Monday January 8, 2018
A little over 37 years ago, Nissan and Alfa Romeo signed an agreement that eventually produced one of the most notably unsuccessful cars of its generation. Even now, the question is often asked in motoring circles – ‘was the Arna a Nissan Cherry with the build quality of the average Alfa?’ Or, maybe it was a bold, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempt by the Japanese motor industry to branch out into European construction?
On paper at least, the Arna seemed to be a logical idea. In the very early 1980s, the car markets of Europe operated import quotas for Japanese cars but Nissan’s joint-venture with Alfa Romeo at the new plant in Pratola Serra, near Naples would circumvent such issues. From the perspective of the Italian manufacturer, it would provide a replacement for the Alfasud with a car that would benefit from the Japanese marque’s famed attention to detail. ‘Nissan Quality – Alfa Power’ read the early publicity material.
The Arna – the name is an acronym of ‘Alfa Romeo Nissan Autoveicoli’ – debuted at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show. In essence, it was a hybrid of Italian transmission, front suspension plus 1.2-litre and 1.5- litre flat-four boxer engines with Nissan rear suspension, drum brakes and that distinctively bland styling from the 1982 N12 series Cherry. The body panels were exported from Japan and inside the Arna, there was very Nissan style fascia.
British motorists first encountered the Arna in the guise of the ‘Nissan Cherry Europe’ – Alfa Romeo initially thought that the new model was too downmarket for its UK outlets. There were two versions, the 1.2 SL and the 1.5 GTi, the latter with a top speed of 112 mph, front fog lamps, alloy wheels and spoilers fore and aft to impress any Astra SR owner. Sales were initially promising, constituting 10% of all Cherry sales, but by the middle of the decade, it was evident that the car that was ‘a blend of the good things of motoring’ suffered from electrics of dubious efficiency and bodywork that was distinctly sub-par.
By 1985, the Cherry Europe had been replaced in the UK by the Arna, where it occupied a niche below the 33. The cheaper 1.2 and 1.3 versions had five doors with three-door coachwork for the 1.5 Ti and when Motor tested an SL they thought that it was ‘good value but hardly a ‘Sud replacement’. Autocar’s review of the flagship Ti was largely positive but they questioned if it could ‘realistically fill the gap left by the Alfasud’ - and whether a driver of the latter ‘even consider buying an Arna when it was time to change cars?’
And that, as much as reliability issues, was one of the main problems of the Arna project. In 1981 BL had launched the Acclaim but Honda Ballade was arguably not so far removed from the tradition of Triumph’s light-medium saloons. By contrast, the gulf between the respective images of a Nissan Cherry and an Alfa Romeo was possibly too vast to bridge, even if the Arna were a paragon of dependability. The last examples were made in 1987 and today the survival rate in Britain is believed to amount to just four cars. It is all far cry from the Alfa that would apparently allow people to ‘rediscover the magic of motoring’…