BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The 159 is as close to a risk-free used Alfa buy as it's possible to get. Beefy build quality, a great range of engines, decent used stock availability and razor sharp styling make this a decent left field pick. An optioned-up 1.9-litre diesel in Lusso trim is the wise move.
Buying a used Alfa Romeo used to be an eventful experience. Many people tried it once and then moved on to less risky activities like BASE jumping, recreational Russian roulette or holidays in Gaza. A lot has changed since then. Alfa has pulled its socks up and the results are apparent in improving independent customer satisfaction surveys. The product range is smartening up its act as well, after a period when it was rather lacklustre. The cars that really started this upswing were the 147 and 156 and the 156's replacement, the 159, is bigger, more solidly built and even better looking. It's possibly the safest used pick of any Alfa.
It's hard to believe that the 156 arrived way back in 1998. In its seven years on sale, it revitalised Alfa Romeo's fortunes in the compact executive sector, especially as it succeeded the relatively unloved 75 and 155 models. The last couple of years of its life saw sales tail off as customers realised the car was getting a bit old and that the 159 successor was just around the corner but few could have expected the 159 to be quite as polished as it turned out. The aborted dalliance with General Motors stalled the introduction of the 159 a little but sales have been strong since it arrived at the start of 2006, the market warming to a genuine alternative to the German and Swedish marques.
Both saloon and Sportwagon estate versions were launched concurrently. Alfa introduced a Q-Tronic automatic gearbox for the 159 turbodiesel models in January 2007 and a TI version in July 2007. The entry-level 160bhp 1.9 JTS petrol engine was replaced by a 140bhp 1.8-litre MPI unit in mid-2007.
In 2009, Alfa introduced the 1750 TBi engine and a 2.0-litre JTDm diesel with 170bhp. The former unit was quite a piece of work with massive torque from low in the rev-range that virtually made the V6 redundant. Trim levels were tweaked to run from Turismo and Turismo Sport to Elegante, Lusso and Ti.
What You Get
The 159 is bigger in virtually every dimension compared to the 156, but it's still a very sharp piece of styling. Watching one appear in my rear-view at the Nurburgring, I can assure you this vehicle has more overtaking presence than almost any BMW, the gimlet-eyed headlamps and razor-sharp front grille looking rather intimidating. The rear end is genuinely tricky to differentiate from the 156 at first glance, but the side view shows sharper creasing and swage lines and a longer front end. As cohesive a piece of penmanship as the 156 was, the 159 is a better balanced car.
The architecture of the 159's cabin is perhaps a tad disappointing, offering an evolution of the 156's fascia which looked great in '98 but which now looks a little unexceptional compared to the more imaginative designs. Build quality is far better than before and rear legroom and headroom have both improved, although you'd opt for a Saab or Volvo if this was a priority. The boot, however, is way bigger than you'd have any right to expect and the folding rear seats endow the 159 with an admirable load carrying ability.
What to Look For
One advantage of the 156's long lifespan was that Alfa could well and truly iron out its faults. The company wisely carried over certain mechanical parts to the 159 and as such it has had a refreshing lack of teething issues. Check the driver information system for faults and ensure the controls for the ventilation system all function as they should. The 2.4-litre diesel-engined car has quite an appetite for front tyres, so make sure these have the requisite tread depth and consistent wear rate. Alfa dealers once had a rather patchy reputation but some serious investment is starting to pay dividends with regards to service quality.
(based on a 1.9 JTS) A clutch assembly is around £138. Front and rear brakepads are around £50 per set of each, a rear exhaust box about £143 (excluding catalyst), a starter motor around £190. A replacement headlamp is about £145.
On the Road
It's not worth pretending that the Alfa 159 can hold a candle to a BMW 3 Series as an enthusiast's performance car. Its front wheel drive chassis precludes that but with the option of all-wheel drive versions at the top of the range, the 159 has an advantage when it comes to all-weather security. Perhaps the 3 Series is the wrong car against which to benchmark the 159. It seems a more natural competitor to top-end Honda Accords and Saab 9-3s. This 'sub premium' compact executive sector still yields significant returns and is populated by cars like the Volvo S60 and the Jaguar X-TYPE, cars which the Alfa compares very favourably to.
Five engines are on offer, split between two diesels and three petrol powerplants. The entry-level diesel option is the 150bhp 1.9-litre Multijet unit, while the range-topping diesel variant is the 2.4-litre 210bhp Multijet JTD. This is an absolute stormer, capable of zipping to 60mph in a tad under 8 seconds. JTS petrol engines start with a 1.9-litre 160bhp four (replaced by a 140bhp 1.8-litre MPI unit in mid-2007), with a 2.2-litre 185bhp powerplant above that. Of more interest to serious petrol heads is the 260bhp 3.2-litre V6, based on a Holden unit from Australia and rebuilt to a special Alfa recipe. The manual transmission offered has been improved from the lazy, long-throw change of the 156 but there's also the choice of a six-speed automatic and a six-speed Selespeed sequential manual.
The Alfa Romeo 159 has succeeded in lifting the marque further towards the premium end of the market and it hasn't done this on a bedrock of patchy durability. Alfa's belt and braces approach to many reliability issues is laudable and while the 159 doesn't have the integrity of a Lexus, it's no longer a shot in the dark. Look for low mileage cars in silver, grey or black as the 159 doesn't particularly suit signal colours. There's not a weak engine in the line up but the 1.9-litre diesels are rightly the most popular pick.