BY ANDY ENRIGHT
This might sound like a stuck record but the 159 Sportwagon is an Alfa Romeo that you can countenance buying used. I'm guessing this was probably said about the 156 and the 155 before. Maybe not the 75 but with each subsequent generation of Alfa Romeo models, the Italian manufacturer closes the quality gap on the better cars in its sector. Alfa has pulled its socks up and the results are apparent in improving independent customer satisfaction surveys. Of all the current Alfa models, the 159 rates highest and of all the 159s, the 159 Sportwagon offers the most alluring blend of panache and practicality. It has to be worth a punt.
Models Covered: 5DR SPORTWAGON (1.7, 1.9, 2.2, 3.2 PETROL, 1.9, 2.0, 2.4 TURBODIESEL TURBODIESEL [TURISMO, TURISMO SPORT, ELEGANTE, LUSSO, TI])
Alfa had quite some time to iron out the issues with the 156 Sportwagon. On sale from 2000 to 2006, this model started off good and became very well sorted by the time it was replaced. The 159 Sportwagon was not only bigger but a whole lot cleverer as well, arriving in dealerships in April 2006, Alfa Romeo's ill-starred alliance with General Motors stalling the introduction of the 159 a little. Sales have been steady ever since. 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 which offered company car drivers better emission and economy figures. 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
Practicality. Rarely an Alfa byword, this is one area addressed moderately well in the 159 Sportwagon. I say moderately because, as an 'estate car', its predecessor, the 156 Sportwagon was, and let's not get too delicate here, a joke. With its rear seats in place, it possessed less useable luggage space than the saloon on which it was based. It had other redeeming qualities insofar as it was better looking and, well, better looking but beyond that, it was never the most pragmatic choice. Nor is the 159 Sportwagon, if your blend of practicality involves lugging wardrobes or cubic hectares of garden waste. Where the 159 Sportwagon does move the game forward, albeit moderately, is that despite having the same overall length as the 159 saloon, luggage carrying capacity actually rises. With 445 cubic litres when the rear seats are in place, it's only 15-litres shy of a 3 Series Touring and a whopping 80 litres up on the 156 Sportwagon. At least now it can justify its existence as something other than a pretty face. Whereas many other manufacturers have learned all sorts of tricks from building MPV-style vehicles and have incorporated these into their estate cars, Alfa Romeo remain resiliently old school. The rear seats may be pleasantly light and easy to flip forward but the seat squabs stay fixed, which means that the seat backs won't fold flat. This limits the overall carrying capacity. Some estate cars also feature neat touches like fold out compartment dividers and chromed steel floor rails so that heavy goods can slide in without destroying the carpet: sometimes, you even get pull out loading platforms. You don't get that with the 159 Sportwagon but that's not to say the Alfa is just a show pony. As well as an auxiliary power supply in the luggage bay, there's a light, a pull cover and, best of all, the basic shape of the load area is broad, flat and low with no intrusion from the rear suspension. The actual useable space may well be greater than those with greater quoted capacity in cubic litres. The rear seats split 60/40 and there's a fold down section in the middle that's great for carrying longer items. There's even a small cargo net on one side that's a handy place to store gloves, a torch or other bits and pieces.
What You Pay
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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 200bhp Multijet JTD. This is an absolute stormer, capable of zipping to 60mph in a tad over 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 159 Sportwagon is a car that rewards a little patience. While Alfa build quality is on a sharply ascending curve, there remains some variability between individual cars and it's worth having a look at a few examples before settling on one. Find a decent one and it should be no more or less reliable than an equivalent Saab or Volvo. Of all the engines offered, the 2.2-litre JTS petrol and the 1.9-litre JTDm diesel are the best choices but the others are no slouches either.