It’s very rare that you get the chance to drive a classic and a brand new car all at the same time. But with Alfa Romeo and their new 159, we did. Proving that the Italian automakers talents don’t only lie in creating passion out of metal, they can play the role of time cop brilliantly too. The recent launch drive of the 2011 model year 159 was like being teleported back to 2005. But then again, in some crucial areas, it wasn’t, because the latest iteration has undergone some key specification changes.
What you get on the exterior of this new 159 is exactly the same as it’s always been – the classically correct Giugiaro design with a long, low, V-shaped bonnet, and tall, C-pillar waistline. A completely uncluttered side profile and a front headlight design so perfect you can only marvel at it thinking to yourself, how have they got this so right? That’s the icing, but what about the cake?
Well, the 159 is now available with the 1750 TBi, turbo charged, four cylinder as an entry level engine, the same as we first saw in the new Giulietta (just retuned to make it more usable, and less of a scallywag, thank goodness). And some specification levels tailored to what Alfa 159 customers say they’ve been looking for.
A ‘TI’ (Tourismo Internazional) specification level is available in both the 1750 TBi and the 3.2-litre V6 and this bathes the interior in sporty, red stitched, dark leather, heated seats, lower suspension and bigger 18-inch wheels with red brake callipers. The ‘TI’ specification, worth roughly R30 000, is said to pander to the sportier desires of most Alfisti, and it adds a lot of zing over the more traditional, sombre ‘Progression’ and ‘Distinctive’ specifications with their cream and cappuccino interiors and 17-inch hum-ho wheels. The most expensive 159 with 3.2-litre V6, automatic gearbox and Q4 all-wheel drive system still survives, but is only available in the ‘Distinctive’ specification.
Alfa admit the top dog car is for the more elderly, traditional Alfa driver. The ‘TI’ specification must therefore, by power of deduction, be for the younger, more invigorated buyer and they therefore all come with a six speed manual gearbox… lovely.
Another change to the 159 range comes in the 3.2-litre V6 being offered for the first time without Q4 all-wheel drive. That means in either ‘Distinctive’ or ‘TI’ specification you can have some front wheel drive, wheel spinning fun with the six cylinder power house.
But enough about all the boring rubbish, let’s talk about how Alfa Romeo’s play on your heart strings. They’ve always been totally outplayed on paper by their rivals, but until you’ve stepped inside one and felt it purr underneath your foot and shimmy underneath your bum, you won’t have ‘got’ what the Alfa Romeo experience is all about. Brace yourself for some classic Alfa cliché’s here, but they are ‘driver’s’ cars. A show of hands by all the gathered motoring journalists, around the dinner table, the night before; showed almost all have owned an Alfa. And readers, these are drivers of the highest order let me tell you. I quickly realised I wasn’t at a car launch, I was at an Alfisti club meeting.
What’s the 159 like to drive then? Well, the best way to describe it is…, it’s a bit like falling in love. The process goes something (or exactly) like this: You see the 159 parked across the lot, that’s like spotting the prettiest girl across a crowed bar. Love-at-first-sight, swivel-eyes, and all that good stuff. You know you’re going to kick yourself in the head if you don’t go over and chat to her before the night is through. So you go over, cool as a cucumber, but as you climb inside the door of the 159 – you bang your head on the roof… bloody hard I have to say. The cabin is not especially big by modern standards; you try adjusting the seat only to find that’s as far back as it goes. That’s the girl playing hard-to-get at your advances but she’s still hanging around.
You trace your way through the interior to find it does have a trip computer, electronic key, perfect leather and stunning dials, but no sat nav or USB compatibility; and the controls that are there are almost totally unfathomable. This girl has character, style, panache but you’re going to have to earn her attention. Game on.
Then you fire it up and set off for a drive. The road and wind noise befits a car developed in 2005, it’s noisy. The steering is bizarrely light, particularly with regard to free play in a straight line. Not helped I’m sure by 147 kW and 320 Nm from the 1750 TBi and the 191 kW and 322 Nm from 3.2-litre V6 – attacking the front wheels. Those front wheels must do the steering and the drive, and when you’re on the throttle you can feel the car wants to wander along the road despite the front differential. The six speed manual gearbox action is sublime, but then the synchro starts to feel a bit off. So the girl is showing some vulnerability now.
Men love this; we want to take care of them, we want to show them everything is going to be alright, especially if they’re drop dead gorgeous like this one. So you endeavour to work with the 159, you feed in the power smoothly to not overwhelm it; you glide into bends delicately to not let the front end scrub off so much speed. And the Alfa starts responding to your smooth caress. The sensations start to tingle up your spine and through your fingertips; you’re totally connected to this car now. Before you know it you’re utterly infatuated with it, and the exhaust note is like a sonorous whisper in your ear (particularly the six cylinder), not loud, but always alluring.
The interior is spartan sure, but that means nothing distracts you from the drive and what I particularly love is how there is no ‘Sport’ mode or ‘DNA’ system to improve its dynamics. The ‘Sport’ mode is your left foot on the clutch pedal and your right foot on the throttle. The 159 feels tight and taut and simple all the time, just as it should do. As cars get more complicated, the 159 reminds you that they don’t have to be.
And then, just as I did, as you approach the entrance to the hotel, signifying the end of your drive, and you decide to carry on straight past it for an extra few minutes behind the wheel. This is like the end of the night with your new love interest, where you both can’t help but linger at the front door.
If I had to decide, I’d have a hard time choosing between the 1750 TBi and the 3.2-litre V6. The turbo motor is very good. Fast, light, agile and with virtually identical torque as the V6, that’s why it gets to 100 km/h in 7.7sec. The six cylinder model has the soundtrack but then suffers from higher fuel consumption and only gets you to 100 k/mh in 0.6 seconds quicker. Which is marginal, considering it doesn’t feel like it can handle all those 191 kW all that well. So, it’s really a choice of sound or no sound. I leave it up to you. All I know is: I’m in love.
|Pricing (incl. VAT & CO2 Tax)|
|Alfa Romeo 159 1750 TBi ‘Progression’||R340 000|
|Alfa Romeo 159 1750 TBi ‘Ti’||R370 000|
|Alfa Romeo 159 3.2 V6 ‘Distinctive’||R398 500|
|Alfa Romeo 159 3.2 V6 ‘Ti’||R428 500|
|Alfa Romeo 159 3.2 V6 ‘Distinctive’ Q4 Q-Tronic||R430 000|
Pricing includes a 5-year/150 000km warranty, 6-year/105 000km maintenance plan and 3-year Roadside Assistance.