Henry Ford, a practical man rather than an aesthete, always raised his hat when he saw an Alfa Romeo.
These are cars with a special magic, machines which cast a spell so potent that their image capital remains undiminished despite some reckless spending: all who saw one will never forget an Alfa Romeo and Nissan joint venture, which produced an atrocity called the Arna, a very deep pool of the most unfortunate mix of Italian and Japanese genes. Imagine a rorty engine in a chassis that handled like a supermarket trolley with a body designed by a demoralised DHSS committee - you get the idea.
But you forget these things with a little knowledge of more distant history; drops of crappiness soon dissolve in an ocean of romance. Ferrari's famous cavallino rampante first appeared on the side of an Alfa: Enzo Ferrari was manager of Alfa's racing team and went independent only when his bosses did not allow him to make the car he wanted. Later, some of the most sublime body designs of all time, mostly by Pininfarina, wore Alfa badges.
It is very easy to describe Alfa Romeo's virtues: a glorious tradition, divine engines, (almost always) lasciviously beautiful bodies and characterful driving dynamics. Against this, an equally well-deserved reputation for making underdeveloped, ergonomically catastrophic, shoddily built rust buckets with no worthwhile service network to maintain them.
Notwithstanding, the great thing about an Alfa Romeo is that driving one makes you feel Italian in a way that, say, driving a SAAB does not make you feel Swedish nor a Range Rover, thank God, like a Brummie. The nervously athletic engines, the sense of willingness, a whiff of romantic associations, a driving position that makes you slouch like a Lothario.
The name has a mellifluence that sounds like an imprecation to make love in local dialect. Even the badge on the steering wheel boss is the coat of arms of the city of Milan.
Put it this way: while every other manufacturer is going through gymnastic creative contortions to engineer yet more ingenious cup-holders (Audi leads here), there is no cup-holder whatsoever in the new Alfa 166. An Italian wants to drink his pungent ristretto sitting stationary in a dark caffe while reading the Gazzetta dello Sport. Only an American or a German would be so barbaric as to want to drink plastic canisters of frothy industrial cappuccino on the move.
This 166, without cup-holders, is Alfa's latest attempt to make a big car, an area where it has always been weakest. It is a dramatic-looking machine with an emphatic dart-like profile: a low, ground-scraping nose with tiny lights rises to powerfully bulky rear haunches and in between these extremities there is a lack of fussy detail.
It is perhaps not quite so aesthetically fine as its predecessor, the smaller 156, in fact designed afterwards. The earlier 166, is, however, in typical Italian fashion, a very unsatisfying car to look out of. The same bold styling that seduces the eye confounds the brain when parking.
While the seats themselves are very comfortable, the secondary ergonomics are dreadful: that beautiful nose and those robust haunches are completely invisible from inside the car. Getting into a meter bay is like reversing a supertanker. The driving position is similarly flawed: despite electric adjustments that move the seat six ways to Friday, it is possible only to get into interesting positions, more useful to those would-be Lotharios than comfortable.
So, Alfa 166 final account as before: great, verging on sublime, engines; fabulously irresponsible looks; bags of character; terrific to drive; daft ergonomics. That much is predictable. Quite original, however, is the unusually refined quality of construction and the mesmerising list of options and accessories.
There was a time when the Alfa commercial proposition was 'like it or lump it', now there is something of an attempt to meet the customer halfway.
For the first time ever, Alfa is offering a credible alternative to a German car. Except that the wipers make such an irritating click-clack that in rain you are prepared to go up to the very threshold of visibility before deploying them. So it's not quite German and that's the point: the 166 is the sort of car you love, flaws and all. If you ever manage to park it, you find yourself looking back over your shoulder as you walk away. Never happens with a Mercedes-Benz!