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|Alfa Romeo 159 Sportwagon
But Quality Of Materials, Design, Build Not Up To Germans
Alfa Can’t Yet Make Compelling Case; New Dealerships Would Help
*** out of 5
Alfa Romeo is certainly making progress, but news in July that the Italian sports car manufacturer is apparently planning to return to the American market in 2008 caused my eyebrows to rise, not least because I’d just driven the Alfa Romeo 159 Sportwagon for a week.
The Sportwagon version of the pretty 159 saloon has many qualities, but I’m not sure that this car has the right stuff to sell in the U.S. It is just as well then that Alfa’s first car in the U.S. will apparently be a limited edition two-seater roadster that will sell for more than £100,000/€150,000.
Alfa will announce its plans for the U.S. at the Paris Car Show in late September, and the new car is likely to be sold through Maserati dealers in the U.S. There’s about 50 of them. If this initial toe in the water shows that Americans will go for Alfa again, expect the 159 saloon, Brera Coupe and Spider convertible to be available there in 2010, which happens to be the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alfa Romeo.
By 2010, these three Alfas will have been face-lifted, and presumably improved where necessary to make them acceptable to Americans. These three cars are all built on the so-called “Premium” platform, which was developed with GM, and should meet U.S. safety regulations. By then, there will be less people around who can remember why Alfa pulled out of the U.S. in 1995. Go on, guess why. Right. Quality was not up to scratch. Don’t even ask me about the dealers.
Designed by Giugiaro
The Sportwagon was designed by Giugiaro and Alfa Romeo Centro Stile. Before we get down to the reality, let’s see what Alfa says about the Sportwagon.
“The stylish new Alfa Sportwagon combines genuine estate car practicality with superlative engineering, along with outstanding performance, and handling characteristics appropriate to the pedigree of one of the world’s most famous sporting marques,” says Alfa.
That’s how it should be.
Let’s start with the good news first.
The 159 and its Sportwagon derivative have won the maximum 5-start safety rating from Euro NCAP, as well as 4 stars for child occupant protection.
And I think you’ll agree that it looks nice. But if you are spending £25,000/€36,500 this was the Alfa Romeo 159 Sportwagon 2.4 JTDm Lusso no less you will want more than “nice”; you will want to be convinced that it will retain its value as well as other competitors in this market like BMW, Audi, and Mercedes, and be just as good in terms of design and quality.
The short answer is that it isn’t.
Can’t recommend it
The first impression when you sink into the leather driver’s seat is good. The controls and dashboard are very driver orientated, with the central controls and dials angled towards you. Fire up the engine you press the “start” button, there’s a bit of plastic which you either slip into a slot, or leave in the pocket/handbag/manbag - and the 200 bhp diesel sounds eager and powerful.
If you notice people walking by looking at you a bit askance, that will be because when the diesel engine is cold, it does sound like the proverbial bag of nails when it starts up. No worries, though, the noise soon goes away, and doesn’t intrude into the well insulated cabin anyway.
As you settle into the cabin though, you’ll find that the quality of the materials isn’t up there with the Germans. The stalks protruding from the steering wheel look, and feel cheap. The light tan leather seats ditto.
Functional rather than inspiring
The 159 Sportwagon doesn’t compete on the same planet as its theoretical competitor, the BMW 330d Touring. I recently drove this 3 series derivative and it was everything the Alfa wasn’t. Fabulous, seamless performance from the 230 bhp 3 litre diesel, peerless handling and ride, slick, fast gearbox, and wonderful interior quality. But equipped to the level of the Alfa, the BMW would probably cost £10,000-€14,600 more. You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.
The Alfa 159’s engine propels the car along well with terrific acceleration, although when you put your foot down, the engine noise is very intrusive.
The loading area is huge and practical with 40 litres more load space than the Alfa 159 saloon, with the rear seats in place. With seat folded, there is 850 litres of stowage below the window line, and 1,235 litres overall. The shape of the rear stowage area and the design of the folding seats wasn’t perfect; I couldn’t load my mountain bike in the back, although a slightly smaller road bike went in, wheels intact.
The Sportwagon is available with a choice of 5 engines three petrol and 2 diesel. The petrols are 1.9 litre 160 bhp, 2.2 185 bhp, and the flagship 3.2 V6 260 bhp. The diesels are 1.9 litre 150 bhp, and 2.4 litre 200 bhp. Prices start at £21,095-€30,800 for the 1.9 JTS Turismo.
So should you buy one?
I’m forced to quote from my review of the 159 saloon a year ago.
“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.Power’s quality surveys. Remember, promises you’ve heard before are 10 a penny; only hard evidence counts.”
Alfa has promised to solve the dealer problem - there’s not enough of them and many of them aren’t very good and if you can find evidence that this is changing, give Alfa a chance. If you are lucky enough to be able to persuade a company to buy one for you, and if you know you won’t be fired if the depreciation is rock-like, go ahead and be different.
Neil Winton August 1, 2006
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