In the five years that the absolutely ravishing Alfa Romeo 159 has been on the market, the indisputably best-looking compact executive on the market has struggled. Dogged by over-ambitious price positioning, less-than-incredible powertrains and too little marketing back-up, the 159 range recently shrunk to a single turbodiesel automatic version, which, as of this moment, is history too.
But the 159 range, now very much in the latter half of its product cycle, is not dead. Those in the know have often regarded Alfa’s sporty saloon a gem of a used buy, not only because those that are around can be bought for light car money, but that the original was sold with a 5-year/100 000 km maintenance plan.
Thanks to a weight-saving programme and the utilisation of aluminium panels, the 159 appears exactly the same as before, save for the adoption of standard 17-inch wheels, and the 3,2-litre V6 model is available in two-wheel drive guise, or with the six-speed Q tronic automatic transmission with Q4 four-wheel drive.
But the sonorous, if thirsty, V6 derivatives are not the subject of this write-up. The real news is the introduction of two 1,75-litre turbocharged models… powered by a detuned version of the Guilietta QV’s motor, the 1750 TBi Progression is the entry-level model of the range, and its direct-injection powerplant, which delivers 147 kW from 4 750 to 5 500 r/min and 320 N.m (just 2 N.m less than the V6’s peak) at only 1 400 r/min, is mightily impressive.
I challenge anyone to name a compact executive that still looks as fresh and sharp more than five years into its model life as the 159 does. Those six individual headlamps, the V-shaped bonnet, broad-shouldered flanks and eminently elegant rear three-quarters look as crisp as they did when the Giugaro and Italdesign collaboration was first unveiled back in the day. The interior seems minimalist by modern standards, but as the facia and instrument designs were never supposed to be avant garde, they haven’t really aged either.
There are the same drawbacks as before, one being less than copious rear legroom and, if you are of above average height, your left knee is bound to graze the (standard) cruise control stalk when operating the clutch pedal. The rear seatback doesn’t split 60:40 and fold flat on this model, and the only way that you will get to play MP3 files from a CD or off a USB flash stick is to pay more for the Blue & Me Bluetooth compatibility kit. Leather isn’t standard, but that’s not a must at this price level, and the Visibility Pack, which comprises automatically activated wipers, headlights, demister and electrochromatic mirror, is extra too.
As you may have deduced, I have just subconsciously specced a car, so it’s obvious that I like the littlest 159. The front seats are very supportive yet comfortable to sit in, the ride quality is supple yet communicative and the steering, always an Alfa Romeo strength, is effortless, accurate and direct. I can’t predict what the interior will look like at the end of the model’s 5-year/150 000 km warranty and 6-year/105 000 km service plan, but there is little amiss with the perceived quality of the cabin trim. Remember, the 159 range was conceived to be a direct rival to the Audi A4, or so it was rumoured, and as a result the Italian feels substantial inside and out. If the 159 does show it’s age in any particular area, it is in the relatively high level of wind noise that emanates from the A pillars and side mirrors, but apart from that, the Italian is thrilling to drive.
With maximum torque already available at 1 400 r/min, the 1750 TBi is remarkably flexible in cut and thrust driving. There will be a slight shimmy on the steering wheel when using the throttle pedal too aggressively from standstill, but the Q2 electronic differential helps to get the power down smoothly. The shift quality of the 159 has never been particularly snappy, especially from first to second and fourth to fifth, but the clutch pedal is easy to modulate.
Although the test route wasn’t particularly technical in nature, I have enough combined experience at the wheel of respective 159s to declare the range’s ride and handling balance superb… it is remarkably easy to hoof it when behind the wheel of the TBi model and even though it might be a trifle “late in the day”, the 159 range now finally has a powerplant that will do its sporting heart justice.
With a price tag of R340 000, the 1750i TBi Progression is one of the finest entry-level compact executive saloons on sale in South Africa right now. If BMW Finance weren’t offering such give-away deals on the run-out E90 3 Series models at the moment, this 159 would score a stunning blow. Either way, it’s still worth a closer look, because for the Sporting Heart, it’s a case of better late than never.