Alfa Romeo 159

1 Mar, 2006 10:50am Julie Sinclair

When it comes to producing beautiful cars, no one does it better than Alfa Romeo. Whether it's a sporty coup� or a svelte estate, jaw-dropping styling comes as standard.

Verdict

There's no doubt that in terms of build quality, performance and desirability, Alfa's new 159 Sportwagon is light years ahead of the original 156. Not only is the cabin a pleasant place to be, but it's well screwed together, too. The only significant problem is its limited practicality - while the Sportwagon is loveable, the Alfa does not offer the space of a traditional load-lugger.
When it comes to producing beautiful cars, no one does it better than Alfa Romeo. Whether it's a sporty coup� or a svelte estate, jaw-dropping styling comes as standard.

Take a look at the company's new 159 Sportwagon and you'll see what we mean. The attractive load-lugger replaces the much loved 156 estate, but can it lure buyers away from executive rivals with its seductive lines and a punchy new diesel engine?

It's hard not to be struck by the Sportwagon's body. The front end is identical to the saloon's, but the tapered roofline and roof rails give the estate more poise than the four-door. On sale in the UK from this spring, the new addition to the line-up will cost around £1,000 more than the equivalent 159 booted version. That prices our 1.9-litre JTDM at around £21,500, undercutting BMW's 3-Series Touring.

Unfortunately, the Alfa can't match its rival for luggage space. While the Sportwagon is exactly the same length as the 159 four-door and offers 445 litres of boot capacity, that's still 15 litres less than the 3-Series Touring. However, it's a significant 80 litres more than the outgoing 156 Sportwagon.

In its favour, the Alfa's load bay is a useful shape and has a flat floor. The folding seats are light and easy to use, but the squabs are fixed, meaning the seat backs don't fold fully horizontal. Rear passengers will also struggle to find space - legroom is limited.

So as an estate the 159 is compromised, but then it was never intended to be a true wardrobe shifter. Viewed as a more versatile five-door versionof the 159, the Sportwagon's charms compensate for its flawed practicality.

Sharing its cabin with the saloon, the ergonomic dashboard is well built and driver-focused, while the controls have a sporty feel to them.

Once out on the road, the Alfa doesn't disappoint either. The 150bhp 1.9-litre diesel engine is expected to account for the bulk of sales in theUK, and performs strongly. While the standard six-speed manual gearbox has relatively tall ratios, there's plenty of thrust in every gear, thanks to the engine's 320Nm of torque.

However, there's a price to pay for this performance. With CO2 emissions of 162g/km, the 1.9-litre powerplant doesn't have the tax advantage of the 2.0-litre TDI found in the rival AudiA4 Avant, which emits 150g/km. The159 has the same supple ride as the saloon version, and the experience is enhanced by sharp, responsive steering. On smooth, flowing tarmac, the front-wheel-drive set-up is a joy. But on rougher surfaces, the suspension feels too firm and refinement suffers.

An even more sporty all-wheel-driveoil-burner will be added to the range by the end of the year. But thanks to the well balanced chassis, the current model offers a genuinely exhilarating drive. On particularly twisty roads, it can't match the cornering abilities of rivals which feed power to the rear wheels, but few buyers will be disappointed with the Alfa.

Ultimately, if practicality is your key concern, the Sportwagon is best left alone. However, it has lots of charm and promises a thoroughly satisfying driving experience on every journey.

Key specs

* The JTDM engine features Alfa's latest diesel technology. It's refined and responsive, offering a good balance of performance and economy. However, the 1.9-litre 150bhp unit isn't as clean as some rivals. At 163g/km,its CO2 emissions are high.
* Engine: 1.9-litre turbo, 150bhp
* 0-62mph: 9.6 seconds
* Economy: 46.3mpg
* Price: £21,500 (est)