Saturday 3 September 2011

Driven #38:- Alfa Romeo 159 1.9 JTDm

I seem to be conjuring cars up out of thin air, right now. No sooner have I taken the Giulietta out for a drive (here), and start thinking to myself that it would be nice to have a 159 to compare it to, then suddenly one turns up. So, next week, expect a full report on the McLaren F1.

The Giulietta plays the fashion card, and tries appeals to an image-conscious market. The 159 is the Alfa Romeo for those who want a straight-forward, hard working saloon car, but one which is still an Alfa through and through. Of course, achieving that is no mean feat. 

The Alfa identity, while much beloved by car enthusiasts and sporting historians, doesn't enjoy the same degree of popularity among the impressionable as the big three German brands do. The 159, then, sits on the periphery of the medium executive market, AKA the 3-Series class. It's a leftfield choice in the same way as a Saab is. Or was.

It wears its heart on its sleeve. Put blankly, looks are unashamedly the USP for the 159, and it's pretty much the only tenant of the crowded executive arena that you could legitimately make a case for choosing based on looks and charisma alone. It shares the same basic three-box outline and size as the A4, C-Class et al, but shows at least a few hundred percent more artistry than those in how its lines are managed.

In fact, the styling balance is heavily biased to the nose, where those sharp, slightly menacing razor-edges surrounding the six individual lamp units attracts all the attention. The big central shield grille guarantees instant rear-view mirror appreciation, yet doesn't feel overplayed like that on the A4, and does without look-at-me LED running lights, which is refreshing.

The nose has a lot in common with the Alfa Brera, their fascinating but flawed coupĂ©. In some ways the rest of the shape is underwhelming, particularly because the 156 that came before had been delicately proportioned all over. Compared with that car, the 159 can look a bit long viewed from side on. The simple trick of hiding the rear door handles on the 156 gave your brain fewer reference points that shouted “This is a four door car”. It's a shame that Giugiaro seem to have forgotten about this visual trick that I rather enjoyed. It obviously wasn't dropped for being passĂ©, or they wouldn't have brought it back for the Giulietta.

Saying that; the cars stance is terrific, it has broad shoulders and well judged ride height. This limited edition car has a set of matt grey 18” wheels, a bit fashion victim but here they are at least employed to strong visual effect; filling the wheelarches like a Sunday roast with all the trimmings.

Inside, it's a shame that it's blacker than my mood when I'm renewing my car insurance, but at least that makes it directly comparable to the Giulietta I drove last week. Compared to that car, it's far more recognisably Alfa in the way things sweep and wrap around the driver. The central, ski-slope-like edifice is pierced by three inset dials, mirroring the vents above and including a nice-but-pointless turbo gauge. The major dials are ahead of the driver in a hooded binnacle, and are purposeful and easy to read. I didn't see anything I recognised from a Fiat, but I probably didn't look closely enough, or am less familiar with Fiats than I thought.

You sit in the traditional, semi side-saddle Alfa Romeo manner, with your feet jutting towards the drivers headlight. Aside from those cursed with built in flippers, like me, there’s plenty of space in the footwell and in the drivers seat itself, to writhe around as you see fit.

The quality feels good. My fingers strolled across the surfaces, and they didn't encounter any sharp edges or unfortunate finishes. If they were there, they were well concealed. And this is how things were on my 156, too; the quality probably wasn't as good as I thought, but it wasn't obvious. T he panels were well aligned, he leather was glove soft, in cream with the embossed logos it felt like a budget Maserati. The 159 is the same; it feels absolutely good enough and has far more of a sense of occasion about it than any rival I can think of. There are even a few buttons attached to the ceiling (parking sensors etc) for those wishing to rekindle memories of the Alfa 75.

Stick the bladeless key in the little docking port to the left of the dash, and press the start button that’s starting to lose its print. The 1.9 JTD engine clatters into life, making exactly the same commotion as the one in my 156 had done, a sound that does a fair bit to shatter the illusion of Italian exuberance you might be under. If only the 159 were still available with one of the classic old Alfa V6s, with that sonorous howl that became almost stereotypical of an elegant Italian saloon, but sadly a the only petrol you can now have is a 200hp four cylinder. Quick, but not romantic.

The diesel, though is not a remotely sporting engine. It’s perfectly acceptable power and torque wise, and the economy is fine, too. But it still feels like a bit of a gammy leg when applied to this kind of car. Engage gear, the 6-speed gearbox is accurate but carries a slight rubberiness in the throw, and there’s a slight and a mechanical friction as you push the selector home. It doesn’t have the rifle-bolt action of a BMW, but it is still pleasingly tactile. It’s a shame that the first two gears feel strangely oddly spaced, first is too low and calls for an immediate upchange, second is slightly too high.

