John Phillips on the Best Odds: Alfa Romeo Milano

a red car
The Best Odds: Alfa Romeo MilanoIllustration by Alexis Marcou - Car and Driver

From the May/June issue of Car and Driver.

Alfaholism first afflicted me in 1976. The infecting vector was an Alfetta GT, whose road test became the first cover story I'd ever write. Near London, Ontario, the Alfetta's heater core peed a pink pint of lukewarm coolant on my girlfriend's sneakers. I was less committed to her than to the Alfa. The point being, a pattern was set.

Flash-forward 12 years, and I'm standing in David E. Davis Jr.'s kitchen, where six of us are casting votes for a sports-sedan comparison test. "Boyo, watch this," Davis muttered while pointing at his ballot. He'd awarded the Alfa Romeo Milano's ergonomics a big fat zero, in consequence of his big fat ass not conforming to the Recaro seats. With a stroke of his green-ink pen, DED had relegated the Alfa to the fate of Detroit's sports teams. It epitomized the adoration and choleric rage that the Milano routinely begot.

I forgave the man 36 years later. But during that spell, I cannot recollect a sports sedan that bestowed upon my glass-half-empty countenance as much amusement and sensuality. Alone in the Milano near Tucson, I succumbed to a moment of beatified bliss—the weather, my freedom, someone else's new Alfa. Three minutes later, one of the 50 or so warning lights flashed, and a cosmic middle finger snuffed my euphoria. To me, the Milano felt animate. Psychically, it could crawl up my pants.

Its Balocco-red heart was a ripsaw 3.0-liter V-6—only two valves per cylinder, only 183 horsepower, yet emitting a matchlessly sonorous grumbly growl. It revved as if attached to a four-ounce flywheel, rowdy and robust from idle to six grand. I pronounced it the best-ever V-6. Davis told me to sit down.

It was a determined understeerer, but the suspension offered long travel that was pillowy over Michigan's moon-like craters yet acceptably disciplined in Ohio's Hocking Hills. Steering as if by Enzo himself. Chunks of cockpit architecture possibly shoplifted from Lamborghini. All of that, in 1988, for $20,310. If quirky was the goal—and is it ever?—the Milano was a budding Silvio Berlusconi gone all wink-wink Italian nudge-nudge. The high-bustle butt conjured a mating hyena. The front seats squeezed your thighs until sweat fused them. The shifter impinged upon the radio, meaning you could tune it only while in second or fourth gears. A monster U-shaped hand brake overwhelmed the center console. The trunk could be opened only from inside the car. The steering wheel was a few degrees catawampus, angling your shoulders at unequal distances from the dash. The cockpit smelled like a Connolly tannery inside an ozone-filled blimp. And the electric-window switches were on the headliner. I mean, if you had to lower the window to talk to a cop, he'd likely shoot you first.

Pretty much what you'd expect from a marque whose logo features a snake eating a baby. Of the three Milanos that indoctrinated me that 6500-mile summer, the third developed positive pressure in the fuel tank until, Howitzer-like, it blew its filler cap far enough that I posted its likeness on a milk carton, even though a cloudburst of premium unleaded had wetted a clear trail. I purchased three filler caps, a surreal chore no other marque would countenance. Which, of course, so unerringly embodied the owner's experience that every Alfista right now is smiling.

So what? I'd already importuned Alfa PR manager Craig Morningstar into locating a low-mile demonstrator that hadn't yet burned to the ground. He did. Asking price, $9900. I was all the way home from the bank before my wife found out.

How odd was this car? Odd enough to birth the borderline-senseless Alfa SZ coupe, the so-called Monster. A cartoonish Zagato wedge of pizza powered by the same indefatigable V-6. Morningstar let me drive an SZ in Italy if I promised "never to write a goddamn word about it." That car, of course, proved to be a one-man band that outnumbered its audience.

"The world is at least navel deep in cars that would be improved if they could have Alfa's 3.0-liter engine," wrote my colleague Kevin Smith. "Unfortunately, most of them, then, would be better cars than the Milano."

Okay, Kev, whatever. But I will admit this: The Milano marked the final automobile that Alfa Romeo was allowed to create unsupervised. Like parents arriving home unexpectedly to find the kids setting fire to the dog, Fiat stormed through the front door and screamed, "What in the world is going on here?"

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