If you wanted a classy, compact saloon, the best-looking choice - by common assent - has been Alfa Romeo's 156. Its curvy bodywork, crowned by an evocative radiator grille, is truly beautiful. And that could not be said of rivals like the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Saab 9-3, Lexus IS and Jaguar X-Type, attractive though they are. So why aren't there more 156s on our roads?
For a start, the car has provided less than bullet-proof dependability and, worse, customer care offered by many Alfa dealers lies somewhere between indifferent and incompetent. So Alfa has much to do with the new 159. Not only must it compete with the class-leading 3 Series in functionality but it must not go wrong - and it must come with decent back-up.
Here's some good news. The 159 feels significantly more robust and thoughtfully constructed than its predecessor. Quality control at the Naples factory that builds it is the responsibility of an ex-BMW exec who had the same duties at the Munich company, so he's rigorous. And Alfa GB is reconfiguring its dealer network to provide customer service worthy of the Alfa legend.
Anyone familiar with the 156 will recognise the same thrusting grille, curvaceous flanks, nicely proportioned silhouette and a tidy rump. But much has changed. At the front of the 159, compact triple headlights lurk within dark recesses like a wolf's night-lit eyes, and a strong crease at shoulder height emphasises the car's muscularity, as do its bigger wheels. The hidden rear door handle has been replaced by four stylish chrome grips.
Inside, the aura is of quiet and classy glamour. Our test model was upholstered in red leather, contrasting satisfyingly with the black and aluminium of the dash. It's comfortable, the fittings feel well-made and, yes, permanently attached.
There's a choice of four-cylinder and V6 petrol engines, or four or five-cylinder turbodiesels. Likely to be most popular are the 2.2 JTS petrol and the 1.9 JTD diesel sampled here. It provides 147 bhp but, more importantly, 236 lb ft of torque - enough mid-range tug to make it a relatively effortless car, if not a truly fast one. For that, you'll need the 3.2 litre V6.
But the 1.9 diesel is refined and turns in around 47 mpg.
Alfas have always been more about the driving experience and on this score the 159 mostly satisfies. You'll notice its agility first, the quick-acting steering eager to plunge the car into bends without making it feel unstable. Bags of grip and a calm ride will encourage the keen driver too, but it's not a light car and it never quite feels fast. But because its abilities are so much more evenly balanced, it feels like a mature car. It's keenly priced, too. So a sensible choice even - and with a rich overlay of glamour.
Now that should be a winning combination.
Price: £21,895 (Alfa Romeo 159 1.9 JTD)
Max power: 147 bhp
Max torque: 236 lb ft
Max speed: 125 mph
0-62 mph 9.5 sec
Fuel consumption: 47.1 mpg
CO2 emissions: 159 g/km
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