SAAB 9000/Alfa Romeo 164/Lancia Thema/Fiat Croma

The Type Four project was an epic feat of platform-sharing. But did it preserve the characters of the four very different marques involved?

Words Sam Dawson Photography Alex Tapley

W

isdom has it that platform-sharing reduces once-proud marques to nothing more than marketing operations attached to generic cars. Or does it? The aim of the Type Four project was problem-solving rather than cost-cutting.

In October 1978, after the collapse of a plan to joint-engineer a big saloon with Citroën and the fallout from the Beta rust scandal, Lancia signed a deal with Saab. The Italians would acquire the secrets of rust prevention learned through the ravages of Nordic winters, and in return the Swedes would get two up-to-date Giugiaro-styled cars: the 600, a badge-engineered Lancia Delta, and a big saloon.

Six years – and a huge international recession – passed in between concept and execution. The Lancia Thema and Saab 9000 that belatedly appeared in 1984 astonished the motoring press with their modernity, road manners and sheer size. But Lancia’s parent Fiat Group couldn’t leave it at that. Seeing that the more complicated, expensive parts could be left in order to make a basic but usefully enormous family five-door, the Croma followed in 1985. And the Alfa Romeo 164? We’ll come to that later.

This being the 1980s, no car could be without its performance variant. This is where the Type Fours face their biggest test of individuality. And why the Saab 9000 Aero Turbo, Lancia Thema LS Turbo 16v, Fiat Croma Abarth Turbo and Alfa Romeo 164 V6 Cloverleaf are waiting, teasingly, for us to play with.

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Saab 9000 Aero

Specifications:

Engine: 2290cc/transverse-four/DOHC Power: 225bhp @ 5500rpm Torque: 252lb-ft @ 1800rpm Maximum speed: 149mph 0-60mph: 6.9sec Fuel consumption: 26mpg Transmission: FWD, five-speed manual How many left? 231 (UK)

What to pay?

Concours: £8,000 Good: £4500 Usable: £2500 Project: £900

Look beyond the jet fighter cliches – this Swedish saloon will make your heart soar

Step into the cavernous interior, settle yourself into the figure-hugging leather seat in its highest setting, hit the ‘lower’ button, and think of Saab in the 1980s.

You know, Top Gun-referencing TV adverts, the promotional photos with Viggen fighter jets and the magazine advertorials pointing out that for 30-70mph in-gear acceleration, the 9000 could outdrag a Countach. As you allow the whirring electrics to drop and recline the seat into position like a canopy closing on a pilot, you find yourself wondering how Saab ended up being the default choice of rollneck-jumpered architects, and academic beta-males, when they were sold on such overtly macho imagery.

Turn the ignition key, and the Abbot Racing-tuned 2.3-litre turbo engine fires with an abrupt almost harsh edge, transmitting a drone into the cabin that causes the leather to twitter and creak, slightly undermining the sense of refinement. Despite this you can see why the often-referenced, stereotypical architect loved these cars – it’s clearly pitched as a high-quality family car in the Mercedes-Benz and Volvo mould, but unlike them it sweeps aside wood-veneered traditionalism in favour of slick lights-in-the-dark technology. A digital trip computer flickers in the dashboard, alongside a turbo-boost gauge designated ‘APC’ (Advanced Performance Control), and miles per gallon displayed on an electronic bar-graph. Forget the 1960s-refugee 900 – of all of Saab’s '80s creations the 9000 Turbo was the one that felt most like sitting in the cockpit of a Viggen scrambled to intercept a stray TU-95 from Murmansk.

At low speeds with the turbocharger off-boost, cornering seems disarmingly flat and urgent, damped only by overly-light steering. However, rather than feeling planted and secure, there’s a nervousness brought about by an unsettled, skittish ride that makes the car jiggle about even on straights. Get it over 60mph on a smooth dual-carriageway and it finds some composure, but getting there isn’t as sleekly effortless as you’d perhaps like thanks to fifth gear being hard to find on the vague, long-travel gear change.

