Sport, Style, Quality: Hallmarks of the 159, the Flagship Sedan for Alfa's Return to the U.S.
Ten years after withdrawing from the U.S. market, tail between its legs and reputation in tatters, Italy's Alfa Romeo is planning a comeback, with the sleek Alfa Romeo 159 sedan. Back in 1995, Alfa Romeo sold — or rather, tried to sell — the 164 sedan and the old Spider, as immortalized in The Graduate. It moved a mere 500 cars that year, equivalent to what Toyota sells in the United States every two hours.
So Alfa Romeo joined the long line of European makers (Citroλn, Fiat, MG, Peugeot, Renault, Rover, plus many more) who have veni, vidi but not quite vici'ed the American market. Skeptical Americans have a long history of rejecting European cars — unless they're German — which may be big on romance but are very low on any rational virtues. Alfas were a bit like The Graduate's Mrs. Robinson — highly attractive, but you know you shouldn't do it.
But unlike many spurned lovers, Alfa Romeo will be back. New Alfa boss Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, the former head of BMW's M division (think M3 and M5), cites success in America as crucial to Alfa's worldwide recovery. "You can't be an international success without succeeding in America," says Kalbfell, speaking in Munich, the very pointed location for the launch of the crucial new Alfa Romeo 159 sedan.
He even chose to introduce the 159 in Munich because BMW — whose home was just a few miles from the press launch location — is the target. Kalbfell has the greatest of respect for his former employer. But he also feels that it's vulnerable. BMW's latest cars, he thinks, don't quite have the driving character or elegance of their predecessors.
Whatever its failings, Alfa Romeo most certainly does do elegance and character. The new 159, the all-new 3 Series' rival on sale in Europe this September, is a gorgeous and sensual car, the work of Giorgio Giugiaro, the Giorgio Armani of the automotive design. It marks a welcome return to form by Giugiaro, who has spent too much time recently designing second-rate cars for emerging European and Korean automakers.
The 159 is also the key to Alfa's successful return to the U.S. Although Kalbfell wouldn't specify a date, it's clear that the 159, and its family of cars, figures prominently in his plans. Most significant for the U.S. will be the new Alfa Spider, likely to be Alfa's attention grabber when U.S. sales resume. The Spider debuts in Europe this fall, and is basically a drop-top version of the lovely Alfa Brera coupe. And the Brera, in turn, is the 159 with a coupe body. The 159 will also spawn a sports estate, or Sportwagon in Alfa parlance.
Kalbfell may have learned to wave his arms and get easily excitable — like a true Italian — but he is at heart a German pragmatist, and he knows Alfa won't sell a single car unless it can leaven character with a healthy dose of common sense. "Unless there is a good rational reason to buy our cars, we won't succeed in America," he says matter-of-factly.
So quality has been a priority, as it needed to be. Even in Europe, where reliability failings are often laughed off as character quirks, Alfa's quality image is about as highly regarded as Italian hotels' reputation for plumbing. So big efforts have been made to match BMW.
Since the V6 is clearly the engine that is U.S.-bound, we'll concentrate on that. It is a brand-new unit of 3.2 liters and 260 hp, and features advanced direct gasoline injection. It sounds as sonorous as an Italian baritone, revs to heaven, and gives the 159 real vivace (0-60 in 6.8 seconds, top speed 150 mph). Six-speed manual, automatic and Selespeed sequential gearboxes are all offered.
All-wheel drive is standard, thanks to Alfa Romeo's exceptional Q4 system, which biases power to the rear wheels. Handling is excellent, and the ride is also first-rate. More surprising is the quietness — operatic background V6 music notwithstanding — and refinement of the vehicle.
The seats are also excellent, and the quality of plastics and other materials are right up there with the Germans. Compared with the 3 Series — the class act of the class — the Alfa Romeo159 doesn't quite possess the all-round any-road composure (bumpy roads taken at speed do unsettle the car). But it's close. (Edmunds.com)
The cockpit is an inspiring place to be. The main instruments in the hooded binnacle — tach and speedo — are beautifully designed and the numbers run high, and the whole center console is canted to the driver. The cockpit is built around the driver. Passengers are simply passengers. And the rear ones don't get an especially good deal, because rear headroom and legroom are tight. The trunk, too, is not especially large.
But you don't buy an Alfa Romeo to sit in the back or lug goods. You buy it to drive, and to look at. And the 159 drives superbly and looks superb. More important for Alfa's prospects, the car seems well wrought, refined and comfortable. Sense meets sensibility.
Alfa Romeo hopes the 159 will be a winning formula. And will persuade skeptical Americans — who have every reason to doubt bold promises from supposedly reformed European manufacturers — to give Italy's most emotive mainstream carmaker another chance in the world's most lucrative auto market