|Alfa Romeo 159
Is This Déjà Vu All Over Again?
Looks Great, Goes Well, Sounds Awesome; But Old Questions Remain
Wait For The New Dealers, Study Residual Estimates, Quality Surveys
MUNICH, Germany A few of us who have been around the block a few times know that when dealing with recovering alcoholics, you never believe the promises, only the evidence.
Alfa Romeo has a record as long as your arm. It has flattered to deceive for as long as I can remember. The previous attempt to trump BMWs 3-Series, the 156, bombed. European sales of the 156 slumped to 48,000 in 2004 after less than 70,000 in 2002 and 2003, well shy of 2000s almost 120,000 peak.
The 156 was greeted by a hyperventilating motoring press as Alfas saviour. It was pretty, it went like stink, it sounded great, it handled well. Unfortunately, as with previous Alfas, the ownership experience told a different story. Chronic unreliability, coupled with an incompetent, often surly, disinterested and thinly spread dealership network meant that the 156 actually did more harm than good to the brand. Its superficial attractiveness sucked in the gullible who were spat out, never to return.
Now Alfa expects us to forget all this and shout The King is Dead, Long Live the King for the 156 replacement, the new 159. The portents arent good. On the press launch, held in Munich of all places, (BMW, undisputed king of the small executive motor and much else, lives here) the new 159s served to remind us of the mountain Alfa has to climb. Yes, the car is good to look at; it looks a bit like a chubbier version of the 156. Yes, it drives well, and sounds good. But many of the launch cars were less than perfect, when only perfect will do for a tainted brand.
One car broke down because of dodgy electronics and had to limp back to base, only allowed a maximum of about 20 mph. Other cars had assorted minor glitches including transmission whines and rattles; one had a mystery noise from behind the dashboard.
Dont worry, these are pre-production models, said Alfa officials.
Despite Alfas gruesome track record and a botched launch, the British motoring press rolled over on its back for its stomach to be tickled.
The new Alfa 159 isnt just an impressive sports saloon: it could finally put an end to German dominance, said Autocar.
Stunning 159 has the look of a winner, said another British weekly, Auto Express.
Presumably, the reporters sent to report on the 159 for these magazines were about 19 years old, and hadnt bothered to do any research on Alfa Romeos history.
To its credit, Alfa Romeo has taken criticism on board, and unveiled some concrete measures to shore up its weaknesses.
And Kalbfell, a former high-ranking BMW executive whose last job was leading Rolls-Royce, addressed head on, possibly the most important problem facing would-be Alfa buyers depreciation. Kalbfell, quoting data from EurotaxGlasss, the car price residual value guru, said that the new 159 is so good that it will retain values after 3 years almost comparable to luxury brands like BMW and Mercedes.
Given that the 156s retained value after 3 years was almost 25 percentage points below the BMW 3-Series close to 60 per cent, this was sensational news. Kalbfell was asked later in London what factors had persuaded EurotaxGlasss that the 159s residuals were likely to be on a par with leading compact executive cars.
We just presented the car to them, then let them drive it, feel it and talk about it. We cant influence them, that was their impression. They made their minds up, Kalbfell said.
But according to EurotaxGlasss, Kalbfells data referred to prices across Europe, where second-hand values for the likes of BMW and Mercedes arent able to retain the huge premiums over Mondeos and Vectras seen, for better or worse, in Britain.
In the U.K, theres a background history of quality questions and dealer issues (for Alfa Romeo). Yes, this new car is superior in build and design and will compete more robustly, but has not yet reached the premium level to match BMW and Mercedes, said Jason King, Forecasting Editor at EurotaxGlasss.
Its still too early to calculate (U.K. retained value), not least because the prices havent been set yet. Its too early to come up with hard and fast figures, said King.
The 159 will initially be available with a choice of 6 engines three petrol and three diesel. The petrols are 1.9 litre 160 bhp, 2.2 185 bhp, and the flagship 3.2 V6 260 bhp, which sounds absolutely fabulous under heavy acceleration. The diesels are 1.9 litre 150 bhp, 1.9 120 bhp, and 2.4 litre 200 bhp.
BMW 330d Rival?
I drove the 2.4 litre. 5-cylinder diesel, which with its 200 bhp power output and six-speed manual gearbox, looks on paper like a direct rival to the BMW 330d, which I own, and will be replacing soon. Automatic versions will be available across the range after launch.
First impressions were good. The car does look impressive. It certainly looks a lot like the pretty 156, but its bulkiness means that it has a more muscular, tougher presence. The doors dont seem as heavy as a BMWs, but the interior is beautiful, with the main dials tilting towards the driver as we expect from Alfa. The overall impression is of quality, airiness, comfort. Theres more room in the back as youd expect from a car that is 225 mm longer, 85 mm wider with a 105 mm longer wheelbase than the old one, making it almost as big as the next car up in the range, the 166.
The car drives like an Alfa, with terrific, quick, accurate steering. The ride is good, although dont forget this was on German roads, not the potholed apologies we have in Britain. Surprisingly, the engine, which at 200 bhp, promised an electrifying performance, didnt come up to scratch. The gearbox was ok. The engine sounded a bit noisy and boomy at motorway cruising speeds.
Not Star Of Geneva
Call me picky, and I know all manufacturers cant resist a bit of hyperbole when they launch their new babies, but Alfas blurb had me spluttering with indignation.
The undisputed star of the recent Geneva International Motor Show, the Alfa 159, now makes its market debut.
Thats how Alfas 159 introduction to the press kit starts. I quickly looked at my coverage of the show, and far from being the undisputed star, the 159 was one of many interesting cars launched.
The problem with Alfa is despite being able to produce magical cars in terms of flair and emotion, it has never been able to match the Germans, or the Japanese for that matter, in providing a secure buying experience for its customers.
Dont Do It
My advice to anyone considering buying the 159 would be Hold On!
Wait at least 2 years to see how the residual values look in the real world, not some hopeful estimation. See if Alfa produces the high-quality dealerships it is now touting, and pay attention to reports like J.D.Powers quality surveys.
Remember, promises youve heard before are 10 a penny; only hard evidence counts.
Neil Winton June 30, 2005
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