Still, little prepares you for the thrill of turbo boost. Accelerate hard and a storm of torque thunders in from as low down as 1800rpm. There’s no uncouth lag-punch, but instead a surreal sensation that sees the acceleration rate increase rather than plateau in the midrange. The exhaust booms aggressively with each gearchange too, the 9000 sounding like it’s broken the sound barrier.

Sadly, the brakes feel spongy and untrustworthy, and you have to be careful when using turbine thrust because torque-steer – sadly the only thing the steering wheel feeds back to the driver – is violently induced if the turbo is tempted on anything more than a gentle bend. You find yourself thinking ahead, staying off-boost for corners, anticipating the rush of torque on straights, giving plenty of space to brake, and being gentle with the wheel.

The 9000 Turbo is an odd car. In terms of driving manners it’s caught between the worlds of GT and hot-hatch, neither refined nor nimble enough to qualify as either. Instead, it appeals to an Eighties connoisseur of high design and technology, but without the motorsport obviousness of Porsche and Audi. You had to understand Saab’s outsider, alternative thought process in order to appreciate its more unusual facets. And that’s why Saabs have always been the thinker’s choice.

Step into the cavernous interior, settle yourself into the figure-hugging leather seat in its highest setting, hit the ‘lower’ button, and think of Saab in the 1980s.

You know, Top Gun-referencing TV adverts, the promotional photos with Viggen fighter jets and the magazine advertorials pointing out that for 30-70mph in-gear acceleration, the 9000 could outdrag a Countach. As you allow the whirring electrics to drop and recline the seat into position like a canopy closing on a pilot, you find yourself wondering how Saab ended up being the default choice of rollneck-jumpered architects, and academic beta-males, when they were sold on such overtly macho imagery.

Turn the ignition key, and the Abbot Racing-tuned 2.3-litre turbo engine fires with an abrupt almost harsh edge, transmitting a drone into the cabin that causes the leather to twitter and creak, slightly undermining the sense of refinement. Despite this you can see why the often-referenced, stereotypical architect loved these cars – it’s clearly pitched as a high-quality family car in the Mercedes-Benz and Volvo mould, but unlike them it sweeps aside wood-veneered traditionalism in favour of slick lights-in-the-dark technology. A digital trip computer flickers in the dashboard, alongside a turbo-boost gauge designated ‘APC’ (Advanced Performance Control), and miles per gallon displayed on an electronic bar-graph. Forget the 1960s-refugee 900 – of all of Saab’s '80s creations the 9000 Turbo was the one that felt most like sitting in the cockpit of a Viggen scrambled to intercept a stray TU-95 from Murmansk.

At low speeds with the turbocharger off-boost, cornering seems disarmingly flat and urgent, damped only by overly-light steering. However, rather than feeling planted and secure, there’s a nervousness brought about by an unsettled, skittish ride that makes the car jiggle about even on straights. Get it over 60mph on a smooth dual-carriageway and it finds some composure, but getting there isn’t as sleekly effortless as you’d perhaps like thanks to fifth gear being hard to find on the vague, long-travel gear change.

Still, little prepares you for the thrill of turbo boost. Accelerate hard and a storm of torque thunders in from as low down as 1800rpm. There’s no uncouth lag-punch, but instead a surreal sensation that sees the acceleration rate increase rather than plateau in the midrange. The exhaust booms aggressively with each gearchange too, the 9000 sounding like it’s broken the sound barrier.

Sadly, the brakes feel spongy and untrustworthy, and you have to be careful when using turbine thrust because torque-steer – sadly the only thing the steering wheel feeds back to the driver – is violently induced if the turbo is tempted on anything more than a gentle bend. You find yourself thinking ahead, staying off-boost for corners, anticipating the rush of torque on straights, giving plenty of space to brake, and being gentle with the wheel.

The 9000 Turbo is an odd car. In terms of driving manners it’s caught between the worlds of GT and hot-hatch, neither refined nor nimble enough to qualify as either. Instead, it appeals to an Eighties connoisseur of high design and technology, but without the motorsport obviousness of Porsche and Audi. You had to understand Saab’s outsider, alternative thought process in order to appreciate its more unusual facets. And that’s why Saabs have always been the thinker’s choice.

