We Need To Talk About The Alfa Romeo Arna, The Car That Foolishly Blended Japanese Styling And Italian Engineering

Alfa Romeo Arna Topshot

Around the turn of the 1980s, Alfa Romeo was in some fairly serious trouble. Owned by the Italian state and experiencing a spell of disastrous quality control, the New York Times reported that the struggling automaker needed to make some big moves fast to cut losses.

From The Times:

The talk of possible sales or merger involving Alfa Romeo grow out of annual losses that last year totaled more than $150 million.

Alfasud, the new plant near Naples had an operating loss of 84 billion lire – just over $100 million – last year. Alfanord, the old established plant near Milan, lost 24.5 billion lire, or just under $30 million. Expenditures arising primarily from debt service accounted for the remaining loss of about $20 million.

That works out to roughly $683 million in today’s money, a fairly shocking burn rate. No wonder Alfa Romeo was looking to get with other carmakers. While British Leyland was shacking up with Honda, Alfa Romeo found a partner in Nissan, leading to a new model called the Arna, produced under a joint venture of a similar name. Arna, like CARE Package or bagel BELT (a popular breakfast in Canada consisting of bacon, egg, lettuce, and tomato on a bagel), is actually an acronym. Say it with me, “Alfa Romeo Nissan Autoveicoli.”

Alfa Romeo Arna 1
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Charles01

What got me thinking about the Arna was yesterday’s article about Alfa Romeo’s new certification service. On paper, almost nothing could’ve gone wrong with a 50:50 joint venture between Alfa Romeo and Nissan. Imagine Italian styling and chassis zest complemented by Japanese reliability and build quality. The only way the two manufacturers could’ve cocked it up is by having Nissan do the styling and Alfa Romeo do the oily bits. Unfortunately, I have eyes, so it’s quite easy for me to discern that the Arna is shaped almost exactly like a Nissan Cherry.

That somewhat bland styling can only mean one thing – that Alfa Romeo was left to do the oily bits. Alfa Romeo didn’t have much money at the time, being a state-owned entity with slow-selling products, so it went to the fridge and dug out some of its leftovers.

Screen Shot 2022 10 21 At 1.45.38 Pm
Image: Alfa Romeo

Back in the early ‘70s, Alfa Romeo launched a car called the Alfasud that had two problems. The first issue is that it wasn’t initially a hatchback, so it arrived on the back foot. The second was that quality control on early models was so poor, Alfasuds would rust away right before their owners’ eyes. However, because it was an Alfa Romeo, it was said to be brilliant to drive. Its boxer engine gave it a low center of gravity, while four-wheel disc brakes were remarkably advanced for a C-segment car of the time. The suspension wasn’t anything special, just MacPherson struts up front and a beam with a Watts link out back, but the geometry was reportedly quite good, as a young Tiff Needell explains.

Alfa Romeo plucked basically everything from the cowl forwards out of the Alfasud and into the Arna. The boxer engine, the gearbox, the steering, and the suspension. However, everything behind the cowl was Nissan, which presented a problem. Factory cut-and-shuts don’t work very well even when the cars involved come from the same manufacturer. The Lexus RC uses the front section from a GS, the mid-section from the old IS convertible, and the rear section from a third-generation IS. As a result, it weighs as much as a moon and handles like one too. So how does a factory cut-and-shut work when it’s based on two completely different cars? Apparently not as brilliant as the Alfasud. British outlet Honest John reports that “Unfortunately, the suspension set-up – the ‘Sud’s strongest point – was diluted.” Yeah, that’s about what I expected.

Alfa Romeo Arna 2
Photo credit: Alfa Romeo

The bland styling, diluted handling, and typical Alfa Romeo problems of the Arna led to just 53,047 being produced over a four-year production run. However, Nissan and Alfa Romeo had a valid reason to produce the Arna in Italy. Back in the early 1980s, Britain and France restricted sales of Japanese imports, so European assembly was a way of getting around these limitations. While the public never really took to the Arna, it wasn’t all bad news. The range of boxer engines borrowed from the Alfasud are still delightful to this day, and AR Online reports that the gearchange feels more precise than in an Alfasud. Despite approaching a joint venture completely the wrong way by combining the weaknesses of both manufacturers, Alfa Romeo and Nissan cooked up a car that still had some positive attributes.

So what became of the Alfa Romeo Arna? Well, in 1986, Fiat bought Alfa Romeo and the Arna was quickly phased out due to its bad reputation. These days, Arnas are extremely rare sights just about everywhere. They were largely disposable cars, used for everyday errands and scrapped when they got too much to keep on the road. It may seem strange considering the special status of many Alfa Romeos, but these were just regular cars in Europe. If you happen to see one out and about, know that they’re incredibly rare and although nowhere near as great as the Alfasud, definitely not as horrible as they could’ve been.

