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Car reviews - Alfa Romeo - 159 - 2.4 JTDM Sportwagon

Our Opinion

We like
Finally there's a proper auto, beautiful styling, solid and high-quality cabin, loads of safety features, diesel engine's rorty performance once on the move, unique proposition among luxury-car lemmings
Room for improvement
Not a happy engine/gearbox marriage with shift delays and delayed acceleration, not-very-impressive economy or CO2 emissions

24 Aug 2007

DISAPPOINTMENTS in the motoring world do not come much harder than an Alfa Romeo that looks fantastic, ticks all the right comfort and convenience boxes and feels well put together, but then turns out to be a drag to drive.

Welcome to the 2.4-litre, diesel-powered 159 Sportwagon with automatic transmission.

At $62,000 plus on-road costs, it is up against some pretty impressive diesel applications, from the upcoming BMW X3 2.0d to the Volkswagen Passat 2.0 TDI wagon.

These, as well as the Saab 9-3 SportCombi, Peugeot 407 HDi, Citroen C5 wagon and several others, do have their faults or irritations, but their diesel drivetrains generally do not rank among them.

The opposite is true with the stunningly proportioned Alfa Romeo – truly the most stunning station wagon you can buy today.

The problem is that its Aisin-supplied six-speed automatic transmission seems to work against, rather than with, the 2.4-litre five-cylinder turbo-diesel powerplant.

It hangs on to gears much longer than you want, even when you are just tootling around, and then is reluctant to kick-down to a lower ratio when you need instant oomph.

Meanwhile, while waiting for a small gap to appear in on-coming traffic when turning into a side street, the engine dithers before the turbocharger finally kicks in. This is unforgivable when you consider that there is 400Nm of torque at your (eventual) disposal.

Strangely, last year we drove the same engine in a 159 JTDM six-speed manual sedan and were impressed with its performance and fairly muted noise levels.

In our automatic wagon, the diesel din would shame an old Lada. We are astounded at this car’s lack of mechanical refinement.

Mash the accelerator pedal and – post-delay – the power builds up exponentially, but so too does the mechanical thrashiness. Momentum rises rapidly and the 159 suddenly feels like a very powerful and swift vehicle.

If you press the Sport button, gearchanges do seem to be smoother if you are in the mood to press on, but sixth is locked out and the engine noise soon becomes a distraction.

In the Tiptronic-style manual mode, you can hold all gears right up to the redline, but we do not recommend this assault of the aural senses.

With little in the way of wind or road noise filtering through the tightly-built 159, its occupants have no choice but to listen to this engine drone all day.

Ultimately, in everyday driving conditions, the engine’s inert power delivery is tiresome, with either too little or too much momentum under acceleration. Smooth progress is not easily achievable.

Topping all this off is unremarkable fuel consumption – surely one of the driving motivators for going diesel. We recorded between 10 and 11L/100km – which is just not worth the jolty, languid and raucous progress that comes with it.

Give us a non-auto 159 any day. Believe us, any would be a much better drive.

It is a crying shame because there is nothing wrong with the auto wagon’s steering response or weight, providing a nicely measured amount of feel through all sorts of corners.

The ride quality, too, is well-established in comfort territory, shielding the occupants from all manner of road irregularities – although larger speed humps do reveal some limitations in wheel travel.

Even in heavy rain and against howling winds, the 159’s high levels of security and grip further underline the advances Alfa Romeo has made with this all-new platform. It’s a rock-solid effort.

Inside, the cabin could only be an Alfa Romeo, from the heavily cowled instrumentation joined by a row of dials up in the centre console to the pleated leather seat trim and racy metallic finishes.

Besides the drudgery of the driving experience, another very un-Alfa aspect of the automatic diesel wagon – this time more welcome – is the sporty yet accommodating driving position, which is suitable for virtually all shapes and sizes. At last, more people will be more comfortable in this Italian car more of the time.

Another plus point was the absence of squeaks, rattles or breakages, revealing a lift in quality hitherto foreign to the Italian brand.

Alfa has excelled in designing a centre console that is easy to decipher and even easier to use, with the large climate and audio controls both within arm’s reach.

The trip computer is usefully informative and simple to access, the remote audio and cruise controls work a treat and the whole cabin feels almost German in its solidity.

However, there are a few things that we did dislike inside.

The fact that you must keep pressing the start button until the diesel engine finally splutters into life is a chore. We would rather turn a key.

Alfa fits a compartmentalised glovebox that is uselessly small and it is matched by a loose and cheap gearlever action that would embarrass an old Kia Mentor.

The rear side windows do not retract far enough, the air-conditioning output borders on the feeble, rear-seat legroom is tight for a car this size, there is no tailgate release that we could find other than the key fob’s button and the loading height is too high (although the beautifully carpeted and finished cargo area – aided by easy-to-fold split rear seatbacks – does do its job admirably).

This does not do justice to a car that is truly beautiful to behold and unique in character.

That Alfa Romeo has come so close with the massively improved comfort and ergonomics of the 159, combined with seemingly top-rate quality levels, makes the combination of a rough diesel engine and patchy, uneven automatic gearbox almost heartbreaking.

It saddens us to say that the car that was potentially the biggest winner in Alfa’s range is the year’s biggest letdown so far.

For mid-$60K money, the competition is too accomplished for you to be lumbered with a drivetrain as compromised as this. Frankly, we would prefer the flawed Selespeed sequential shift transmission.

Save your dough and go for one of the other 159 manuals – or look elsewhere, because the 2.4 JTDM auto diesel is deeply disappointing.

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