Jeremy Clarkson (yes, that Jeremy Clarkson) famously declared once that you cannot be a true petrolhead until you have owned an Alfa Romeo.
There is no doubt that there exists a hardened, loyal fan base of Alfa Romeo enthusiasts, sometimes referred to as Alfisti
However, mainstream opinion is generally that Alfa Romeos are appalling Italian rust-buckets that will leave you stranded on the side of the road every time you turn the key.
In fact, if you ever watched the Top Gear Alfa Romeo special, then you will have seen Alfas behaving the way most people expect them to behave!
Is that true? Or are Alfa Romeo cars veritable “hidden gems” that allow you to get into something stylish and exciting for often very little money.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of used Alfa Romeo ownership, to determine whether or not you should buy a used Alfa Romeo.
Are Alfa Romeos Really As Unreliable As People Claim?
The biggest thing that puts people off buying an Alfa Romeo is generally the belief that they are incredibly unreliable cars.
In fact, “unreliable” is probably the first word that pops into the head for most people when asked about Alfa Romeo.
But are Alfa Romeos really as unreliable as people say?
In our personal experience, no. At the very least, Alfas aren’t as bad as most people claim.
They certainly aren’t as reliable on a whole as Japanese cars (read our article here on why Japanese cars are generally more reliable for information on this very topic). However, many people own Alfa Romeo cars and have enjoyable, largely trouble-free ownership that is very rewarding.
The big issues with Alfa Romeo reliability are:
- Build quality is generally poor, especially on older Alfa Romeos – While the actual mechanical components e.g. gearbox, engine and so on can often be quite reliable with correct maintenance (and a dash of luck) the biggest issue you will notice with Alfa Romeos is that build quality is generally poor. Plastics are low quality and prone to perishing, trim items come loose and fall off – it’s all part of the Alfa Magic.
- Electrical problems – From our research and experience, electrical issues seem to be the biggest problem with many Alfa Romeos. It’s not uncommon to see the dashboard light up like a Christmas tree with all manner of warning lights, or for things to happen like the climate controls to suddenly stop working (on an Alfa Romeo 156 owned by one of the editors of this site, he turned on the car one day to find that the climate controls were reversed – i.e. hot would make cold air come out!) Invest in a good OBD2 scanner, so that you can check in on warning errors and electrical issues and determine the potential seriousness of the issue. This will save you a lot of hassle and money. Also ensure you invest in a quality battery and look after it; many issues are caused by low battery voltage.
- You must be diligent in changing the cambelt/timing belt – Many people assume that the cambelt/timing belt in a car only needs to be changed every 60,000 miles or 100,000 kilometres. This is not the case for an Alfa Romeo, and there have been many Alfas claimed by improper timing system maintenance. Check the exact requirements for the specific car and engine type you are looking at, but be prepared to change the cambelt every 3-5 years and at low mileage intervals.
- Lots of niggly problems – In our experience (as well as the experiences of many others) Alfas can have a tendency to be cars that are never quite working 100% right. While it’s rare to have an Alfa Romeo leave you totally stranded at the side of the road, it’s not uncommon to have a car that will always be needing something done to it. With Alfas you have a greater chance of picking up a “Friday Afternoon Special” – a car that wasn’t assembled to the highest standard, and which will always need some love and attention. If this is a problem, then look elsewhere!
If you’re going to buy a used Alfa Romeo, then the most important things to do from a perspective of reliability and maintenance are:
- Buy the best condition example you can find – Don’t buy on mileage alone. Take your time to inspect, check, and test the vehicle and buy the best condition example for your budget. Look for an Alfa that has been owned by an enthusiast as opposed to someone who just bought one because they needed a cheap car, and may not have maintained it properly. Consider saving up extra so that you can buy a better condition example to start with. Another tip is also to look on Alfa Romeo forums, message boards etc to try and find cars for sale – someone may be able to put you in touch with an owner looking to sell.
