BY ANDY ENRIGHT
If you wanted a stress-free life, chances are you wouldn't think of buying a used Alfa Romeo. What's more, we're not about to pull any punches. If you want peerless reliability, don't buy this car. Look for a Toyota Avensis instead. You won't get much of a buzz when you throw your curtains open in the morning and see it sitting on your drive, but you can guarantee it'll get you where you want to go. That brings with it a certain freedom. But if you believe that doing what you like is freedom and liking what you do is happiness, then if you want a sporty, medium range saloon, it could be that you'll only really be happy when you see the twin lights and badge of an Alfa 159 looking back at you. It's a car that has charisma when so many of its rivals are dulled-down boxes. Alfa Romeo might have quietly improved its reliability record and climbed inexorably up customer satisfaction scales but the 159 ably demonstrates that it's done this without sacrificing an ounce of character. Rather criminally, it's not made any more, so here's a guide to picking up the best used example you can find.
4dr saloon, 5dr estate (1.75 petrol, 2.0 turbodiesel [Turismo, Lusso, TI])
The Alfa Romeo 159 first made landfall in the UK in 2006 and had some big shoes to fill. Its predecessor, the 156, had been a huge seller for the Italian company, revitalising Alfa's fortunes in a sector that had been moribund following the relatively unloved Giulietta, 75 and 155 models. The 159 was a different car to the 156 - bigger, better finished, more serious, slightly less sporty. The aborted dalliance with General Motors stalled the introduction of the 159 a little but sales were more than respectable. Both saloon and Sportwagon estate versions were launched concurrently. In 2010, Alfa changed the formula, taking the red pen to many of the less efficient and less profitable engines. The range was pared down to one 1750cc petrol unit and a pair of two-litre JTDm diesels of 136 and 170bhp power outputs. At the same time, a number of detail tweaks were instigated. A TI trim level was reintroduced and the interiors got a mild spruce up. Sadly, the 159 was not long for this world. The car was very quietly retired in 2012 as sales tailed off to almost nothing.
What You Get
The 159 remains a very sharp piece of styling, with more overtaking presence than almost any BMW, the gimlet-eyed headlamps and razor-sharp front grille looking agreeably intimidating. A kind of junior Maserati Quattroporte? You can see why some Latin motoring enthusiasts might think so. The rear end is genuinely tricky to differentiate from that of the old 156 at first glance, but the side view shows sharper creasing and swage lines, plus a longer front end. As cohesive a piece of penmanship as the 156 was, the 159 is a better balanced car. These late model cars also offer a revised interior feel with sports cloth upholstery and sports leather in black or natural, as well as chrome-plated three-layer highlights or brush black aluminium inserts on the dashboard, on the mouldings and on the central console. The revised range features three trim specifications; the entry level Turismo trim is complemented by two further trim levels; one designed for occupant comfort - Lusso, and the other dedicated to a sporty feel - TI. 'Alfisti' people may be already familiar with Tursimo and Lusso spec but perhaps less so with the TI which is very well equipped. At this level, you get 19" TI spoked alloy wheels, side skirts, lowered sports suspension and red painted brake callipers. Inside, the TI environment is recognisable from the wraparound seats trimmed in black Sports leather and Alcantara, sports pedals in aluminium, kick plates with the TI logo and a sports steering wheel in leather with remote controls, plus further leather trim for the gear knob and handbrake lever. Rear cabin space in any 159 isn't great (you wouldn't want to be a third adult sat in the middle at the back for any real distance) but it'll be adequate for most buyers, close to the admittedly mediocre standards set in this respect by rivals from BMW and Audi. The same applies to the 405-litre boot, though you can at least extend it by folding down the rear seats. Do that and you'll have carriage capacity not far shy of that offered by the Sportwagon estate version which offers 1235-litres in 'seats-flat' configuration. At the wheel, it all feels very driver-orientated, just as an Alfa should, the dials cowled and the dash angled to draw your attention almost equally to readouts for turbo boost, fuel level and water temperature, just like the 1969 Spider and countless Alfas since. It still feels agreeably authentic.
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. These late model year cars are even more reliable than the launch models, the problems with the driver information system and ventilation having been well and truly excised. Look at front tyre wear as small tracking errors can generate severe wear rates, especially with the diesels. It's something you should make sure you have looked at every time you go for an MoT. Alfa dealers once had a rather patchy reputation but some serious investment is starting to pay dividends with regards to service quality.
(approximate prices based on a 1750 Lusso) Expect to pay around £160 for a clutch assembly, while front and rear brake pads are around £50 per set of each, a rear exhaust box about £172 (excluding catalyst) and a starter motor around £190. A replacement headlamp is about £190.
On the Road
The number '1750' has quite a resonance for Alfa , evoking memories amongst the 'Alfisti' going back all the way to the classic 1750 Berlina model. The 1750 TBi 159 petrol variant that made its debut in the facelifted 159 range we're looking at here probably won't achieve classic status but it is hugely impressive in the way that, thanks to variable valve timing, direct fuel injection and turbocharging, it offers V6-style pulling power combined with hi-tech 197bhp four cylinder efficiency. The peak 320Nm of torque is generated from just 1,400rpm, catapulting you to 62mph in just 7.7s if you're slick through the 6-speed gearbox, before topping out at a maximum of 147mph. Perhaps more tellingly, the 5th gear 25-62mph overtaking increment occupies just 11.5s, a flat torque curve perfect in other words for confident overtaking and flexible long distance driving. It's the same with this Alfa's other must-have engine, the 2.0-litre JTDm diesel. This is Alfa's first real move forward on this front since the brand was first to pioneer more efficient common rail diesels back in 1997. Having been matched or overtaken by every other brand since, the 170bhp unit proved to be a fine return to form, its 8.8s 0-62mph sprint offering enough to keep anyone interested. And on the move around the twisty stuff? Well Alfa enthusiasts would doubtless love to see the marque develop a modern rear wheel drive sports saloon to finally rival BMW's 3 Series but in an era where the brand must share so many parts with group partners Fiat, that's not really on. Still, the front-driven handling can be rewarding, especially since the steering in this improved 159 was tweaked for more feedback.
The Alfa Romeo 159 is best judged as a qualified success. It never really kicked on from the massively popular 156 in quite the way Alfa would have hoped, but at the same time, it bolstered the company's reputation for quality and held its own in a tough market before finally succumbing. The post-2010 late model cars we've been looking at here with their better quality interiors and higher equipment counts are the ones to go for and although the diesels are probably the more sensible buy, it's impossible not to recommend the 1750cc petrol engine in sporty TI trim. In black. You've got your old age in which to practice being sensible. The Alfa 159 is the car that whispers in your ear, "You know all those things you've always wanted to do? You should go do them." In a world where most new cars frantically remind you not to press the accelerator pedal quite so hard, that is refreshing. That is Alfa Romeo.