Improved cabin quality
A logical progression in terms of design, Alfa Romeo's 159 picks up where the Italian firm's 156 left off. All the now familiar styling cues are present: long bonnet, short tail, prominent Alfa shield grille. What's new includes much improved build quality, more cabin space and generous equipment levels.
Alfa Romeo has never had a problem with the designs of its cars. Granted, some have been a little more radical than others, but the general opinion has always been a positive one.
The same couldn't always have been said for mechanical reliability and solid build quality. And it's in these areas that the Italian marque has sometimes struggled and its main rivals flourished. The rot was stopped with the arrival of the stunning 156 – finally a car that came close to challenging rivals in the competitive compact executive market.
There was only one snag – it was a little too compact for its own good. As such, even the humble Ford Mondeo trounced it in comparison tests. It drove well, and proved a genuine turnaround car for Alfa Romeo. And this is where the 159 comes in, packing everything the firm has learnt into a larger body.
The good news continues with quality levels within an inch of the class benchmark (Audi), class rivalling safety equipment and prices that undercut most rivals. Of course, there's also Alfa's trademark exterior design. Although an evolution of the groundbreaking 156's look, it's now stretched over a bigger canvas and all the better for it.
For so long Alfa fans have had access to 'nearly' cars. For all their good looks and focus on sporty performance, there was always something that stopped them from becoming genuine rivals to the established players – they were nearly there. Not so the 159, Alfa's first rounded and accomplished product for a long time. Now there's no need for excuses.
When compared to its compact executive rivals, the 159 fares well in terms of value for money. Opt for a diesel variant and the day-to-day savings increase further. Servicing and insurance is likely to be on a par with its rivals, however the big Alfa will find it hard to beat the resale values of its German competitors over the usual fixed period of ownership.
The front part of the cabin is noticeably spacious, and easily accommodates two large adults. The rear, despite the overall size of the car, falls a little short. Located around the cabin are various minor and useful storage areas, while the 159's boot is reasonable size but the loading aperture could be bigger.
Alfa Romeo has done a good job with the 159's various controls. The centre console's ventilation and audio units come with large buttons and displays, while the main instruments are easy to read. Splitting the dials is a large screen for the comprehensive trip computer. The column stalks could be a little more intuitive – adding fiddly switches for the main lights to one of the stalks doesn't quite work.
As is often the case in the compact executive class, front seat occupants fare better than those in the back. The 159 is no different, with rear seat passengers having to tolerate modest amounts of legroom. That aside, on-road comfort levels are high – road and wind noise are both low and the diesel engines are pleasingly refined. The car's seats are firm yet supportive.
There are no surprises here – you get the usual package of alarm and immobiliser. Remote locking is also present, although you might want to consider a visible deterrent such as a steering lock as the 159 does stand out a little.
As with so many of its rivals, the 159 is comprehensively equipped. Unlike some of its rivals, the 159 comes with seven airbags – the odd one is a knee airbag for the driver. Elsewhere you get the usual level of traction and stability controls, which certainly prove their worth when married to the punchy 2.4 JTD diesel variant.
Where the 156 was a taut-riding and nimble car, the 159 is a little softer and more mature. However, the upside is a confident, assured and almost vice-free experience. A bigger car than its predecessor, the 159 copes better with road imperfections and feels more stable when tackling twisty roads at speed. Factor in the engine range – especially the punchy diesels – plus the good driving position and you've got a well-rounded Alfa Romeo that's finally able to challenge the German competition head on.
The popular people carrier might be a better option but the 159 would cope well with accommodating a growing family. With children making use of the rear seats, the car's modest rear access ceases to be an issue. There might be an issue with the car's boot though, as the opening could make loading pushchairs a little awkward.
Unlikely to be top of the list for newly qualified drivers, the 159 is on the large side and certain variants are deceptively powerful. There's no question that the car boasts easy to use controls, it's just that novices would be better off with the smaller 147 if they want to stay loyal to the Alfa brand.
Not so long ago the brand was dogged by poor quality cars and dealers. The former is now much improved and the latter is, according to Alfa Romeo, being dealt with in the same ruthless manner. It's taken a good few years for the brand to recover from its past problems, but the 159's predecessor, the 156, did much to right the wrongs. While the 159 might lag behind Audi's A4 in the quality stakes, the gap is small – itself an impressive achievement.
Front seat passengers shouldn't experience any major problems – the doors open wide and you slide across (not down) into the seats. The same isn't true at the back, as the door aperture is noticeable smaller, and the gap for legroom – or seat pitch – is modest. Access is easier than egress, but it could be better give the 159's overall size is considerable. Boot access is adequate; the lid opens up fine but requires a deft flick to close it, as the internal grab handle is located in an awkward position.
Taking the dominant place in the centre console, the 159's audio unit boasts a large display and equally large controls. The basics are also duplicated on the steering wheel. Sound quality is good, and there's the option of a colour satnav system and concierge-style service that puts you in contact with a person to help you with the likes of directions and even hotel reservations.
The 159's cabin successfully blends light and dark trim – fascia elements and seat fabrics respectively. However, opting for a totally dark cabin does make it feel gloomy. In contrast, light coloured leather upholstery looks good but is unlikely to wear well. On the outside, red is predictably attractive while darker shades do their best to hide the Alfa's many interesting styling details.
Being a saloon, reverse parking the 159 initially takes some skill and guesswork. Where the car's large boot ends is not immediately obvious from the driving seat, although model dependent parking sensors help. Thankfully the car's steering is light enough at low speeds, but its steering lock could be much better.
Space saver fitted as standard.
Petrol engine options – 1.9-litre (160bhp); 2.2-litre (185bhp) petrol; 3.2 V6 (200bhp). Diesel engine options: 1.9-litre (150bhp); 2.4-litre (200bhp). All cars come with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard. Six-speed auto optional on diesel and V6 petrol variants. V6 petrol is four-wheel drive as standard. Trim levels: Turismo and Lusso.