Car reviews - Alfa Romeo - 159 - sedan range
Alfa Romeo models
Smooth, responsive four-cylinder torquey, quiet, economical turbo-diesel impressive standard equipment
Room for improvement
Poor turning circle, steering rack rattle, lack of handling sharpness
2 Jun 2006
WITH no real distractions to get in the way during its development, it would have been surprising if the virtual clean-sheet Alfa 159 wasn’t a good car – even a very good car.
Having grown noticeably in every direction except height – where it’s only 7mm taller than the outgoing 156 – the 159 gains a new proportional balance, giving it a more purposeful on-road presence as well as a bigger interior.
With the new body also comes greater torsional strength and an increase in weight, averaging out at around 200kg, which comes from the technologies required by the higher active and passive safety.
Extra electronic systems, more airbags and more general safety hardware take their toll, as they do these days with practically any new car.
But these weight gains, simply because they’ve been introduced with integrity at the forefront, are totally excusable.
And they are partly balanced out with the arrival, at the 159’s launch last week, of two of the three new engines that are central to Alfa Romeo’s sales pitch.
These are the new 2.2-litre petrol four-cylinder JTS engine and the 2.4-litre five-cylinder turbo-diesel that ensure dynamism is still a core Alfa Romeo quality.
The Holden-based 3.2-litre V6 that will be available in the all-wheel drive version of the 159 is still a month or so away.
The Alfas provided at the launch were also manual-transmission versions because the six-speed auto, which will be an option on the new turbo-diesel and V6, won’t be available until 2007.
With its low-slung Alfa grille, tapering body line, a distinct lack of brightwork and a high rump incorporating narrow tail-lights, the 159 standing in isolation looks very close to the 156. Then you see the two cars together and realize how noticeably bigger the new one is.
A clue for those who might have difficulty picking a 159: check the door handles. Where the 156, in an attempt to cover sedan and coupe buyers, concealed the rear door catches in the area between the C-pillar and the window frame, the 159 displays its four elegant chrome-plated handles with pride.
The 159’s doors open into a warm, inviting, leather-clad interior, even on the base 2.2-litre model where there’s no feel of missing out, except in the rear seat where, despite the stretched wheelbase and longer body, the available legroom is far from being best-in-class.
In terms of equipment, the 159, at all levels, comes with dual-zone climate-control air-conditioning, auto rear-view mirror, rear park-distance sensors, cruise control, trip computer, seven airbags, 17-inch alloy wheels. There’s no suggestion of scrimping even in the $50,000 2.2-litre JTS base version.
And, according to Alfa, the 159 develops on the balanced handling-roadholding that set the 156 apart from most other front-drive sedans when it was first launched here in 1999.
The 159 picks up a rework of the 156’s MacPherson strut front-end, but gains an all-new multi-link arrangement at the rear which, complete with a more low-slung width-height ratio, makes it look like a better handler even before it sets foot on the road.
On the test route north of Wiseman’s Ferry on the roads through to the Hunter Valley region in NSW, the new car showed a mix of surprises and disappointments.
The first pleasant surprise was the 136kW 2.2-litre long-stroke petrol four-cylinder engine which, even in the quite heavy (1490kg in this case) 159, delivered more punch than you’d expect, along with the flexibility you don’t find in, say, the lighter 2.0-litre Alfa 147 Ti.
The all-alloy, twin-cam, 16-valve direct-injection JTS Alfa engine delivers an almost-V6 smoothness and a low-rpm flexibility (it produces 230Nm at 4500 rpm, almost 90 per cent of which is available by 2000rpm) that enables shudder-free low-rpm driving in traffic, while providing a smooth, quiet overtaking surge on the open road.
Yet it will spin out to its 6500rpm redline with appropriate eagerness.
Coupled with the positive-shifting six-speed manual transmission, this is an exceptionally unobtrusive, willing four-cylinder that tends to feel a lot bigger than the specs suggest.
But the star of the show is Alfa’s five-cylinder turbo-diesel, which has been a 156 option in Europe but only makes it here – in updated 20-valve form - in the 159.
The 2.4-litre engine in the 159 JTD produces 147kW at just 4000rpm, and a monster 400Nm of torque at a typically turbo-low 2000rpm, yet is claimed to return an average fuel consumption figure of 6.8L/100km.
Using the Multijet common-rail direct fuel injection system developed by Alfa owner Fiat, the diesel five-cylinder is quiet and smooth in the manner you’d expect in today’s turbo-diesel climate.
It also reduces soot output to petrol-like levels with the combination of clean-burning technology and a particle filter in the dual exhaust system.
True to form, the turbo-diesel powers away relentlessly in any gear, almost regardless of revs. The JTD ends up being the fastest Alfa short of the 3.2-litre 147 GTA, and will accelerate to 100km/h in 8.4 seconds – almost half a second faster than the also-quick 147 JTD turbo-diesel.
And it’s all so effortless. The 159 JTD spins at around 1700rpm at 100km/h in sixth gear so, from that speed, all you need to do is slot back into fifth and away you go.
Running up through the gears reveals some surprisingly wide spaces between ratios in the six-speed box, but also shows that the JTD is, for a diesel, a free-spinner. It will run so quickly to 4000rpm that it’s sometimes difficult to catch it in time for a prudent upshift.
The question marks come when you try to assess the ride and handling.
For a sports sedan, it’s no shock to find the suspension borders on firmness – and in fact for some of us it’s preferable to a softer, floaty ride – but what was unexpected was the tendency to skitter on mild mid-corner bumps and, particularly in one car later found to have wildly aberrant tyre pressures, some noticeable steering rack rattle.
This took the edge off the first 2.2-litre JTS we drove, and made us a bit wary of the JTD that followed – although that car, which wore correctly-inflated Pirelli P-Zero tyres and toted a bit of extra diesel weight up front, proved to be quieter and more composed on corners.
The steering itself is well weighted but a little numb maybe, and the turning circle reveals Alfa Romeo has yet to find a way of making one-point turns in normal streets a reality. At least the leather-clad steering wheel goes from lock to lock in 2.3 turns.
There was no serious brake testing during the launch drive, but there seemed no doubt that the 2.2-litre car’s all-disc system – with ABS and EBD – was up to the task, while the bigger, all-ventilated discs and Brembo front callipers used on the JTD ensured it was even moreso.
Alfa Romeo Australia has been waiting a long time for a 156 replacement.
The 159 arrives as a well-specified, bigger successor with a full load of technology that brings the fight right up to its main prestige competitors.
With its five-star EuroNCAP safety rating, impressive engine technology in the four-cylinder petrol and five-cylinder turbo-diesel models, and a neat styling job that distinguishes it clearly from its main opposition, the 159 should drag back customers who drifted away from the marque during the long years of the 156.
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