- Budget for maintenance and repairs – As with all cars, there is more to the cost of ownership than the “price of admission”. Make sure you budget for comprehensive maintenance and repairs on your Alfa. Realistically, you will need to spend some money soon after purchasing. Don’t let your entire budget be swallowed up by the purchase price, and then not have enough for repairs and maintenance – that is a one way ticket to trouble and pain!
- Find a good local specialist – If you’re not going to do the work yourself, then find a trusted local Alfa specialist mechanic. Don’t bother with main dealers or non-specialists, as you will either pay too much or have someone working on your car who simply isn’t knowledgeable enough on Alfa Romeos. Check on Alfa Romeo forums (listed further in this article) for recommendations on good specialists in your area.
Are Alfa Romeos Good To Drive?
Considering that Alfa Romeos are never the “class leader” for performance (either in terms of handling or straight line speed) and that they do have a poor reputation – and certainly great capability – for going wrong, why would anybody actually buy one?
The answer to this is simple – most Alfas are great to drive.
There really is something to that argument of “Alfa Romeo magic” that you can only understand when you have driven one for yourself.
Alfa Romeo do a superb job at making you feel connected to the car, which in turn leads to an enjoyable driving experience. The combination of this plus the undeniably bold and beautiful styling that most Alfas possess, means you are in command of something truly special.
From the humble twin spark through to the legendary busso V6, Alfas are all generally exciting to drive, even if they are not class leading.
Why Do Alfas Have Such A Cult Following?
The other thing you’ll notice when you buy a used Alfa Romeo is that you are joining the wider family of Alfisti.
Everywhere you go, you will notice other Alfa Romeos.
Alfa owners will come up to you at the petrol station or supermarket car park to talk to you about your car (and theirs) – at least in our experience.
Alfas have a “cult” following because of their unique, special nature. You need to be a certain type of person to buy and own an Alfa long-term, simply because of the compromises you need to make in order to own one. It’s natural, therefore, that people of this persuasion would congregate together whether online or offline.
If you do decide to buy a used Alfa, then you should consider joining one of the many excellent web forums dedicated to these beautiful cars. We recommend the following:
- Alfa Owner – https://www.alfaowner.com/
- Alfa BB – https://www.alfabb.com/
Conclusion – Should You Buy A Used Alfa Romeo?
Our view – for what it’s worth – is that if the opportunity presents itself to buy a used Alfa Romeo that interests you AND you are willing to “walk away” from the car if it all goes terribly wrong, then you should buy it. You might eventually wind up once bitten and twice shy, but the first taste will always be a memorable one.
While Alfas are never the best performers in their class, there is some definite truth to that claim of Alfa Romeo magic.
It’s actually very hard to put a finger on it. In some respects, it could almost be seen a bit like Luke switching off his targeting computer in Star Wars and using the Force instead; on paper, there were better ways to have blown up the Death Star. However, the Force was there to win the day.
On paper, there are definitely better cars than an Alfa Romeo in any class (perhaps the only exception being that the current Giulia QV could well be the best compact, high-performance sedan on the market).
However, in any class of car there will be very few vehicles that have the same sense of purpose and occasion that Alfa Romeos have.
Furthermore, there are few cars that come close to being as well styled as Alfa Romeos are. Only the Italians have such style.
Owning an Alfa Romeo is one of those things you have to experience in order to believe. On paper, it makes no sense – on the road, you will almost certainly become a “believer”.
The good news is that Alfa Romeos can generally be found for sale for very reasonable prices, and even basic models can be great to drive.
I had an Alfa Romeo 156 JTS for a while, which I purchased practically sight unseen for only a small sum. That still ranks as one of the best cars I have ever driven, and because it was so inexpensive to buy I didn’t mind “walking away” when it eventually developed a serious oil consumption issue in true Alfa Romeo fashion. Long story short, the purchase and ownership experience was well worth it and I have many fond memories of driving that car!
What are your thoughts on Alfa Romeo? Would you buy an Alfa Romeo second hand? Or do you think it’s a crazy idea? We would love to hear your feedback and input – so please feel free to leave a comment below.