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22 Responses

  1. You Won’t Believe How Much We Need to Talk About Headlines that are More Stupid than They Have Any Right to Be.

    Why do so many headlines fit these stupid meaningless cliches?

    I don’t NEED to talk about it. I can close the page and never look back. Maybe You NEED to talk about it?
    And nothing has any right to be any way; they just ARE.
    Sorry Thomas, it’s not just you, and it’s not just this headline, I finally just decided to post about it. The straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.

    How about:
    I Need To Talk About The Alfa Romeo Arna, The Car That Foolishly Blended Japanese Styling And Italian Engineering

    Or, better yet, leave off the nonsense:
    The Alfa Romeo Arna, The Car That Foolishly Blended Japanese Styling And Italian Engineering

    1. To be honest, I have a hard time summoning outrage over exagerated headlines in automotive news when those exact same types of headlines are being used in political journalism.

      Seriously. Stop telling me that Majory Taylor Green or Lauren Boebert got “destroyed” by a tweet unless said tweet caused them to stop existing. You’re just getting my hopes up for no good reason

    2. Yeah, kind of agree with you. I would say that we all waste words though. We say we hate subway. As we are eating our sub sandwich we say we hate war. Or drugs. Or the war on drugs. Whatever. So do we hate subway as much as an Ukrainian invasion? We waste words.

    1. Reminds me of that old joke…

      Heaven is where:
      The chefs are Italian
      The lovers are French
      The mechanics are German
      The police are British
      And the whole thing is run by the Swiss

      Hell is where:
      The chefs are British
      The lovers are Swiss
      The mechanics are French
      The police are German
      And the whole thing is run by the Italians

  2. Nothing wrong with japanese styling, but if you were expecting Alfa Romeo styling, it just wasn’t that. The european Ford Escort and the Opel Kadett practically looked the same way. Everybody seemed to like those.

    And a hot Alfa Romeo boxer engine? That sounds fun! Service and repairs intervals are probably shorter than on anything japanese. But that’s the price for having something exciting. I never hear any Ferrari owners complain?

    So, a cheap classic Alfa Romeo, where you just have to do something about the handling yourself? Sounds good to me!

    1. “And a hot Alfa Romeo boxer engine? That sounds fun! Service and repairs intervals are probably shorter than on anything japanese.”

      Whenever someone spews some vague complaint about Alfa engines, chances are they’ve never driven one that wasn’t broken, let alone owned one.

      Among all the Alfas I’ve owned and wrenched on, my ’85 Sprint QV had the most character from its engine: 1.5 liter boxer 4-choke carbs (looked like F1 velocity stacks), making 105 HP, revved to the moon and sounded like 2 superbike engines. All the “service and repairs” I did in the 40k miles I’ve had it was the timing belt service right after I bought it (since there were no records of it been done) and oil changes.

      1. I owned two Alfasuds. One was a 1.3 and the second one a 1.5.

        Considering the market segment and year they were built, handling was awesome.

        Not mentioned was that the front brakes on the Alfasuds were inboard: attached to the gearbox.

        Rust was definitely an issue, but it was worse with the earlier cars. It got better, but the cars were still poor.

        Adjusting the valve clearances was different. The cams were set up with two lobes per valve. The lobes operated on a cup. To adjust, you jammed the cup from turning and used an allen key to screw the valve stem up and own in the cup.

  3. This is pretty much the same car that Holden whacked their Family II engine into to make the Holden Astra. It wasn’t exactly anymore successful than the Alfa iteration either. Both myself and my boss at the time had one and they both suffered from much the same electrical gremlins that arose from Nissan and Holden parts not communicating at all well.

  4. I recently bought a medium sized bulldozer and I completely understand what you mean about the sensation of “guiding” an unstoppable mass! It’s a great feeling, but controlling something that will crush you, your dog and your truck without missing a beat is a little unsettling. That said, before long the mind adapts to this new reality, and all of a sudden, trees are not obstacles, trees are traction!
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  5. This headline reminds me of the George Carlin joke:

    In HEAVEN . . .

    The Italians are the lovers,
    The French cook the food,
    The Swiss run the hotels,
    The Germans are the mechanics,
    And the English are the police.

    In HELL . . .

    The Swiss are the lovers,
    The English cook the food,
    The French run the hotels,
    The Italians are the mechanics,
    And the Germans are the police!

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