Sunday, January 11, 2009

Alfa Romeo 159

The 159 was launched under short-reigning Alfa CEO Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, formerly of BMW and Rolls-Royce and a declared Italophile when it comes to cars. The design and engineering of this 156 replacement were almost finished when he arrived, but his arrival certainly concentrated Alfa's minds on making the 159 as good as possible. The 159 hasn't quite become the BMW 3-Series rival it was intended to be, but it is nonetheless desirable, and has uniquely Italian characteristics.

Built on an all-new platform, the 159 is bigger than the 156 - 105mm longer in the wheelbase - and appropriately roomier. The style is similar outside and in, if more solid and aggressive without the lightness of touch, but there are almost no carry-over parts from the 156. That means the front double-wishbone suspension is an all-new design and the former rear struts are ditched in favour of a sophisticated multi-link arrangement. Besides the four-door saloon, there is the Sportwagon estate - considerably roomier and more practical than the 156 Sportwagon, although the 156-based GT also remains on sale.

From late 2007 an automatic dubbed Q-tronic became available in the 159 range with the 150PS 1.9 JTDM, 2.4 JTDM and flagship 3.2 JTS V6. The Q-tronic is a £1500 option.
Reliability and Quality
Reliability and quality are vitally important qualities in themselves, but a decent dealer network can ease the pain if a car proves troublesome. The service offered by Alfa's dealers has been a weakness in the past, with any problems aggravated because they have not been resolved properly. However, the company has pledged to sort this out - and if its fine words are not backed up with action, there are a number of excellent independent Alfa specialists with a good reputation.

There's a strong sense of improved quality in the 159, though, with good panel fit, decent switchgear and trim and a reassuringly expensive-feeling facia. There's still the odd rattle or squeak in some of the cars tested, but what little hard plastic there is - most interior trim panels are padded - has a pleasing surface treatment.

Now let's see how that customer service turns out.
On The Road
If we're talking about the V6, this would be a five-star rating. The four-wheel drive transmission means there's none of the bad behaviour suffered by the 156 GTA, which aimed to channel 250bhp through its front wheels alone, and the V6 Q4's handling is a delight. It points like a rear-wheel drive car and corners quickly with a gentle tail-out stance, yet the front wheels pull it straight should too much be asked of the rears. Similarly, there's almost no understeer when entering a corner quickly, because the Torsen-C centre differential diverts torque rearwards if the front wheels have too much to cope with. That 47/53 torque split is just the starting point, alterable as needed. It all makes for a highly enjoyable, very fluid drive.

The steering is very quick to respond, high-geared like the 156's, but the action is more progressive now and the turning circle is no longer bus-like. It feels slower in the nose-heavy, front-drive version of the 2.4 JTD, and there's more understeer as you'd expect, but the 2.2 JTS has the agility of the V6 if not quite the flowing style. This four-cylinder car's steering is a little too light for its directness and accuracy, though. All variants driven so far are a generally responsive, eager drive, however.

All have a good driving position, too, with firm but comfortable seats and clear instrumentation. The handbrake, to the right of the centre tunnel, means that drivers of left-hand drive 159s will be stroking passengers' arms inadvertently: this is not noticeably awkward in the right-hand drive cars, but there's not a lot of elbow room in there.

Brakes are progressive in action and the gearchange is generally smooth and accurate, although the gearboxes in the low-mileage right-hand drive 159s tested so far have been a little sticky. They should loosen up after a few more miles.

All 159s have a separate starter button, operated after the 'key' is placed in a slot, so there's no conventional steering lock and ignition key to damage knees in an accident.

Clearly the V6 is fastest - it does 149mph and reaches 62mph in 7.0 seconds - and its flat torque curve makes the performance easy to exploit.

It sounds delicious, too, the usual Alfa V6 note reproduced convincingly on this all-new engine. The 2.2 JTS also sounds correctly Alfa-like, this time much like the old 2.0 Twin Spark, complete with crisp-edged exhaust note. It has rather more low-speed pull than that engine, though, while still reaching 62mph in 8.8 seconds and a maximum speed of 138mph.

