Once upon a time we could forgive cars their flaws if the trade-off was character. Land Rovers and old Minis fanned flames of passion that overshadowed their foibles. Then we got fussier, but Alfa’s 156 was gorgeous enough – and offered a sufficiently radical leap in quality – that our forgiveness continued. Who cared if a brisk drive sprinkled your lap with plastic widgets? That brisk drive had set your heart singing.
Unfortunately for Alfa, there aren’t enough forgiving owners to keep the company running. So, fortunately for us, it has lifted its game considerably. And Alfa’s NZ importer says it has spent the last year overhauling the small dealer network to ensure customer and after-sales service is also up to scratch – ready for this car, the 159. Is this really the first of a new wave of Alfas – sexy yet reliable, the passion without pain? First impressions say it is. Forget facelifts. This is an all-new car – even the badge was changed. The exclusive platform that underpins the much bigger body also supports the Sportwagon, Brera and Spider, and will feature beneath models yet to be announced. But this car sees its debut.
We decided to give the 159 a thrashing at its Australian launch – choosing the gnarliest roads from Sydney to the Hunter Valley where we planned to toast the car’s talents – or drown our sorrows. On offer were two of the four engines, the 2.2-litre JTS petrol or 2.4-litre JTD diesel. The range-topping 3.2-litre V6 with its GM-sourced block (say “GM engine” and Alfa jumps down your throat) plus four-wheel drive arrives in July, along with the Brera V6, and there’ll be a 1.9-litre diesel, as fitted to the 147.
The first 159 we drove was the 2.2 JTS. The motor is a new version of the four-cylinder petrol unit with continuously variable valve timing. It’s 20 percent lighter than the engine it replaces and offers 136kW and 230Nm. We’d barely settled into the ribbed red leather of the interior, scanned the driver-oriented instruments and the expanse of metal fascia and admired the efficiency of the ergonomics before we noticed how smooth this engine is. Forgiving, too – for we soon got lost in Sydney’s morning rush-hour, and appreciated how flexibly it responded, minimising the need for gearchanges. All round visibility was good and the only person panicking was my navigator, who’d barely finished telling me how well he knew Syndey before we got lost. So I had good reason for urgency once we finally left the city limits behind. Those power figures aren’t blistering, but our spirits rose when we hit winding roads, for the car’s handling is right on the button. Alfa has further developed the 156 front suspension, with a high double wishbone set-up connected to the chassis via a stiffer-subframe. That’s mated to a new multi-link system at the back, the whole plot fitted to a commendably stiff body. Hurling through a set of 15km/h switchbacks we found a nimble car that sticks like glue – the hint of understeer easily reined in by a twitch of the wheel. There’s just the right amount of steering feedback and none of the kick-back that blighted the 156. Ride is a tad firm, as you’d expect from a sports sedan, without being harsh – and soon we were upping the pace to see just how far we could go before the battery of electronic aids cut in. Further than we were willing to go, it transpired on an exhilarating run that caught us up with the pack – even if we did miss morning coffee.
Stage two on more open roads let us take stock of a generous features list from seven airbags (including one for your knees) to leather seats; from the 10 CD stacker to the rear park sensor; from the dual zone air to the vast array of electronic nannies – ABS plus EBA, EBD, VDC, MSR, ASR. Translated, that’s anti-lock brakes with electronic brake distribution and brake assist, plus Vehicle Dynamic Control to improve cornering stability while using the traction control to limit wheelspin when accelerating. The Motor Speed Regulator balances braking torque when changing down, and there’s a hill holder to smooth your hill starts. No, it doesn’t do it all for you – but if you flirt with the laws of physics it will do its best to keep you out of hospital.
Wheelspin when accelerating? Not from the 2.2, perhaps. But the 2.4 diesel – is another matter. For there’s 400Nm of torque on tap, and it’s that which gets this car from 0 to 100 four-tenths quicker than the petrol can. This five-cylinder common rail diesel is the most powerful Alfa diesel, and uses sophisticated multi-jet injection and a variable geometry turbo to ensure smooth delivery of urge through an impressively wide range of revs. Ninety percent of torque is available from 1750 to 3500rpm, and there are no big, power-free holes in which to fall. It seemed to pull strongly in every one of the six gears – and it sounds the part too, smooth and almost inaudible when cruising, but with a growly undertone when hauling that suits the persona.
So far, so good. Early cars will all be manuals, with autos arriving next year. Initial buyers of sporting cars tend to be friendly to manuals and Alfa doesn’t think it’ll affect sales. Its forecast is optimistic – the brand sold just 183 cars in NZ last year, but plans 500 in 2007. If it can get bums in seats my money says it will make that figure – for first impressions are that this car is as good as it looks. Its gorgeous lines and passionate persona make the Lexus IS seem bland, and the talent that underpins it could woo BMW 3 Series buyers looking for something a bit different. What will help is the price-to-package equation, for the features list is generous on even the $56,990 2.2-litre entry-level car. Consider the seven grand extra for the 2.4 JTD, would be my advice – though I’ve yet to drive the $79,990 V6.