As the 1990s began, the Alfa Romeo 33 was tasked with continuing the success of Alfasud. The technical basis was the same, but the car as a whole was different: more modern and in step with the times.
The complex creation of Alfasud, alongside the founding of the Pomigliano d’Arco plant, gave Alfa Romeo the opportunity to launch on the market the first mid-segment car as an entry point to the range. As its tenth anniversary approaches and given the increasing success seen as the model evolved, Alfa Romeo management moved towards a project that would appoint a worthy heir.
The designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, who had already contributed to the creation of Alfasud, received his first commission: to present an appealing hatchback model. However, the decision leant towards the original proposal from the new director of the Alfa Romeo Centro Stile, the architect Ermanno Cressoni, together with Ernesto Cattoni. The line of the "33", an aspect strongly emphasized in the communications for the car's launch, stood out for its hint of a horizontal boot, although it maintained the tailgate hinged on the roof (hence becoming known as a “2.5-volume” hatchback).
The new Alfa Romeo 33 debuted in summer 1983, inheriting from Alfasud the components then known as the platform, the engines, transmission and part of the chassis. Even so, the stylistic features were completely different, not so much and not only in the rear: overall, the lines were sharper and squarer, marking a change of style more consistent with the 1980s.
The interior provided the same remarkable roominess and comfort as its predecessor, as well as its boot capacity.
The new features included an ergonomic solution exclusive to the Alfa Romeo 33: the instrument panel was built into the steering column, following the adjustments so the instruments could be read perfectly easily from all positions.
Production of the new 33 from an industrial point of view: Alfa Romeo introduced the first assembly line with 32 robots at the Pomigliano d’Arco plant, aimed at improving build quality.
At launch, the 4-cylinder boxer engines available were the 79-hp 1.3 and the 84-hp 1.5, the latter also offered in the full-spec Quadrifoglio Oro trim.
The Alfasud’s braking system, with the front discs at the output of the differential, was replaced by a more traditional ‘mixed’ system. It combined the responsiveness and effectiveness of the discs at the front, then built into the wheel hubs, with the modulation of the drums at the rear, to preserve the efficient geometry of the Watt's parallelogram suspension with Panhard bar.
In 1984, the most powerful version made its debut: the 33 Quadrifoglio Verde with a 1.5 engine turbocharged to 105 hp (as already seen in its contemporary “Sprint Quadrifoglio Verde”) and exclusive aesthetics. At the same time, at the other end of the range, the 1.3 also offered the alternative of the boxer engine at 86 hp, a considerable power for an engine of this volume.
The engines were evolving in terms of power and displacement, following the increasingly stringent rules for reducing emissions. Meanwhile, the layout of the boxer engine and gearbox encouraged the use of all-wheel drive, also adopted in the station wagon version designed by Pininfarina: the family broadened the offering and expanded on the success of the 33.
Pininfarina offered Alfa Romeo a dual opportunity: a “Giardinetta”-type body along with all-wheel drive.
The technical architecture of the longitudinally positioned boxer engine with the gearbox oriented towards the passenger compartment, right in the centre of the roll axis, made it easy to add a drive shaft to bring it closer to the rear axle. In a short time, as soon as late 1983, the 1.5 4x4 33 therefore made its debut with saloon bodywork, followed in June 1984 by the 1.5 4x4 33 Giardinetta. The system also put the traction at the rear, using an additional lever positioned in front of the one at the gearbox.
With Pininfarina’s experience, the lines of the family car were natural, sportier but most of all very well balanced, as if the car had been made that way in the first place: the third pillar tapered to make room for the rhomboidal glass the lines of which followed the other two pillars, whereas the tailgate – a slim frame supporting the large rear window – was tilted ten degrees further than the saloon version. The rear overhang was increased by 13 cm and the length went from 4.01 to 4.14 m, increasing the load capacity.
As predicted by Pininfarina, the 4x4 33 Giardinetta became a valid, much more accessible alternative, to fit in with the fashion at the time of large off-roaders appearing at the most prestigious ski resorts. Much more lightweight and with higher specifications, the Alfa managed well on low-grip surfaces, especially snow and ice, better than heavy 4x4s despite their gearbox and differential locks: the brilliance of the boxer and the dynamic “Alfa Romeo” qualities did the rest. While the 4x4 33 saloon was the Milan-based company’s first car with all-wheel drive, the “Giardinetta” was its first 4WD station wagon and the first Alfa family car to achieve successful production volumes with this type of bodywork. In contrast, the sporty “wagon” came to be with the “33”: no longer intended for work, it was meant for leisure among a young and dynamic target audience.
That was exactly why Alfa Romeo marketing decided to change the name from the traditional but obsolescent “Giardinetta” to the more international “Sport Wagon”, the official name from April 1988.
In 1986 came the first restyling of the 33: the dashboard and door panels were altered, the Quadrifoglio Verde saw the debut of the 1.7-litre boxer (114 hp and a top speed of 200 km/h) and the 1500 engines were all available with 105 hp. The turbo diesel also arrived in the "33" range, as a three-cylinder 1.8-litre (1779 cc) turbocharged to 72 hp.
On the petrol front, two years later the 1.7 was equipped with electronic injection, combined with a catalytic converter to comply with European anti-pollution standards without losing its proverbial brilliance.
Although it only remained on the test benches, mention must be made of the prototype 33 hybrid. Built in 1988 in collaboration with Ansaldo, it had an electric motor positioned above the boxer, connected to the gearbox using a toothed belt. The boot of the family car included a special 110-kg nickel-cadmium battery, taking up the lower part of the loading platform. Designed to become a taxi with reduced emissions, the 33 hybrid could operate with the thrust of only one of the two power units, the electric motor or the internal combustion engine, or both. It was futuristic but unfortunately too far ahead of its time.