Much improved handling
One of the more distinctive offerings in the coupe sector, the Alfa Romeo Brera combines unique Italian style with surprising practicality. Now there is an additional model in the range, dubbed Brera S. Offering a more focussed driving experience, the S adds visual and mechanical enhancements for more demanding drivers.
The Brera takes many of its design cues from the 159 saloon, with familiar headlights, grille and a wide stance. It also has a distinctive curved rump, which as well as being attractive brings useful space in the rear. Visually the Brera S has some subtle enhancements, such as 19-inch alloy wheels similar to those on 8C supercar, D-shaped exhaust pipes and discreet badges. The overall effect is a Brera which looks tougher and sportier, and even more attractive than the standard car.
The cabin of the Brera S is broadly similar to that of the standard car, which is borrowed wholesale from the 159 saloon. This means the Brera has a distinctive layout, with a series of deep-set instruments and a fascia angled towards the driver. The Brera S adds leather upholstery with red stitching, a sports steering wheel trimmed the same way and sports instruments. It is undoubtedly a sporty cabin and although far from spacious, it is a pleasure to use.
Mechanically the Brera S comes only in petrol form, with the 2.2-litre four cylinder and 3.2-litre six cylinder units offered. The excellent 2.4-litre diesel is not offered despite its impressive performance and character. However, the petrol options do cover most needs, with the 2.2-litre version providing a better mix of economy and performance. Both models benefit from a sports exhaust designed to enhance the engine sound during sporty driving.
The biggest change however is in the suspension, which has been revised and uprated by Prodrive to offer greater grip and sharper handling. The new alloy wheels help by reducing weight, the suspension geometry has been altered and the springs and dampers have also been changed, which amounts to a significant change over the standard car.
The changes to the Brera S make it more of a focussed sports car than before and for some buyers this is exactly what they are looking for from an Alfa Romeo. The enhanced looks add to its appeal and while the sportier approach does carry a slight penalty in terms of comfort, it is a worthwhile trade-off.
The Brera S is more expensive than the standard car, but considering the improved specification and dynamics it is good value for money. Running costs will be higher than average with the 2.2-litre model and higher still for the 3.2-litre V6.
In space terms the Brera's cabin is on the modest size. There might be two rear seats present, but getting in and out plus dealing with the distinct lack of legroom is another matter. Cabin headroom is also modest, thanks in part to the car's sloping roof and high mounted front seats. Cabin width is fine though, as is the space available for storing oddments. At the rear the car's hatch is practical and will swallow a decent amount of shopping.
Clear main dials and a centre console boasting large, intuitive controls are a good start. Supplementary controls on the steering wheel are a welcome bonus. The car's manual gearshift is a little long but is precise, while the steering is sharper than the standard car, thanks to the suspension revisions. The car's column stalks are less impressive, though. Too many functions are packed onto them – the result is an ergonomic disappointment.
Front seat occupants fare reasonably well in the Brera, the seats are comfortable and supportive. Headroom is not great though, thanks to a high mounted seat and low roofline. Overall refinement is, however, good as road and engine noise has been well suppressed. Anyone who ventures into the rear seats will be met by a disappointing amount of legroom.
Given the Brera's substantial kerb appeal, it's good to see a comprehensive alarm and immobiliser system present. Remote central locking is via the key fob, while there is no external release for the rear hatch. A visual deterrent, such as a steering lock, would be a wise but small investment if you want to dissuade the casual thief.
You get all the usual safety features with the Brera, which means airbags and a plethora of electronic stability aids. The good news is that the latter gadgets only make their presence felt if things go badly wrong, ensuring keen drivers can still have some fun.
The suspension changes bring a welcome focus to the driving experience, and although the Brera S is now not as comfortable in everyday driving it is only fractionally so. On the other hand, point it down a twisty B-road and the transformation is dramatic, with sharpened response, reduced body roll and better poise.
This is not a family car by any stretch of the imagination. The boot might be able to hold a few shopping bags but a pushchair would be stretching things a little. There's also the issue of restricted space in the rear – which wouldn't help when attempting to belt in a toddler. If you like the Brera's looks, Alfa's 159 saloon or estate would be a better option.
The Brera is one of those cars that looks good but wouldn't be practical to own. It's not a difficult car to drive, it's just likely to be expensive to run as a first car. It's also not that easy to reverse park, thanks to wide pillars and small glass areas. And it's not a slow car, which means novice drivers would be better off with one of Alfa's 147 hatchbacks.
Image-wise Alfa has had its ups and downs. The latter includes sub standard products, while the former includes a recent – and welcome – revitalisation and the launch of the 156 replacement. The company has always been thought of as a racy brand and the recent additions bear that in their looks, if not always their performance. Quality issues have impacted negatively on the brand, but recent efforts have stemmed most problems.
The Brera's big doors open wide but the car's low roof means it can be a squeeze to get in if you're tall. On the plus side getting out is a little easier. At the rear the car's hatch opens to reveal a surprisingly spacious boot, although the load lip is high.
The audio unit takes pride of place in the large fascia. It boasts large buttons and an easy to see display. Minor controls are duplicated on the steering wheel for ease of use. Sound quality is good, with the predictable upgrades improving the performance further. Satnav is also an option and it comes with a clear, generous size display.
The limited colour palette on the Brera S is perfect. The signature red is a great choice, while the more sinister black or grey are more subtle but still attractive. Inside the addition of leather on the seats and the option of leather on the dashboard brings added class.
The view out the front is pretty good; you sit higher than expected and the windscreen is big. You can't quite see the nose of the car, but you soon learn to compensate. Ther rear view is less good, as the rear window is small and the rear pillars are quite thick. At least the steering is light at low speed and rear view mirrors are a good size.
Space saver spare wheel fitted beneath the boot floor.
Petrol engines: 2.2 JTS (185bhp); 3.2 V6 JTS (260bhp). Diesel engine: 2.4 JTDM (200bhp). Transmission options: six-speed manual gearbox fitted across the range. 3.2 V6 comes optionally with Q4 four-wheel drive system, standard on diesel. Trim levels: base and S.