Here’s the thing about the Alfa Romeo 159: it could be launched today and I’d wager you and I would be slavering over it. You’d be hard pressed to believe this is a six-year-old design, so shapely is the 159’s style. And the 159 Sportwagon estate is equally desirable – those Design Giugiaro badges on the flanks seem very deserved.
That’s the trouble with Alfa Romeos. They tug at the heart strings. Always have, probably always will. We tested the latest Alfa 159 Sportwagon 2.0 JTDM with 170bhp and, in its optional pearly red (not pictured), it gathered more attention in the office car park than any other car nearing the end of its life has any right to. There’s still a bit of a wait, as the new Alfa Romeo Giulia launch has been pushed back to 2013.
So the Alfa Romeo 159 has an abundance of style. Does it have the depth of skills to back up those slinky looks?
Sadly when you look beyond that Latin visage, some of the 159 package is beginning to feel its age. From the moment you plip the key, only to hear ominous Subaru-style beeps that’ll alarm your neighbours, you realise some of the tech onboard is, ahem, a little old tech.
Sink into those fab, grippy front seats (standard on our top-dog TI trim) and it’s a mixed bag. The dashboard feels a few years behind the latest C-class and A4, although we note the 2005 3-series is feeling its age now too (it will be replaced in 2012). It’s to do with the 159’s cheaper plastics (ours sported light scratches around the gearlever); the chaotic ergonomics with the Alfa sat-nav mounted down low practically at knee level; electronic read-outs seemingly from the 1990s; passenger footwell carpet that fell loose revealing floorpan behind; and a multimedia screen that feels a little too Halfords for our liking. The sat-nav functionality is way behind the competition and the Bluetooth failed to pair with my Blackberry.
It’s not all bad news. The dash top has a pleasingly soft squidge to it, while the driving position is reassuringly good, the driver’s seat tipping front and back for plenty of choice. Time to do the road test review bit.
How does the Alfa 159 JTD drive?
Start up the 2.0 JTDM and you immediately notice how well behaved this common-rail diesel engine is. We shouldn’t be surprised; the Fiat group did invent common-rail diesels a decade ago, and they continue to produce some cracking oilers in all shapes and sizes.
Select first, and you’ll notice the precise, slotty gearchange. It’s all boding rather well. The JTDM develops 170bhp and 266lb ft, but feels like it needs a good rev to get the most out of it. Happily, it spins sweetly for a diesel and I never once was rattled into submission to pick a higher gear. It’s a refined and smooth engine, and that gearchange is a pleasure to use with a reassuring mechanical slot.
The higher-powered 170bhp 2.0 JTDM doesn’t feel that quick though, which makes us question the lower-powered 136bhp version now on offer. Alfa quotes 8.8sec 0-62mph and 52.3mpg, although we averaged closer to 33mpg during our week with the car. We noticed a slight turbo lag with not much happening beneath 2000rpm. The epically tall gearing must be partly to blame; we occasionally found ourselves in fourth on motorways, so long-legged are the higher ratios.
We’ve become so used to brilliant turbodiesels where we have it all, and the 159’s doesn’t perform quite as strongly as you might expect - especially when it comes to emissions. Here’s how it stacks up to the competition:
|Alfa 159 SW 2.0 JTDM
|Audi A4 Avant 2.0 TDI
|BMW 320d Touring
|Mercedes C220 CDI est
And the 159 Sport Wagon’s handling?
Alas, those years are creeping on Alfa’s compact exec. The 159 is a slightly perplexing car to drive. Even on our car’s 19in wheels, it rides pretty well on motorways and smoother tarmac, with a good primary ride and only secondary bumps upsetting progress on back roads. The biggest shock was a ridged concrete section of the M42 which thumped and bumped into the cabin, as if the basic structure wasn’t stiff enough.
Turn off the arterial roads and seek out a good back road for a blast, and the 159 unravels further. Those Bridgestone Potenza 235/40 R19s jiggle and crash around on potholed A- and B-roads, the steering wheel squirms if you lean on the chassis during faster corners and it becomes really hard to thread the 159 Sportwagon along in a flowing, smooth manner. An E90 3-series - launched at the same time, remember - would leave it for dead.
That said, after nearly 700 miles in the 159, it does grow on you. The steering is pretty pointy and quick-witted, and it’d drive rings around an Audi A4, the only other notable front-drive premium competition. You can even heel ‘n’ toe in it, and it’s not often we say that about a diesel estate.
One quick note about night-driving; that complex front end styling works wonders, six individual front lights paying dividends with great illumination.
How practical is the Alfa Romeo 159 Sport Wagon?
Another mixed report here. The Alfa 156, the 159’s predecessor, famously had more boot space in saloon form than estate. The 159 has 445 litres – only 40 more than the four-door, and the luggage bay is a good width and length, with an effective, simple load cover to keep prying eyes at bay, several useful cubby holes and with a ski hatch. Problem is, the 159 Sportwagon’s boot lip is an extraordinary 25cm deep – it’s the least accessible estate car boot we’ve tried in ages.
The rear seats are unfathomably tight on legroom, too. Considering this is a compact executive estate, you’d get more rear-passenger space in a VW Golf. Adults’ heads will brush the roof while taller occupants will nudge their knees into the back of front-seat passengers.
I said at the beginning that the 159 neatly encapsulates the Alfa Romeo problem. It’s a gorgeous-looking thing, a compact exec with some real brio about it in a sea of same-again Germans. And yet how we wished they brought even a snippet of the Teutonic logic to bear in areas such as the cabin ergonomics, electronic systems and attention to detail.
We’d say Alfa’s been on a stylistic roll for, well, forever really. Can you name the last duff Alfa Romeo design? If they can make the new Giulia look half as good, and half as better again in the weak spots, it could be quite a car. Every time you tug those slim slivers of aluminium that double as door handles, you’ll be pleased you opted out of the German hegemony.
Just one final plea to CEO Sergio Marchionne’s men: don’t make the new 159 too sensible, too brilliantly polished in every area; I can just imagine people like me bemoaning boring perfection in an Alfa Romeo.