Home » I Drove Alfa Romeo’s ‘Worst Car Ever’ And It Wasn’t Really That Bad

I Drove Alfa Romeo’s ‘Worst Car Ever’ And It Wasn’t Really That Bad

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I’ll never forget being, like 12, a kid with an “old soul” and an above-grade-level reading ability. I buried my nose in then-new car forums, and whatever car periodical I could read in the magazine aisle while my mom filled the cart up with L’eggs Brown Sugar brand pantyhose.

Later, after we had spent the equivalent of a mortgage payment on groceries, I’d get in the car and annoy her with facts about the Volkswagen Passat, genuinely upset and clueless as to why the V6 engine in her Ford Econoline, and not a big German W8, was shuttling all seven of us around. She’d tell me to shut up, and that those opinions in those magazines aren’t real life. “Your opinion will change when you finally start driving, you’ll see, I promise,” she said.

I was convinced she was wrong. Those folks in the magazines and blogs and on Jalopnik WERE the real deal. Their opinions were the be-all and end-all, dammit! Spec sheets, 0-60 times, and whatever the guys online wrote were scripture! Except, when I started driving, I realized that my mom was right. 

And, after driving a car that the internet has said is one of the “worst” vehicles ever made, I realized once again that she’s right; that infamously bad car is the Alfa Romeo Arna.

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For those not in the know, the Alfa Arna is one of those cars that gets featured in the ubiquitous “10 Worst-Made Cars Ever” SEO-type lists (that’s “search engine optimization” — in other words, it’s about clicks and not about substance). The backstory is that in the 1980s, Italian brand Alfa Romeo wanted to replace its aging front-wheel drive Alfasud hatchback (see below) with a new model, but Alfa didn’t have the cash to develop an entirely new car on its own. Instead, the brand partnered with Nissan to develop a compact European hatchback.

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Image: Alfa Romeo brochure

Sort of. Alfa Romeo Arna’s body is merely a Nissan Cherry Europe with what appears to be an Alfa Romeo shield haphazardly glued to the front. Here’s a look at some Nissan Cherrys:

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Image: Nissan

Yet underneath, things are more complicated. The rear axle and suspension design from the Nissan Cherry were preserved, but the front half of the car is pure Alfa Romeo. The engine and transmission were from the old Alfasud, meaning a flat-four instead of an inline design. The front suspension and front brakes were also of Alfa origin, too.

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The result is something that most journalists over the past 15 years or so, like The Autopian’s Thomas Hundal, have said was “backwards.” It was an ugly car with unreliable engines that didn’t handle very well, and Alfa Romeo usually gets two out of those three things right.

Yet, when I got the chance to drive an example owned by famed Ohio collector Myron Vernis, I didn’t find those things at all. Even in the context of the era, I actually, uh, um, kind of liked the Alfa Arna.

Myron’s example is a very low mile, base level 3-door Arna. Power comes from a manual choke, carbureted, 1.2-liter flat-four, that made around 65 horsepower or so back in its heyday. It’s sent to the front wheels via a five-speed manual.

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Now, the Alfa Arna isn’t by any means fast. But I found it to be a sprightly lil’ thing. Remember, it’s a 1980s-era Nissan, so it’s basically made of tinfoil from Dollar General, meaning the car is super light. The Alfa Romeo flat-four is remarkably responsive for being a carbureted engine, and the car’s midrange pull is charmingly strong—the polar opposite from what would likely have been a Nissan E or C engine found under the hood of budget Nissans of the era.

Handling is entertaining too, albeit, the skinny and balloon 165/70/R13 tires do make the on-center feel a bit vague. Still, the Arna is a fun car to rip around Ohio in; roll the windows down, put the pedal to the floor, and let that raspy flat four fill your ear canals.

After about a 25-minute joyride and a quick photoshoot, I returned the car to Myron. For him, the Arna was a “Fuck it, why not?” purchase. But he’s been remarkably impressed with the car. We both agreed that the negative press and articles surrounding the car’s abilities were likely overblown, written by folks who hadn’t seen the car or let alone driven one. Is it pretty? Eh, it looks like every other generic 1980s Japanese hatchback. Nothing special, but hardly the automotive Quasimodo everyone made the thing to be.

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But, there’s no need to apologize for the Arna entirely. True, in a 25-minute drive, there’s no real way to ascertain the car’s reliability. Also, if you consider the Arna’s total sales numbers, it was a complete flop. Alfa Romeo kept the old Alfasud in production a bit longer until it readied a real replacement in the form of the Alfa Romeo 33. Both vastly outsold the Arna. (Fun fact: Despite the Alfasud’s well-deserved reputation for rust, it still stayed in production for nearly 20 years. You just don’t see that kind of tenacity anymore.) 

I’m just saying, drive the car and form your own opinion. [Editor’s Note: Agreed! Jason has been saying essentially this about the Yugo for years! -DT]. My mom was right: Just because someone says something online, doesn’t mean it’s gospel. You’re free to enjoy something your fave doesn’t like; get out there and drive things. 

