A good Alfa bet

Andy RussellNew engines breathe new life into Alfa Romeo's sexy sports saloon, says ANDY RUSSELL.There was a time when a diesel Alfa Romeo would have been as appetising as stilton ice-cream.Andy Russell

New engines breathe new life into Alfa Romeo's sexy sports saloon, says ANDY RUSSELL.

There was a time when a diesel Alfa Romeo would have been as appetising as stilton ice-cream.

I've tried ice-cream containing pieces of stilton at a restaurant in St Ives, Cornwall, and it tantalised the tastebuds with a sweet dessert. While not quite so unusual, diesel has been a recipe for success for Alfa.

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Diesels are a key part of any car-maker's range with more miles per gallon and lower emissions, and it helps that Alfa is part of the Fiat Group and has access to some very good diesels. The Italian car-maker's oil-burners have come on leaps and bounds. Don't take my word for it - Vauxhall and Saab use the 1.9-litre turbo diesel while the 1.3-litre unit also powers Vauxhalls and Ford's new Ka.

Alfa has boosted its diesel appeal in the 159 saloon and Sportwagon and plugged a gap between the 120 and 150bhp 1.9 JTDm and 200 and 210bhp 2.4-litre JTDm turbo diesels with a new 170bhp 2.0-litre version. On the petrol front a 200bhp 1750 TBi turbo - named after the old 1750 Berlina - sits between the 185bhp 2.2-litre JTS and 260bhp 3.2-litre V6. The new engines are also going in the Spider two-seater sports car and Brera coupe.

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I had planned to drive the 1750 TBi but switched to the new turbo diesel when the car I had been due to test was damaged. It wasn't a hardship with diesels popular in the 159 and the new engine raises its image against the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class and makes it an attractive alternative to upmarket Ford Mondeos and Vauxhall Insignias.

The 2.0 JTDm is evolved from the more powerful 16-valve 1.9 - and I suspect will replace it - but, despite more peak power and low-down torque, CO2 emissions and fuel economy are improved to 142g/km and 52.3mpg overall compared to 150g/km and 49.6mpg so company car drivers are taxed on 19pc of the list price rather than 21pc.

With healthy torque of 360Nm between 1,750 and 2,500rpm it pulls strongly in the mid-range but it also shows diesel Alfas are not dull to drive. At low revs there's an unmistakable diesel throb, but it revs freely and feels more refined as the revs rise, coming alive over 2,500pm and surging to its peak power point at 4,000rpm. But it's a shame the six-speed manual gearbox isn't a smooth shifter at low revs.

It takes restraint not to keep the revs up but the price for not doing so is that economy suffers and in none-too-gentle driving I saw 40mpg overall.

When it comes to the chassis it has been a case of it ain't broke why fix it - and that's no bad thing. OK, the ride has a sportily firm feel - heightened by my Lusso test car having bigger 18in wheels with wider tyres in place of the standard 17in ones which made it sensitive to bumps and lumps and poor roads. But the dividend came in the way it just stuck to the road with bags of grip while crisp, accurate steering means it flows through bends with taut, nimble composure which makes it a pleasure to drive - although it does not have the entertaining dynamics of the BMW 3 Series.

The sporty flair continues to the cabin with a dashboard clearly designed for the driver with well-placed, sensible controls, a big speedo and rev counter and, in the centre console, smaller fuel, temperature and turbo boost gauges angled towards the driver. With my short arms and long body I would have liked more reach adjustment for the steering wheel and the supportive seat going lower.

Front-seat passengers are well catered for, while rear legroom, though not as generous as some rivals, is adequate provided none of the occupants are particularly lanky.

The 405-litre boot is let down by not having a completely flat floor and the access is wide but shallow which is the limiting factor.

The 159 is still one of the sexiest sports saloons around with its pointed front end and Alfa shield grille flanked by distinctive three-lens light clusters.

Alfa has also restructured the range with five trim levels - Turismo, Turismo Sport, Elegante, Lusso and TI. Generous equipment levels and attractive pricing make the 159 look good value against German rivals but, despite its improved quality and image, it won't hold its money as well.

The new engines come on top of the sporty Mito compact hatchback which has helped boost Alfa's UK sales this year by nearly 50pc, although it is hardly a big volume seller, making it one of only a handful of car-makers to see gains in this difficult year.It seems our love affair with Alfas still going strong.


PRICE: 2.0JTDm from �21,800; Lusso �23,850

ENGINE: 1,956cc, 170bhp, four-cylinder turbo diesel

PERFORMANCE: 0-62mph 8.8 seconds; top speed 136mph

MPG: Urban 39.8; extra urban 64.2; combined 52.3

EMISSIONS: 142g/km



WARRANTY: Three years/60,000 miles

WILL IT FIT IN THE GARAGE: Length 4,660mm; width (excluding door mirrors) 1,828mm; height 1,422mm

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