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Lancia Thema LS Turbo 16v

Specifications:

Engine: 1995cc/transverse-four/DOHC Power: 205bhp @ 5750rpm Torque: 220lb-ft @ 3750rpm Maximum speed: 143mph 0-60mph: 6.8sec Fuel consumption: 30mpg Transmission: FWD, five-speed manual How many left? 24 (UK)

What to pay?

Concours: £8,000 Good: £4500 Usable: £2500 Project: £900

It may share its architecture with three other cars, but the Lancia Thema feels like something from a class above. Although it borrows the 9000’s door skins, the Thema is clearly a traditional luxury saloon, from its imperious chrome grille to the soberly squared-off tail’s nascent shield-shape created by the wedged rear light clusters. Inside it’s all soft, pale velour, chrome edging, solid blocks of hardwood capping edifices; and a beautifully tactile hand-stitched leather-bound thin-rimmed wheel that would look at home in a Ferrari 412.

It’s less high-tech than the Saab, but that doesn’t matter – viewed in isolation its unadorned three-box proportions and sense of restrained grace mean it doesn’t seem out of place alongside Bentley Mulsannes and Maserati Quattroporte IIIs. The Lancia Thema was the most expensive of the Type Fours, its range topped by the Ferrari V8-engined 8.32.

There was also a Peugeot-Renault-Volvo V6 version, a legacy of the pre-Alfa origins of the Type Four project. Funnily enough this car would play a crucial role in Alfa Romeo’s 1994 Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft success. The PRV could be tuned to higher power outputs than Alfa’s Giuseppe Busso-designed V6, and was installed in the firm’s victorious 155 DTM car. Alfa used the Thema V6 to prove to the FIA that the racer had a Fiat Group engine.

On the road, the fastest Thema was also one of the smallest-engined. This LS Turbo shares its powerplant with the Delta Integrale 16v, and despite the Thema’s bulk it actually accelerates faster than an 8.32.

It rides much more smoothly than the 9000, soaking up bumps and surface imperfections, although it only takes a gentle bend to notice that it leans much more heavily when cornering. That said, the interior’s ambience – including a surprisingly lofty Rolls-Royce-like driving position – doesn’t encourage you to push too hard anyway.

The power delivery of that Aurelio Lampredi-designed twin-cam four-cylinder is more laggy than the Saab’s larger unit. Perversely though, this adds to its sense of refinement. Off-boost it feels crisp and responsive if not particularly urgent, allowing for a civilised around-town potter. Accelerate hard and the turbocharger’s torque arrives nearly 2000rpm later than the Saab’s, but it’s a smooth transition a world away from the Integrale’s aggression.

There’s no torque-steer, wheel feedback is nicely resistant, and there’s a lovely mechanical, metalled precision to the gearshift. It’s easy to place on the road too, thanks to an airy glasshouse and the lack of a rear spoiler.

Overall, the Lancia decisively moves the uncertain Saab recipe in the direction of luxury tourer. Paradoxically, that hot-hatch engine never seems uncouth, but rather a useful source of smooth torque that warrants comparisons with six-cylinder Jaguars and Mercs, the manual gearshift adding a greater level of involvement.

Don’t expect Integrale road manners though. Hurl the Thema into a tight bend, revved high in a low gear to get the turbo boosting, and the structure will shudder as you understeer towards a hedge. But you’ll feel silly rather than disappointed by the time this happens.

What the Thema overwhelmingly proves is that the Type Four platform could be made into a compelling luxury saloon. But could it also offer genuine sportiness?

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Fiat Croma Turbo i.e.

Specifications:

Engine: 1995cc/transverse-four/DOHC Power: 155bhp @ 5250rpm Torque: 235lb-ft @ 2350rpm Maximum speed: 133mph 0-60mph: 8.2sec Fuel consumption: 28mpg Transmission: FWD, five-speed manual How many left? 1 (UK)

What to pay?

Concours: £8,000 Good: £4500 Usable: £2500 Project: £900

Stripped back, does the Croma make a fine B-road hero?

