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MOTORNET: Muscled-Up Italian - Alfa 159

Muscled-Up Italian

SCOOP MOTORNET with Karl Ferguson
Images by Neil Mackenzie -

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The motorway into the city was unusually deserted for a Saturday evening but perhaps not surprisingly given the lateness of the hour. The Nissan Skyline was virtually abreast of me when I noticed it, its passengers craning their necks as they came alongside of the matt silver Alfa 159. I gave the throttle a little tickle and pulled away only for the Nissan to immediately accelerate to keep pace. A few hundred metres of intense scrutiny passed before the Skyline’s passenger gave me the thumbs up and a big grin. There was no mistaking that gesture – the boys approved, wholeheartedly.

A new Alfa is a big deal at any time, but perhaps even more so on this occasion given that this particular Alfa replaces the beautiful and well liked (if flawed) 156. Alfa believes they have moved on with this car, but car buyer expectations too have moved on. Character in European cars is no longer defined by frequent visits to the garage, but by the tactility of the pop out cup holder, or more likely the reliability of its electronic trickery.

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First things first though. Alfa has managed to get the looks right which is a plus. Where the 156 was sensuous, the 159 is muscular. Curves have been replaced by bulges and the snout is aggressive where before it was voluptuous. It won’t necessarily be to the tastes of all Alfisti, but I think it looks great, if a little ungainly from some angles. This is a bigger car too than the 156, not much smaller than a 166, and it looks it, having the kind of presence you might expect of a 5-Series BMW. It should be noted too that plenty of BMW drivers took more than a passing interest in the 159 which is no doubt good news for Alfa.

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There are four engine options on offer including two petrol variants, the entry level 2.2 four and range topping 3.2 litre six, and two diesels, a 1.9 and 2.4. It’s the common-rail 2.4 jet thrust diesel or JTD which may represent the performance bargain of the range. With 147kW on tap and a massive 400Nm of torque it sure delivers in the power stakes. Outright performance figures don’t do the diesel’s mid-range punch true justice, though a 0-100km/h time of around eight seconds would hardly be considered shabby.

The 159 comes with a delightful six-speed manual which suits not only its sporting heritage, but also the willingness of the engine. Like most diesels, there is little happening below 2000rpm but once you hit the power band, the acceleration and responsiveness of the engine is impressive. All the more reason to use the short throw, notchy gearbox which makes a strong case for manual boxes in an increasingly automatic transmission dominated environment. This is just as well too as Alfa won’t offer an automatic until the first quarter of 2007.

Where the 159 really impresses though is in its structural rigidity – claimed to be class leading – which pays real dividends in the handling stakes. Despite a front weight bias, the car drives beautifully resisting the push to understeer and tackling corners with aplomb and bags of grip. The steering is fast and accurate, and tight or alternatively long flowing corners will leave any driver with a big grin on the dial.

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It’s dials, not surprisingly that dominate the cabin, and while there is no mistaking the Latin influence, it’s a pleasant place to be – a mixture of traditional and modern. The ergonomics are generally good, barring a few oddities such as the remote release for the boot being placed on the headliner. The driving position is a little unusual, and marred by being oddly elevated, but nevertheless comfortable and there is a reasonable degree of space, though the rear is probably adequate rather than generous. I remain unconvinced by the brushed aluminium finish on the centre console (the Germans do this better and it’s a little sterile) and fit and finish is not quite to the level of say BMW or Audi, but it’s not far off, and standard equipment is generous such as leather seats and park distance control.

There is no doubt that the 159 makes a compelling package. Even more compelling is the pricing. The 2.2 petrol starts the ball rolling at $56,990, with the all-wheel-drive 3.2 topping the range at a fraction under $80k, while the JTD 2.4 sits somewhere in the middle retailing for $63,990. The interesting thing is that the European pickings in this price group are pretty limited. A similarly specced BMW or Audi are quite a way off in the price department which largely leaves the VW Passat or Peugeot 407 range to provide realistic comparisons or alternatives.

It’s possible that the 159 will suffer from past Alfa prejudices largely stemming from historical build quality issues and generally poor quality products. A comprehensive drive of the 159, backed up by Alfa’s equally comprehensive warranty should help to dispel those concerns all of which could lead to the site of a few more Alfas on our highways and bi-ways. No bad thing I am sure my new found Skyline driving friends would agree.

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