Kevin Williams is an automotive journalist based in Ohio. His writing has appeared in Road & Track, Jalopnik, AutoGuide and many other places.

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44 Responses

  1. Thank you for the photos in this article, which show some perspectives of the Arna which are not that common and allow car geeks to see, for example, the rear tail light treatment and interesting vents in the front bumper.

  2. I’d argue that while you can’t ascertain a car’s reliability in a 25 minute drive, you certainly can ascertain the lack thereof in that time (not that it specifically applies to this car).

  3. I would like to see more of these revisits of worst car ever.
    Yugo
    Pinto
    Gremlin
    Reliant Robin
    Vega
    Volare
    Trabant
    TR7
    Aztek
    PT Cruiser (with manual transmission. There is no forgiveness for the slushbox)

    1. Wait – a Volare is on the list of worst cars? I learned to drive on its stablemate the Dodge Aspen and I won’t deny its malaise era sadness, but it was mid-pack to at worst somewhat below average in terms of any cars from that era. There’s no way a car that came with either a 225 Slant Six or the venerable 318 V8 can be among the worst ever. Just sayin’.

      1. I believe the reason for the Volare being on “worst” car lists is largely due to the first year examples that were rushed to market. The ’76 model year of the Volare and it’s Dodge Aspen cousin had like half a dozen mandatory recalls within a couple of years, including replacing the front fenders due to rusting out.

    2. I agree! Maybe Jason could get his Yugo running reliably (yes, I know: pause while you get your breath) and lend it to another writer for a couple weeks for a review?
      And, I’ll bet the audience here has those vehicles. If I had one of them, I’d happily address any major problems, then hand it over for a review.

      Call it, Reader’s Rides: Rant or Rave?

      (Ok, that’s why I don’t make a living with a keyboard)

    3. The Pinto fiasco was a case study in one of my accounting classes, and even the professor pointed out–it wasn’t unique! Everybody was hurriedly developing rear-gas-tank vehicles that weren’t quite gas guzzlers to rush to market! But Ford happened to get the first flammability incidents and the rest is history.

      And also the professor pointed out, they weren’t igniting with every crash! Only rear-ends, which–news flash–don’t constitute every car accident.

      Not to say I’d ever buy a Pinto…but that’s knowing modern car safety and weight. I’d gladly drive one on a closed course to test it out. (well, an automatic, at least…)

      As for the Aztek, I say nuts to anyone who includes that on their list. I love the Regular Car Reviews Aztek review. It’s like the automotive industry equivalent to a shitpost and I love it. I fully defend its appearance as “quirky”, not “bad.”

    4. I’ll add another: the Austin (/Rover/MG) Metro.
      Except I have driven more than one of these, and they were shite. You know it’s bad because even Rover tried to keep their badge off of it.

  4. Given that the Alfa-Nissan partnership wasn’t as durable as the Rover-Honda or GM-Toyota ones that started up around the same time and lasted for almost and over 20 years (respectively) and several design cycles, it does seem there was some “there” there for the Arna’s bad rep. That being said, a poor choice as a new car isn’t necessarily a bad used car or an unworthy classic car.

    1. The GM global badge swap thing AKA Geo was perhaps a bit better played since the Prizm/Toyota thing actually was a reliable if boring car. But I am not really sure I would say an 80’s Nissan was all that much better in the looks or rust prevention market. The down fall was not using the Nissan E series engine and trans. while not as reliable as the Sentra Tsuru GA16DE, they were still far and away better than the old flat four.

  5. “Those folks in the magazines and blogs and on Jalopnik WERE the real deal. Their opinions were the be-all and end-all, dammit! Spec sheets, 0-60 times, and whatever the guys online wrote were scripture!”

    Not me quietly whispering “My God, what have I done” as I edit this piece…

  6. The Alphasud looks like someone left a Mk2 GTI and a SAAB 900 parked together in a garage with some Barry White playing softly in the background.

  7. The problem with the old reviews is that they’re compared to contemporaries. To us, with our isolated, overweight, overpowered modern boremobiles, these ancient, dead simple analog vehicles offer a visceral connected experience that can’t be matched in a mainstream production vehicle today. Back then, these were common traits, so they were measured against the relative reliability, comfort, and performance of their competitors. To us, they’re fun and novel, but to them, an Arna would have been the arguably worse choice. My GR86 is talked about as one of the greatest driver’s cars today and I enjoy it, but I still greatly miss the actual steering and clutch feel of my uncelebrated ancient Subarus (contemporary to the Arna, but with a whopping 73 hp and a Mk1 Legacy) with manual or decent hydraulic racks (albeit enhanced by an aftermarket steering wheel, which no airbags meant was a cheap and easy swap) and the simplicity that made it feel like I was aware of every nut and bolt as if it were a part of me.

