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The Alfa Romeo 164 is one of those underappreciated sorts of vehicles. As a large, 4-door sedan (more typically called a saloon in its usual markets in Europe), it's more or less the last sort of car you'd expect to find fun to drive. When I bought mine, a 1993 model, used off another Sailor stationed at Naples, Italy with me for the low price of $1500, I figured it would be just a random bang-around car with enough cargo space to haul anything I might ever need to.

When I went out to the lot to see it for the first time, I was also fairly unimpressed - the car was a bit dingy from road grime and slightly pranged up. Nevertheless, there was still something that told me this one would be a little more than meets the eye. Over the next two years (until it finally got stolen, unfortunately), I learned to appreciate the Italian driving experience. In fact, the only other non-sportscar that I've ever driven, that matched up to the Alfa 164 in terms of driver experience, was in fact the BMW 530i.

Now, it's not just a cheap knockoff of the 5-series - not at all. It's an Alfa Romeo, through and through, and it is distinctly Italian. You can tell, just by looking at it. It looks almost conservative, at a first glance, vaguely boxy. Nevertheless, something about it, the way it seems to angle slightly downward, or the wedge-like profile, says clearly that this is not your Granny's sedate little Ford Taurus-equivalent.

When you climb inside, the feeling is reinforced. The rear seats are comfortable with decent amounts of legroom, as might be expected of a large sedan, but it's pretty clear that the front seats - and especially the driver's seat - have been given more attention. There's plenty of space, and the front seats are more than usually comfortable. I've yet to see one with leather seats, or even leather trim, but you won't miss it. As for controls, I'm convinced this car was designed by a Unix user. There's a large array of controls on both the column and the center console, more or less an independent control for each feature. There's hardly any control overloading. It can be a bit intimidating for newbies, especially if you're used to GM's overloaded stick controls, but once you know what they all do, and where they all are, you can change just about any setting, turn on any light, all without taking your eyes off the road or futzing around trying to figure out which mode you're in now.

Once you really get going, you'll appreciate the no-fumfering controls, and really getting going is what this car is good at. It's not like a Mustang, or a Corvette, where you press the pedal and take off like a pissed off missile, though. Instead, it takes off at a rather moderate, though still snappy pace, accelerating from 0-60 in a quick-yet-reasonable 7.5 seconds (0-100km/h in about 7.2), but unlike you Granny's Ford, it doesn't run out of oomph at 88km/h. Instead, it's just getting started. Merging onto the SS-7 just outside of Naples, I'd still be in 3rd gear at 88km/h, and nowhere near redline. Once cruising in 5th gear, the accelerator's sweet spot put you between 160 and just shy of 200km/h. Reaching 200km/h is not at all difficult in any of the V6 models, like mine, and the top-end at 240km/h or so is eminently achievable.

Also unlike most any American four-door, it's not only capable of going fast, but stable and controllable at high speeds. The 3.0L V6 versions can feel slightly nose-heavy, but not worrisomely so. It stays glued to the road, smooth and steady unless the driver does something stupid. I could take curves at 130+ km/h without any loss of control, that would feel iffy at 80km/h in the Dodge Neon I drive now - doubly surprising when you consider that the 164 is longer and heavier than the Neon by a solid margin. The only handling issue I ever noticed was a wee bit of torque steer while accelerating.

It's not without its warts, though. A lot of the interior is made of plastic that grows brittle under extended exposure to sun, and the electrical system is occasionally a bit wonky. That said, the major guts - engine, transmission, axles, brakes and fuel system - are rock solid. I never once had major-guts problems, despite driving a 12-year-old, ill-maintained vehicle more than 80 kilometers per day, usually at over 160km/h.

There were five major engine options available, three common and two unusual. The standard options were a 2.0L twin spark inline four, a 2.5L turbodiesel and a 3.0L V6, available in 12-valve and 24-valve variants. The unusual ones were a 2.0L turbocharged I4 and a 2.0L turbocharged V6. I had the turbo-6 option, generally regarded as the peppiest for highway driving, though the 3.0L takes off better and doesn't suffer from turbo lag and boost threshold issues.

A 5-speed manual transmission is standard on the 164, though a 5-speed automatic is also available. I never once saw it in Italy, though, and my research suggests it was mostly sold in the USA and the UK. Most models were front-wheel drive, though an all-wheel drive version, monikered as Quadrifoglio (Cloverleaf) was also sold, exclusively with the 24-valve V6 option. 4-wheel disc brakes and air conditioning are also standard options.

Nowadays, the 164 is pretty hard to find in the US, though it's still common as dirt in Italy, especially around Naples. If you can get one, I recommend it. It's a BMW-class driving experience, for a fraction of the cost.

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