The Fiat Croma comes from a class of cars that sadly doesn’t seem to exist any more. Ever since the MPV arrived in earnest in the Nineties, full of reconfigurable seats and wipe-clean kick-proof surfaces, the market for enormous yet relatively cheap and basic hatchbacks like the Croma, Renault 21 and B2-gen Volkswagen Passat dwindled severely.

The Fiat had another problem too – by the Nineties the ‘large car’ market had been gradually renamed ‘executive’, and buyers of big, imposing cars wanted luxury interiors and prestigious badges. By the time of its demise in 1996, the Croma concept seemed incredibly dated.

On the outside, the Croma is a classic example of Giugiaro origami, its cleanly rational boxiness typical of the generation of Italdesign Fiats that began with the original Panda. Inside, there’s an immediate sense of cost-cutting compared to the Saab and Lancia, with plastic in place of the Thema’s leather and cloth, and that typically ‘80s faux-computerised red-on-black analogue presentation instead of the 9000’s digital readouts. Fire up the coarse-edged eight-valve Lampredi twin-cam, and it all buzzes and rattles.

That said, the Fiat gets the essentials just right. The driving position is as good as the Saab’s, and it’s electrically-adjusted too. Could this Croma – the only Abarth in the UK, with its uprated suspension and lattice-spoke alloys – prove there was no size limit to a true hot hatch?

The plastic-levered gearshift is much more precise than the Saab’s, and although the vast four-spoke wheel with its lack of grip-contouring seems out of place in a sporty car, it only takes a few corners to realise quite how cohesive Abarth’s work was. Whereas the 9000 feels wayward and the Thema reins in your exuberance, the Croma impressively resists body roll in the bends, yet the suppleness of the damping means that unlike in the Saab potholes and rough tarmac don’t threaten to launch it into orbit. The steering courses with feedback, yet unlike the Thema this big hatchback is also relatively nimble, possibly even a candidate for mid-corner throttle-adjustment in the manner of a Peugeot 205 GTI. The greater nuances in the braking also helps. You could tackle a complex country lane far more quickly in the Fiat than either the Lancia or Saab.

The only real drawback that prevents the Croma Turbo from truly feeling like a huge Strada Abarth is the same thing that makes the Thema seem as if it has something larger and more refined than a four-pot under its bonnet. The smooth way in which the Lampredi twin-cam glosses over turbo lag robs the Croma of constant, crisp immediacy. Surrounded by cheap plastic, you’re not bothered about sophistication, and yet a thuggish Cosworth-style headbutt power delivery that would have suited it has been replaced with urbanity.

It’s a shame, because the Croma clearly needs the extra torque provided by the turbocharger in order to be considered sporty – the basic 8v Lampredi in normally-aspirated form would struggle with the heavy shell. Had Abarth found a way to make its turbo deliver its goods with the immediacy of the Saab’s, then the Croma Turbo could have been a hot-hatch revolutionary – a ‘GTI’ in the truest sense, yet one getting on for the size of a Volvo 740.

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Alfa Romeo 164 V6 Cloverleaf

Specifications:

Engine: 2959cc/transverse V6/SOHC per bank Power: 192bhp @ 5800rpm Torque: 245lb-ft @ 3000rpm Maximum speed: 143mph 0-60mph: 7.5sec Fuel consumption: 22mpg Transmission: FWD, five-speed manual How many left? 60 (UK)

What to pay?

Concours: £10,000 Good: £6500 Usable: £4500 Project: £2900

The Alfa Romeo 164 was never going to be a Type Four car. Back when Saab and Lancia were signing deals, Alfa Romeo was independent, albeit supported by Italian government-bankrolled engineering concern Finmeccanica.

When the first Type Fours rolled out of Trollhätten and Mirafiori in 1984, the penniless Alfa Romeo had done a deal with Nissan to build the woeful Cherry-based Arna. By 1986, Finmeccanica wanted to offload its troublesome client. A new large saloon was planned to replace the 90 – based around yet another evolution of the ageing Alfetta transaxle platform – but Alfa didn’t have the wherewithal to complete it.

