Sure, the Alfa Romeo is cute, but it is so unreliable, you wouldn’t want one

Hi Baraza,

I’m an avid reader of your column. While going through a stock list from SBT Japan. I stumbled upon a gem; the Alfa Romeo 147 Twin Spark Selespeed, 2-litre, 2008 version. I fell in love.

Now, here is the catch: C&F plus duty comes to around Sh750,000. Please dissuade me from going to the bank and getting a loan this instance because this car is just spectacular. Tell me I’ll regret it… the works — economy, insurance cost, parts, reliability.

Macharia

Macharia, stop! Just stop! Step away from the Internet and quit looking at pictures of the 147 Twin Spark because it is nothing short of a siren’s song. And it might lead you into doing things that, as children, we were told would make us go blind.

It is alluring, it is luscious, it is desirable. You want it, you know you do. You want it so bad, don’t you? It is such a sweet, snazzy little thing, you can’t help but entertain unholy thoughts concerning the equally unholy union the two of you might have. It pulls at your heartstrings and causes a frankly unsubtle stirring in your visceral parts.

This is where I’ll ask you to perform a head-stand to get the blood flowing back into your head.

Alfa Romeos are femmes fatales in every sense of the word. They are perfect: they are achingly beautiful, they sound just right and a physical engagement with them means you will see heaven, maybe several times.

SHORT HONEYMOON

This will happen briefly, then the nightmare will start.

Like all femmes fatales, their ugly sides make themselves felt long before the dream-like reverie (called the “honeymoon phase”) is over. They transform from exquisite goddesses into willful, disobedient, high-maintenance shrews.

Putting away the boudoir references, the reality is that Alfas are insanely unreliable. Breaking down is a matter of when, not if. And they will break down, sometimes at the most inopportune moments, such as when leaving the garage after the last major repair job.

Their electrical systems are the worst; they act up and pack up with alarming frequency. The beautifully crafted interior falls to pieces and is a pain to put right, if ever. Hoses blow in the engine, wires melt, gaskets crumble, valves shatter, con-rods bend, driveshafts warp, wheel hubs fall off….

Like all other beautiful things, Alfas are not meant to be held on to. A brief passionate fling will do before you have to go back to your wif… excuse me… to a more sensible vehicle.

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Baraza, I am not a young woman and have never owned a car but dream of owning one.

For this reason, I read Car Clinic regularly. Since I am a family person, I’m thinking of 7-seater cars like the X-Trail, Rush, Daihatsu Terios, RAV 4 and, lately, Subarus and BMWs.

Since I have no experience, kindly advise me like a three-year-old on the ideal seven-seater with the kind I have mentioned that costs around Sh800,000, is not troublesome, has readily available spares, can manage a dry weather road in a hilly environment, does not consume too much fuel, and which I can sell later.

Joy

Joy, in the list you provide, the only 7-seater car is the Subaru, specifically the Tribeca. It might not be troublesome and spares are readily available, and it will also manage dry weather in a hilly environment, provided the roads aren’t too untractable. But the last two characteristics are where it loses the plot: the car is thirsty, very thirsty, and selling it later might prove onerous, given the kind of merciless reviews it has been receiving in this column. Preceding all that I have just written is this: you will not get a Tribeca for Sh800,000. All the other cars on your list are 5-seaters.

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Hi Baraza,

I am thinking of buying my first car. Well it’s a tie between a bike and a car but let’s focus on the car.

In mind I have the Subaru Impreza, Toyota Caldina and Toyota Runx. What I am looking for is a car that won’t gobble up my entire salary on fuel (despite the drop in prices), easy to maintain and has a good resale value. I would appreciate any other suggestions from you with regard to ideal first cars.

Car Owner To-Be.

All three cars tick all three boxes except for the Impreza when it comes to resale value… or simply “resell”, to be accurate.

The problem is not that the Impreza loses value — it holds its value quite well, in fact, and is a very good buy; the problem lies in reputation. The Subaru Impreza is associated with all manner of ills, both social and mechanical; some of them unfounded, some probable, while some are hilariously true. These ills are:

Social guilt: The Impreza is tied in with obnoxious, road-hog psychopathic antisocial tendencies, mostly because of the Impreza STi, which is sometimes driven by immature yobs (key word here is “sometimes”… Not everyone in an STi is an immature yob, some are mature).

The STis are also loud and have been on several occasions the root cause of numerous toddlers squalling in the dead of night after being rudely awoken by the sound of small-arms fire which turned out to be an STi exhaust backfiring on the overrun, either due to the pointless installation of anti-lag or a long-ignored and way overdue need for new spark plugs. And then along came one Njoki Chege….

The Subaru Impreza is associated with all manner of ills, both social and mechanical; some of them unfounded, some probable, while some are hilariously true. The problem is not that the Impreza loses value — it holds its value quite well, in fact, and is a very good buy; the problem lies in reputation. PHOTO | FILE

The Subaru Impreza is associated with all manner of ills, both social and mechanical; some of them unfounded, some probable, while some are hilariously true. The problem is not that the Impreza loses value — it holds its value quite well, in fact, and is a very good buy; the problem lies in reputation. PHOTO | FILE

Mechanical guilt: Subaru cars are also famous (infamous?) for high fuel consumption, but again this is not necessarily a universal truth. Divorce from your mind all pretences at power and performance and get a naturally aspirated (“turboless”) Subaru, preferably one with an engine size south of 2,000cc and fuel economy will not be a nightmare.

