The Alfa Romeo 159 has never been a big success here in South Africa. And from an aesthetic point of view I cannot seem to think of a reason why. For if you compare it to any one of its rivals, Alfa’s flagship sedan is a veritable supermodel. Driving a Honda Accord, Audi A4 or BMW 3 Series is like dating that quietly attractive girl in the accounts department. But the 159, what with those fine Giugiaro-penned lines is akin to turning up at the office Christmas party with actress Emma Stone on your arm. Which would you rather have?
Sadly it seems that our dour motoring public prefer the latter. Admittedly it may have something to do with Alfa’s once-dire reliability record but nowadays, thanks to all the wonders of modern technology, there’s now very little between something assembled in Germany or something assembled in Italy. And so, in a classic case of once-bitten-twice-shy, the Alfa 159 (a car that chased down 007 in Quantum of Solace) has remained on the periphery; like one of those kids who’s always picked last for high school sports events.
With this in mind you would expect Alfa to let their poor 159 retire gracefully. To let it quietly fizzle out unnoticed until the soon-to-be-released Giulia eventually fills its shoes in 2012. Well, that’s where you’d be wrong. For just like the Porsche 997 Carrera 4 GTS I drove last week, this Italian saloon is making one last stand before it disappears forever.
Now while the last Alfa swansong (that overpriced GT Coupe Centenary Edition) was nothing more than their marketing department having a good fat laugh at the customer’s expense, this twilight reinvention is actually worth every cent. That’s because the engineers have put the 159 on a strict diet. In fact by grafting in some aluminium body panels they’ve been able to burn 45 kilograms worth of fat from its curb weight. This doesn’t sound like much but out in the real world it makes one heck of a difference to the way the 159 drives.
Previous incarnations were a little too soft and roly-poly. But now there’s a satisfying precision to the way this Alfa carves across the blacktop. Tight and poised in the chassis department, there’s also some mighty talkative steering to fuel your enthusiasm through the twisty bits. For a six-year old design it’s amazing how good it feels when stacked up against its rivals. In fact I’d be bold enough say it’s better than the fresher Giulietta hatch.
Fun to drive, the ‘new’ 159 is no slouch in a straight line either thanks to a choice of two muscular engines. And my personal favorite has to be the meaty 3.2-litre V6. A powerful multi-cylinder lump with an old-school flavour, it revs smoothly and delivers an addictive growl when you bury your throttle foot in anger.
The long gear ratios stacked inside its standard six-speed manual ‘box do mean that it does feel a little lethargic coming out of the blocks. But once you’re up to speed, this motor comes into its own with some fairly brutal mid-range punch. Complemented by a comfortable and surprisingly forgiving ride, this makes every one of the three V6 derivatives (Distinctive, Turismo Internazionale and the range-topping all-wheel drive Q4 Auto Distinctive) effortless cross-country cruisers.
Of course if this isn’t your thing you can always plumb for the more affordable 1750 TBi; a car that feels slightly quicker off the mark due to its shorter gear ratios and turbocharged four-pot motor. Already proven in the Giulietta, it’s an incredibly likeable unit. But shoe-horned into the more stately and grown-up metal of the 159, well, it just seems somewhat out of place.
As a sum of all its parts, the 1750 TBi also feels just a little too twitchy and hyperactive for my liking. For whereas the V6 glides with a well-considered maturity – a fine blend between comfort and sportiness – its turbocharged brother jumps about like an overexcited puppy. Especially on the scabby tarmac that plagues us Joburg motorists.
Whatever model you feel like parking on your driveway, both are available in the brand new Turismo Internazionale (Ti) specification. Two famous words that symbolize the very pinnacle of Alfa styling, this optional package helps turn the elderly 159 into quite the boulevard panty-dropper.
Like a thorough pimping in one of those street racing video games, you get a lowered sports suspension system; a sportier exhaust; side skirts and some killer-looking matte black multi-spoke alloy wheels – the latter of which have been tastefully offset by some blood-red Brembo brake calipers. Yep, put a helmet on your head and people might just mistake you for World Touring Car Driver, Gabriele Tarquini.
While the interior is less successful in masking its age, the Ti treatment does cheer things up some with lashings of leather, alcantara, red-stitching and brushed aluminium. The fit and finish isn’t up to German standards but you do get charismatic features like a centre-console dial pack detailing water and oil temperature. Maybe it’s a little on the anorak side but I dig this sort of thing; it makes you feel like you’re behind the wheel of a racecar.
So there it is, the Alfa 159 redux in a nutshell. As it stands a very accomplished luxury saloon that finally, after all of these years, has the driving dynamics to back up those good looks. But is it yet another tragic example of a car manufacturer doing too much too late? Definitely. However the fact remains that, and if you’ve been searching for a worthy antidote to the humdrum Teuton brigade, there’s never been a better time to snap one up.
The new Alfa 159 at a Glance:
Engine: 1742cc four-cylinder turbo (1750 TBi); 3195cc V6 (3.2 V6)
Power: 147kW at 5000rpm (1750 TBi); 191kW at 6200rpm (3.2 V6)
Torque: 320Nm at 1400rpm (1750 TBi); 322Nm at 4500rpm (3.2 V6)
0-100km/h: 7.7-seconds (1750 TBi); 7.1-seconds (3.2 V6)
Top Speed: 235km/h (1750 TBi); 250km/h (3.2 V6)
Fuel Consumption: 7.8l/100km (combinded 1750 TBi); 11.0l/100km (combined 3.2 V6)
CO2: 182g/km (1750 TBi); 260g/km (3.2 V6)
Price: 1750 TBi Progression R340 000; 1750 TBi Ti R370 000; 3.2 V6 Distinctive R398 500; 3.2 V6 Ti R428 500; 3.2 V6 Q4 auto Distinctive R430 000
Still a looker after all this time
Now a fairly sharp driving tool
That 3.2 V6 will never get old
About to be replaced
1750 TBi is skittish
Depreciation is a dirty word