ItalianCar TestDrive - 27 June 2006

Alfa 159 – 2 hours behind the wheel of Alfa’s new platform

The launch of the Alfa 159 is not just a matter of life and death for Alfa Romeo, as the saying goes, it’s more important than that. How can the launch of a ‘mid-range’ car be such a big event?

Well, the reason is that the 159, or rather the 159 platform, will be the basis of almost all the important new Alfa models over the next 12 months and beyond, including the Brera and the much awaited new Brera-based Spider model, widely tipped to be the spearhead of Alfa’s imminent return to the US market.

The 159 is also important – for the Australian market in particular – as the company is making a punt that Australia is going to follow the European trend and embrace diesel – not just for utes and 4wds but for regular cars –, and at the performance end of town which is Alfa’s domain.

And – last but not least – the 159 replaces the incredibly successful 156 model which has been the staple of Alfa’s success, not only in Australia but around the world.

The Alfa 159 has been designed to stand up against the best that Germany has to offer – and Alfa in Australia have Audi in their sights, as well as BMW and Mercedes. Looking at what the 159 has to offer on paper against the German models, you’re clearly getting very good value for money with the 159.

The Drive

How does it stack up on the road?

The Australian launch in Sydney gave us a chance to drive two models – the petrol 2.2l JTS and the diesel – the 5 cylinder 2.4l JTD. The drive took us out of the city to Wiseman’s Ferry and then on to the Hunter Valley, returning to Sydney on the freeway and coping with some rush hour traffic on the last leg.

First up was the petrol 2.2l. First impressions inside the car – compared to the 156 – was more space – in all directions, but particularly headroom. By the way, we’re talking about the front seats here – space in the back is a little bit tighter: you can fit three people in but legroom is a little restricted.

The interior is upmarket but not too plush, with a large dash with all the instruments skewed to face the driver (making it hard for the passenger to see the dials!).

The engine is very smooth with plenty of power and the 6-speed gearbox – with a short gearstick and short and positive action – is a definite improvement on the 156 – in fact the best Alfa gearshift yet. Before the drive Alfa made much of the ‘direct’ feeling of the steering – and this was borne out on the road – the 159 is a delight to drive.

Fuel economy also seems to be pretty good – with the trip computer reporting between 9 and 10 litres per 100kms during the drive.

The 159 Diesel

Is this another car?

Then the swap over to the diesel and - what a difference! Absolutely identical inside and out but the diesel just feels like another car. The engine note is very different and – although there is no perceptible diesel rattle – it is also a very different driving experience to the petrol model. Although the diesel engine is by no means lacking in power the shorter rev ranges make it feel more subdued compared to the petrol engine.

All 159 models come with a whole range of options – or what are normally extra cost options - included as standard– this is what gives the model the edge on its German rivals: we particularly liked the hill-holder and the 10 CD stacker in the back. The 159 also comes with alloy wheels as standard and – wait for it – a full size alloy spare wheel!

ItalianCar Verdict

It's a tough market out there

Let’s be honest here – you’re not going to get an unbiased verdict from the editorial team at ItalianCar. But – for what it’s worth this is what we think. The car is a very good car and stacks up very well against its declared German rivals.

In our opinion it is not the ground breaker that its predecessor the 156 was – at least not in design terms – the 159 does look different to the other brands, but not as different as the 156 did at the time. The big question is will the 159 swing ‘floating voters’ from Audi, Mercedes and BMW. We think that Alfa’s biggest gain will be at the expense of Audi, but BMW and Mercedes are much bigger nuts to crack. After all, people decide to buy BMWs and Mercedes for reasons quite unrelated to the cars themselves.

We look forward to giving the 159 a more comprehensive shakedown soon, and driving the top of the range 3.2 V6 all wheel drive Q4 version in a few weeks. For the time being only manual models are available, but Selespeed and auto versions will follow this year and next.

David BatesonReview and test drive by David Bateson, Editor ItalianCar

Technical Specifications

Download the ItalianCar FACTfile

For all the technical and specification details on the new 159 check our FACTfile. Tech Specs and Australian pricing are here and for a sneak peak of the press briefing sheet from Alfa Romeo Australia (4MB PDF file) click here.

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