You won’t have any power to speak of either, but hey, nobody said the world was perfect.

The universal truth comes about when discussing maintenance/repair. The parts are not abnormally expensive, but DIY-grease monkey-type spannering is an exercise in discovering that patience is a blessing, and so are slim, nimble fingers. Subaru mechanicals are quite complex; try changing the plugs on an STi without skinning your knuckles down to the metacarpals and tell me how that goes.

How bad an effect have the above had on reselling Subarus?

Last year I tried selling two naturally aspirated, low-mileage, 1500cc, 2WD Impreza station wagons — the most economical, sober and politically correct of all Subarus — and I didn’t get a single bite for several weeks, despite extolling the virtues of boxer engines and the practicality of station wagons, and preaching loudly that a Subaru won the last Kiamburing TT in the marketing blurb.

I even resorted to what I call “offering end-user purchase incentives” (also known as “dropping the price several times”). I eventually gave up. Then I tried selling a branded WRX…

Gee. Thanks a lot, Njoki Chege. Now write about Peugeots. They’re already hard enough to sell second hand, let’s see if they can get any more undesirable on the pre-owned market.

Oh, buy the Runx.

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Hi Baraza,

Thanks for your informative column. I have a Suzuki Vitara which I retrofitted with low-profile tyres — from 215/70R16 to 215/55R16 and the radius of turn improved tremendously. Could you please explain the logic behind this because I thought the radius of turn depends on the degree of turn of the wheels and the wheelbase of the car and not the distance covered by the wheel?

Could you also kindly explain the principle of exhaust systems in relation to back pressure, through-pipes and performance of the car?

Last but not least, extend my gratitude to the building and engineering team for the construction of the Thika Superhighway, though I have a grouse about the very short acceleration and deceleration lanes and a few needless bottlenecks like the one on which Kiambu Road joins the Thika Superhighway to town at the Muthaiga junction.

Also, advise your esteemed readers that you cannot have a car that is fast, powerful, cheap, easy to maintain and economical to run.

Mbaabu.

Mbaabu, what happened here is that you fitted a smaller tyre overall compared to the previous ones. The 70 and 55 are called aspect ratios, and they express the thickness of the tyre sidewall in relation to the tyre width. The figure is actually a percentage, so both 70 and 55 are percentages of the tyre width.

Now, please try and follow this very carefully because it can get a little confusing:

The tyre widths are the same in both instances: 215mm. The rim size is also constant: 16 inches. Your old tyres had an aspect ratio of 70 per cent, so the tyre sidewall size was 70 per cent of 215mm, which gives us 150.5mm. The new, low-profile tyres have a sidewall thickness 55 per cent of the 215mm width, which gives us 118.25mm.

The overall size of a wheel is given by rim size plus sidewall thickness. Since the rim size is constant in both cases, the size disparity is brought about by the difference in sidewall thickness. Your new tyres have thinner sidewalls and, therefore, create an overall effect of having a smaller wheel.

For a car to make a complete circle, the tyres have to make a certain number of revolutions once the steering wheel is turned.

They all rotate at different speeds and make different numbers of turns, so let us focus on just one wheel.

BACK PRESSURE

Let us say, for example, that the front inside tyre needs to rotate 15 times when the steering wheel is on full lock (turned all the way to one side) for the car to turn in the smallest possible complete circle.

The path traced by that tyre is the turning circle of the car, whose circumference (C1) is determined by the distance covered by the tyre when it rotates 15 times. The distance covered by the tyre per rotation is in turn dependent on the circumference (C2) of that tyre. A bigger tyre rotating once will cover a longer distance compared to a smaller tyre rotating once.

The size of C1 is directly proportional to the size of C2, right? Therefore, a smaller C2 leads to a smaller C1, right? Your old tyres had a bigger C, so it resulted in a bigger C1. Your new tyres have a smaller C2, so they lead to a smaller C1. Get it?

I have discussed back pressure before, and it is a topic whose details you might not want to get into because that is where motoring ends and physics begins. It is one of the subtopics in engine tuning, a complicated subject.

However, in a nutshell: a little back pressure is desirable in an engine. It controls airflow through the engine, especially where valve timing is not intelligently controlled.

Too much back pressure, such as when the exhaust system is partially blocked, and the engine will refuse to rev beyond a certain speed because not enough intake charge is making it into the cylinder following the slow exit of exhaust gases and/or the exhaust gases being forced back into the cylinder following the compression of these gases from their slow exit.

What of too little back pressure? Air flow through the engine is again thrown slightly off. The exhaust gases flow “too fast” out of the engine, sometimes taking part of the incoming intake charge with them, and this intake charge then goes ahead to ignite within the exhaust pipe, damaging it.

As before, power losses are experienced because the intake charge is supposed to ignite within the cylinders, not outside them.

You mention through-pipes and performance, and it is important to get one thing straight: through-pipe exhausts may improve performance somewhat, but this will not happen by simply installing a drainpipe underneath your vehicle and incurring the wrath of your neighbours.

For it to work properly, you might need a new engine map, especially where ignition timing and valve timing are concerned.

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