The petrol engines' natural enthusiasm is one reason why you might favour them over a diesel, but the 2.4 JTD is as muscular and sonorous a unit as ever. It's very energetic, with its newly enhanced outputs of 200bhp and 295lb-ft able to reach 142mph and sprint to 62mph in 8.4sec - so it's notably quicker than the 2.2 JTS as well as more relaxed and more economical.
However, you're not going to feel short-changed in either the 160bhp 1.9 petrol or the 150bhp 1.9 JTD diesel: both of these engines retain all the enthusiasm and verve of their larger counterparts, with plenty of mid-range muscle and the ability to cruise comfortably at motorway speeds. The diesel's a little noisy at idle, but otherwise makes an appealing sound; it makes for a sensible real-world option.

Alfa Romeo isn't renowned for its self-shifting prowess, baggage it carries from helping pioneer the automated or roboticed manual with the 156 that suffered from jerkiness and poor reliability. Can the new Q-tronic further the cause?
Safety and Security
The 159 has scored the full five stars for occupant protection in the Euro NCAP crash tests, with a good four for child occupant protection - it's matched the latest BMW 3-Series here. There's only one star for pedestrian protection, though.

All the usual boxes are ticked here, with up to eight airbags (all 159s have at least seven), active front head restraints to reduce whiplash, and stability control - Alfa Romeo calls it VDC rather than ESP - as standard. This Vehicle Dynamic Control includes a hill-holder device acting on the brakes to stop rolling back on a hill start. Tyre-pressure monitors are standard.

The lack of a mechanical steering lock improves the safety of the driver's knees (there's also a knee airbag) and the fact that the lock is electronic improves security. The pedals are designed to collapse under heavy impact, too.
Running Cost
Servicing on current Alfas is required every year or every 12,000 miles, whichever comes first, and the 159 is likely to have similarly infrequent service visits.

As for fuel economy, the best bet is the 1.9 JTD 150 with a combined-cycle 47.1mpg and 157g/km CO2. The 2.2 JTS manages 30.1mpg and 221g/km, not a particularly impressive result (a kerb weight not far short of 1500kg is one reason why), while the V6 makes you pay for its pace and poise with 24.6mpg and taxman-pleasing 270g/km. And the 2.4 JTD? Fuel consumption is 41.5mpg, CO2 179g/km. It's the best pace/cost combination of the lot.
Comfort and Equipment
Here's an Alfa with, at last, a genuinely good ride. It doesn't run out of front suspension travel like the 156 did, it dives less under braking and its damping is better controlled. The taut, responsive handling isn't achieved at the expense of excessive firmness underfoot, and a sport suspension option is neither available nor necessary. Wheels can be up to 18-inch diameter, although 16in or 17in are usual and inevitably make for better absorption of small bumps. The smaller, lighter engines lead to a slightly more fidgety ride, so the 2.2 JTS proves less serene than, say, the 2.4 JTD and there's a hint of engine shake over ripply surfaces. But it's still a big improvement over the 156 and compares well with Audi and BMW rivals. Road and wind noise are low enough not to be an issue.

There's fair space in the cabin, even in the back, though it's not as large as some rivals and there's not a huge amount of headroom. The rear seats' backrests fold down in most versions to increase boot space. Be careful leaving the front passenger seat, though, because it's easy to catch a knee on the protruberant dashboard.

The Sportwagon estate is considerably roomier than its 156 equivalent (which actually had a boot smaller than the saloon); it's still not an out-and-out load-lugger, but it's much more practical than before. The rear seats fold flat to give a useful load bay, but they don't tumble forward.

Air-con is dual-zone as standard, triple-zone optionally, and there's an air-quality sensor. Other equipment, standard or optional, includes MP3 capability in the CD player, a Bose sound system, a built-in phone, Bluetooth compatibility, Connect telematics to go with a large sat-nav screen, and parking sensors. Seats can be trimmed in flock fabric, Alfatex, leather or soft-touch 'Frau' leather, or you can have a Sport interior with so-called Tibet leather.
Used Value
The 159 isn't expected to hold its value as well as a comparatively-priced German executive car, though at the moment, there are so few around second-hand that values remain strong. Longer-term, it's good news for used buyers because prices should come down.

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