Alfa Romeo 159
Test Drive 159 by Top Gear
Don't believe your eyes. The new 159 might look like a 156 evolved, but actually every part beyond nuts 'n' bolts is new. The Giugiaro-designed body is frankly sensational and puts the 156 themes into a more modern, muscular and road-hugging form.
It's got detail, too - the triple front lights and polished-blade door handles are just lovely. Why no hidden rear handles like the old car? Because this one can't sit in a ghetto for Alfisti: it has to attract people out of Mercs and Audis. It can't be too eccentric.
The suspension and floorpan were a joint project with Saab, but then Saab pulled out, so now Alfa has it all to itself.
The petrol engines are derived from the excellent newest Vauxhall/Saab fours and V6, but they have Alfa's own cylinder heads with unique direct petrol-injection technology for clean power, and variable phasing on all camshafts for better torque and emissions. The diesels are Alfa's terrific four-valve JTDs. The 150bhp 1.9 is fine, the 200bhp, 5cyl, 2.4 just stonking.
Floor it and the 2.2-litre engine spins beautifully and has torque lower down too. It sounds really encouraging, and the six-speed has a short precise travel. Get cracking on a difficult road and you find steering that's direct and accurate, if a bit dead, and a chassis that helps you with bags of grip and fine handling. Body movements are well checked when the road dips and crests too.
The ride is very busy, though, sending the car into the occasional shuddery spasm - just a small-amplitude motion, but a really annoying one. Full production is a few months away, so with any luck they'll fix it.
The 3.2 V6 Q4 (Alfa-speak for 4WD) actually has a smoother ride, and it corners more like an Impreza than an Audi: full of life and feedback.
But it's a silly 250kg heaver than the four-cylinder, so doesn't quite feel its 260bhp. Take comfort from the sounds, though. This is a really endearing car, and as good in the wet as the dry. The 159 with any engine is utterly civilised on a motorway too.
Inside, the 159 is sensibly ergonomic where needed, and full-on beautiful Alfa where conditions permit - the triple gauges in the centre console say not 'petrol', 'water' and 'oil' but 'benzina', 'acqua' and 'olio'. But avoid the test car's vomit-beige dash, as it blinds you with windscreen reflections.
Front seats are fine, though rear room isn't at all brilliant. But ditto a 3-Series and people still buy those in droves.
BMW keeps saying it invented the small sports saloon. It didn't. Alfa did. But Alfa never capitalised on its invention and has been overtaken by the Germans.
Besides no one buys a 156 more than once because Alfas sometimes break and the dealers treat their customers like dirt.
So the 159 will come with a free servicing deal, and the whole sales and service enterprise is getting an overhaul. Of course, these promises about quality and service often get broken, but there's hope this time because Alfa's new boss is Karl-Heinz Kalbfell ? a big Bavarian with huge farmer's hands and a roll-your-sleeves- up attitude.
He ran BMW's service and marketing operations for years. Then he developed the Rolls Phantom, built the factory and set up the network. He has serious form. He's also a high-octane petrolhead - he drove me around the Nordschleife in a 159 in the rain, and he was at least as handy as his car.