Road test: Alfa Romeo 159 1750 TBi Progression
A few Alfa fans have disagreed with me on this one but I'm still convinced that the 159 is the best looking modern Alfa, especially when we're viewing from the front.
Where the Mito and Giulietta have gone all soft and curvy, the 159 and its Brera sister still have well-proportioned and aggressive faces of the kind that scare other drivers out of the fast lane.
The problem I always had was that the car itself could not live up to its looks in any other respect. When it came to the actual driving experience it was the “I'm saving myself for marriage” sister in a family of nymphomaniacs.
Sure, it was quiet, smooth, comfortable and safe enough to get top honours in EuroNCAP's stringent metal-bending bonanzas, but it was also extremely heavy and all that Alfa's engineers could come up with to lug it along was a range of weedy naturally aspirated petrol motors and a turbodiesel with faulty injectors.
NEW LEASE ON LIFE
Fast forward six years, and to the purpose of this road test, and the 159 has been given a new lease on life with a modern turbocharged 1750cc four-cylinder petrol motor with direct injection. The way I can put it, in a nutshell, is that this is the engine that this car always should have had.
With 147kW on command between 4750 and 5500rpm and 320Nm at just 1400rpm, the R346 000 1750 TBI has quite a bit more fire in its belly than the 115kW Mercedes C180 and 135kW BMW 320i that are priced around the R360 000 mark.
On the road, this Alfa feels extremely brisk and you're never left wanting for more power at any point in the rev range - it even pulls off strongly with no hint of lag. It spurs you on with its throaty exhaust note and satisfies in just about every respect - it's even economical for its size.
As for its other dynamic qualities, the ride is supple enough, the handling is good and the steering communicative, but it doesn't quite treat you to that pin-sharp feel of the latest 3 Series or C-Class.
(ALMOST) ALL THE TRIMMINGS
Sink into the cabin and this car's age becomes even more apparent. Sure, the build quality is more solid than you'd ever have expected from Alfa Romeo and the seats look rather sexy in car terms but the overall look and feel - from the dashboard design to the materials that adorn it - are a generation or two behind its contemporary German rivals.
That said, it still smiles at the task of hauling a family in comfort, with generous rear legroom and (almost) all the trimmings you'd expect at this level, including dual-zone climate control, multifunction steering wheel and cruise control. You still have to pay extra for leather in the Progression model I tested, something you'd get as standard in the new 3 Series.
And that's a car that this Alfa will simply battle to compete with in the minds of all but the passionate crowd of enthusiasts who insist on doing things the Alfa way.
This latest version of the 159 is an extremely likeable car and the new engine does wonders in lifting its appeal, but I still can't help but wonder if it's not just a case of too little too late.