If you’re making a rolling start, perhaps joining a roundabout, it’s tempting to keep it in second and slip the clutch, avoiding first altogether. Unfortunately, the 159 doesn’t seem keen on you doing this. There is a fairly pronounced turbo lag at hand, and you’re almost certain to bog down or stall causing furious beeping of horns, until you get the hang of it. Die-hard fans will question what in blazes I’m on about, but it seems to me more noticeable than most other manual cars I’ve driven. Having said that, it only surfaces when you’re trying to be cocky, in my case when trying to get the slip on other drivers at junctions. Driven more gently, it’s not an issue.

Anyway, once you’re under way, the engine pulls well and makes no more fuss than it should. Pretty soon, though, you notice the cabin noise. I can’t report whether it’s peculiar to this particular example, but there’s a high pitched boom that runs through the cabin at motorway speeds, as if the whole bodyshell is one enormous tuning fork. It’s not overwhelming, just noticeable. It’s probably aided and abetted by those big rubber boots but, to be fair, it would show up less if it had anywhere near the tyre roar of the Giulietta.

Speaking of which, the 159 has a firm ride but doesn't crash into potholes in the way that the Giulietta seems to. This may be simply down to the extra mass and length of the car, but I suspect it’s more likely because the platform is just better designed than that of the smaller car. Strangely, though, all these flaws, together with a slight fizzing sensation through the steering wheel, conspire to make the car feel alive and organic in a way you don’t feel in an Audi A4 or Volkswagen Passat, for example.

Turn off onto more interesting roads and let the 159 off its leash a bit, and it starts to shine more brightly. This is a car that responds willingly and flatters the driver, at least when driven within its limits. Up to that point it tracks accurately through corners, turns in crisply and stays flat and composed. Of course, with those monster tyres the available grip is immense, but it feels like there’s some well developed suspension going on down there to support the driver, rather than relying on grippy tyres alone.

It does have its limits, though. Drive at ten tenths and it begins to lose its composure in traditional front-wheel-drive style. Understeer begins to build making it harder to keep a line through corners, and the nose will eventually wash out altogether if you get really silly. Compared to the 156 it feels slightly less agile, less “pointy”, but more benign. It actually reminds me of my old Audi A4, solid, grippy and obedient rather than telepathic. Still entirely capable of placing a big grin on your face, though.

And I have no doubt it would be better still with a nice, free revving petrol engine. The dream, though, would be for Alfa Romeo to build a car that looks like this, but still had the traditional rear transaxle, rear wheel drive layout of those masterpieces that make enthusiasts go all dewy-eyed. 

It’s a strange state of affairs, and one I touched upon with the Giulietta. Alfas in the 80’s and 90’s were never especially stylish (even the now worshipped GTV6 was handsome, rather than pretty), we all enjoy looking at them now due to what they were, rather than what they looked like. Even Zagato recognised this, the RZ and SZ, or Il Mostro, were deliberately ugly/beautiful as a statement of Alfa Romeoness.

The 164 came along, the first front-drive car of the marque, a layout inherited from the type-four project, and it was the first Alfa of the modern era that could get by on looks alone, it just so happened that the chassis was up to scratch too. The rear-drive chassis disappeared totally after the RZ / SZ, but stylistic eccentricity continued with the 145 and 146, and the four wheel drive versions of the 155 nodded towards the rear-drive characteristics of the past. But it was a diluted experience, and from 1997 with the birth of the 156, it seemed like style had become job number one.

Had they only then and there had the bravery and the cash to marry the 156 style to a 75 derived chassis, the 3-Series might not have held on to its drivers car crown for the last ten years, but we can only dream of a world that worked like that. As it is, the 159 does the very best it can do with the ingredients it’s been given. It drives as well as any other front-wheel-drive car of its size, and makes you feel good. It has driveway presence, too. I’d be sorely tempted to consider one over the Germans, a decision I would probably end up ruling out on the grounds of economics.

For the last decade at least, Alfa have never managed to escape from the terrible depreciation that savages them. It was a result of this that I bought my 156, which had lost 80% of its new cost by the time I bought it five years old. Things are improving, gradually, but it’s a world apart from the rock-steady residuals of the Germans. It makes a used 159 look like an interesting proposition, though.

Unfortunatel, this all comes a bit late as Alfa Romeo stopped taking orders in the UK for the 159 on 8 July 2011. The 159, it seems, is dead. A shame, because no doubt it would be an enjoyable, characterful car to live with, and one that would capably do anything that is asked of it. It’s a far more practical car for a family, and was even available as an estate variant. This car, the 159 Sportwagon, with its sexy Brera-style nose and big, commodious rump, is a bit like a reverse mullet; party at the front, business at the back.