    With performance cars, this can work the other way. The Alfa Romeo Montreal, for example, was poorly reviewed partly for hanging onto a live axle against IRS in its competitors even though it was a good live axle instead of a (sometimes) poor independent one. Nevertheless, that certainly was an important thing for someone to consider when buying new back then. Now, none of that matters as most or all of those performance cars could be trounced by a modern hybrid CUV, so they’re bought for the experience they offer (or investment) that isn’t available new. Maybe we should start buying up these old preserved econo boxes for a similar analog feel at an affordable price (for now).

    1. Since you mentioned the Montreal, I owned one for seven years. By far the sexiest looking car I’ve ever owned. That said, I’ve had more fun driving the Arna over the past few months than I ever had with the Montreal.

      1. I wanted one for years, but the money kept going to the house or to help people and now they’re priced too high. Funny thing is, though, I’m sure I’d still think more highly of my old Subarus and I’d bet it’s largely the same reasons the Arna was fun (and it’s not nostalgia—I also had a 240 and 260Z mixed in there and they were nowhere near as good to drive with numb steering, wooden brakes, and underwhelming handling).

  8. I rented an Alfa in Elba in 1985. I have no photos, but it was beyond marvelous driving though the mountains and along the coast. It might have been an Arna, but, if it was, it was marvelous. Probably an Alfasud or 33 instead.

    1. Honestly, that was a major factor when I sold my last old (80s) Subaru in 2009. Tires were getting hard to find-and pricey when you found them-and most parts stores no longer stocked basic wear items like axles

  9. I had the Holden version of the same car that they called the Astra. Holden used their Family II engine in it but kept the Nissan electrical system…

  10. Alfa Romeo’s are lust. Lust that gets you in trouble and you know it’s going to happen. We have all dated the person super hot, wild sex and then you catch them with a knife in bed. Alfa’s are like that fun to drive but they will hurt you through repairs or not being reliable. Never approach an Alfa with the Idea of you have to get somewhere, it can smell that kind of need…. It will only hurt you.

  11. My recollection of period reviews is that this was a time when English car writers looked down on Japanese cars and so they treated it as a lesser product than a “proper” Italian Alfa. I also suspect that it wasn’t that good either since Nissans of the era were second tier. On the plus side the Arna didn’t rust, on the minus it clearly didn’t connect with buyers. Then again most “10 worst cars” lists are based more on legend and rumor than actual crappiness or ugliness.

  12. I feel for the marketer who had to write “So now there is a choice – a Nissan Cherry made in Japan or a Nissan Cherry made in Europe” – seriously? Was anyone asking for this? The only worthwhile reason was the ability to sell Nissans in Mediterranean Europe and other countries with barriers for Japanese-made cars, and in those places you couldn’t buy the Japanese-made one.
    Also, what makes a car desirable or not when new is often irrelevant once it reaches a certain age. I might be choosing between this and a 1976 Austin Allegro, in which case the Arna is a dynamic masterpiece. But if I was a new car buyer in 1984, cross shopping this against a Peugeot 205, there is no way I would buy the Arna. Everyone keeps telling me the triple-five Chevys were old hat when new, but that obviously doesn’t matter to some Boomer in 2020.

    1. The triple-five Chevys were far, far from old hat when new. new V* engines, new lowers styling, new look; they deserve their fame, even if I’m not their biggest fan.

      I was born in January 1955, and they were still the foundation of Chevy’s success when I was old enough to know every car on the road (at 3)..

    2. Going by my late dad – who was there – the tri-five were definitely hot shit at the time, especially the ’55 which was a clean break from the designs that came before and was the introduction of the small block. They also sold like gangbusters.

      The ’57 wasn’t as popular as the other years, but there’s a reason boomers loved them so much, they were The Car when they were younger.

  13. I wasn’t aware of the Arna until many years after it came out (they were never sold in Portugal) and when I learned about it I always felt that the idea on paper was nonsense, but I really loved how it looked. I only learned about its infamy a while later, and I’ve decided that it can’t possibly be as bad as people make it up to be – most Worst Cars Ever are not really deserving of the hate they get, in my opinion, and I really wanted the Arna to be one of those cases. Unfortunately, I later came to own an Alfa Romeo 145, so I had to accept the possibility that not only it could be bad, it could actually be worse than I could conceive (the 145 sure was). Glad to hear some confirmation that some of the hate the Arna gets may be undeserved, would love to take one for a drive one day.

  14. The problem with the Arna (besides the Italian electronics) was the disappointment after such high expectations.

    Imagine a particularly handsome and athletic Italian man who is charming but…well, impractical and unreliable. Then imagine a Japanese woman who, while not beautiful or even pretty is intelligent, methodical, and reliable in any circumstances.

    Marry them and when a child is due….dream. But, instead of beautiful and athletic and reliable…

    You get an Arna or an Urkel.

    1. If Kevin is one of the two writers they can hire immediately if enough memberships sell, I’ll ignore my broke grad student budget and go vinyl yesterday.

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