta, Alfa has become good at building reliable small cars now and is contemplating a return to the US market. None of which might have been possible without the hard lessons learned with the Arna.