The Fiat Group saw potential in the marque, but also recognised a dire need to release an all-new up-to-date car to prove that Alfa had moved beyond rebadged Nissan Cherries and 1970s leftovers. But could the Type Four convincingly be a charismatic Alfa Romeo with a vocal Busso V6, especially when the marque’s larger cars had traditionally sent their drive to the rear?

As with the concurrent Giulia-facelift 75, Alfa worked hard to disguise the 164’s parentage, with Pininfarina stylist Enrico Fumia redesigning the door skins to incorporate a dramatic notched line that encircled the body. There was no way you’d mistake it for anything else. Well, other than the Pininfarina-penned Peugeot 605, but that was four years away.

Once inside another muse makes itself known. Maybe the fact that the driver’s Recaro seat doesn’t go back quite far enough puts you in mind of something more cramped, but you might have seen that angular dashboard architecture before – in a Ferrari Testarossa. Apart from the insufficiently long seat runners forcing you to bend your knees if you’re tall, the driving position is low, similar to the Croma’s. As with the Thema all-round visibility is excellent.

Unlike any of the other performance Type Fours here, there’s a normally-aspirated V6 up front. That means no turbo-lag, and a melodious stream of high-rpm sound effects that, although they’ve been subdued for motorway-cruising executives, could have come blaring from the back of a supercar. Also Ferrari-like are the mechanical-feeling gearbox and the surprisingly heavy clutch pedal. It doesn’t take many miles behind the wheel to realise it has Abarth Croma-style body control too. Could it be the best of everything the Type Four project has to offer, plus pesky turbo lag eliminated?

You'll wish you didn’t have to admit it, but its build quality lets it down – given the overall execution of the Lancia it’s clear the Fiat Group knew how to build cars better than this. Dramatic though its ribbed plastic details and stark, angular lines are, the rattling plastic and departing chunks of trim are unseemly on a big-engined marque flagship. Electrical faults are reportedly common too.

Still, when you’re hustling the big Alfa through complex bends, revelling in its meaty, precise steering and thrilling at sportscar levels of feedback, you stop caring about such things.

Alfa engineered out any trace of torque-steer early on, redesigning the steering rack to cope with the V6’s power, meaning you can apply the throttle in an uninterrupted linear manner accompanied by a genuinely exotic exhaust note.

It feels closer to being a four-door Ferrari than Lancia’s own 308-engined Thema 8.32 – there are even visual similarities with the 1980 Ferrari Pinin saloon concept. However, you just can’t help but think of missed opportunities, of a 164 devised by Lancia, built by Saab and set up by Abarth, hovering close to perfection. One thing’s for certain though – platform-sharing didn’t compromise any of these cars.


The Modern Classics view

There is one clear overall winner here, but a second car also emerges as an equally compelling ownership prospect. The V6-engined 164 doesn’t entirely banish Alfa’s reputation for shonky build quality, but offers a more exotic driving experience than many people might think. Its sharp handling has the effect of shrinking its bulk, but unlike the other Type Fours the highest-performance 164 doesn’t struggle with the burden of turbo-lag or understeer.

It does feel cheap though, which is why the Lancia Thema also comes to the fore. Thanks to Giugiaro’s attention to detail in trim, soundproofing and elegant restraint, the Thema offers a classic luxury ambience almost comparable to a Bentley, yet this is coupled with a more involving drive than automatic cruisers from the likes of Jaguar.

That said, in this unsporting role there’s no real need for the Thema’s Integrale engine. It would work just as well with the PRV V6. And this makes the Thema a bargain – its greatest attributes are accessible in any model, and ownership starts from less than £1000 although the Turbos, now worth around £4000, are more numerous than the normally-aspirated cars nowadays.

The Abarth’s unique-in-the-UK status kills it as a recommendation, sadly. The brutal, hardcore Saab will have an enthusiastic ownership base especially given interest in the better-known 900 Turbos. But as a mixture of Pininfarina-styled glamour, operatic exhaust note and superb handling, the V6-engined Alfa 164 seems worth much more than the £5000 that bags a typical example of the 60 left in the UK. And trim can always be stuck back on with glue, can't it?