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Click to view picture gallery“Worried about your
  heart ruling your head?
  You needn’t be.
  If you buy one of Alfa
  Romeo’s dashing and
  new 159 Sportwagons,
  you’ll satisfy both...

IN RECENT YEARS the UK has become the major under-achiever for the Alfa brand in Europe and Alfa Romeo is banking on its new 159 range breathing fresh life into the brand's fortunes in the UK.

The all-new 159 range that has replaced the 156 line-up will be their volume selling models. The introduction of these 'lifeblood' models is being supported by a 6.5 million marketing budget to re-establish Alfa Romeo as a premium brand. The 159 introductions started earlier this year with the arrival of the four-door sports saloon in February and this was followed by the Brera 2+2 sports coupé in April. The five-door Sportwagon is now here and the long-awaited 'halo' model, the Spider convertible, is scheduled to be with us in July.

Alfa Romeo says the 159 range should give the once-famous brand real impetus to improve its total UK annual sales in the short-term — from 6,400 units last year to 8,000 units this year.

Alfa Romeo UK sees 2006 as a period of consolidation following years
of decline in the UK — 20 per cent down last year — which made the UK Europe's worst market for Alfa Romeo. The lack of direction from
the former Alfa Romeo UK management, compounded by a lack of new products, a lack of investment and disillusioned dealers all combined
to cause the decline.

Now with a new UK management board, more marketing money, new models and a refocused dealer network, new managing director Christopher Nicoll says: "Our targets are realistic and modest and our ambition is to achieve around a 0.7 or 0.8 per cent share of the UK
car market in the future. Initially, around 10,000 annual sales is the realistic target with the new models we have coming and these new products will deliver more growth for the brand in the UK."

Speaking at the launch of the new 159 Sportwagon to the UK media, Damien Dally, Alfa's UK retail marketing manager, said that although supplies of the 159 had been slower than they anticipated to the UK, they would still achieve around 3,500 saloon and Sportwagon sales
and 2,000 Brera and Spider sales. The new five-door Sportwagon
would account for around 25 per cent of total Alfa 159 sales this year.

Seven versions of the new Alfa 159 Sportwagon priced from 21,095
to 29,350 (for the new 3.2 V6 JTS petrol variant with Q4 permanent four-wheel drive) will be available from launch, with a choice of three petrol and two diesel engines. The anticipated best-seller is the well-equipped 1.9 JTDm diesel Lusso — reviewed here — priced at 21,995.

Dally expects the demand by customers for both the 159 saloon and Sportwagon will be 75 per cent for diesel models, with the 1.9 JTDm MultiJet diesel unit taking the majority of those sales over the 2.4-litre diesel engine. "Compared to the 1.9-litre petrol engine, the 1.9 diesel unit only costs an additional 500. That's an important factor for the company car users, fleet business and user-chooser customers who
will account for 40 per cent of 159 UK sales. There is a 1,100 price premium for the Sportwagon over its comparable saloon model."

Dally also said that the original 156 Alfa Sportwagon was a beautiful car which forced other manufacturers to offer stylish rather than just workhorse estate cars. "The new 159 Sportwagon is still beautiful but it is more practical as an estate car. The estate market has changed and this sector has become trendy. Cars are used less as a workhorse for reps and service engineers thundering up and down motorways.

"The Sportwagon is a lifestyle vehicle. Buying an Alfa Romeo has always been an emotional choice but now it is a rational one as well.
It will compete against estates from other premium brands such as
the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class, Audi A4 and Saab."

The 159 Sportwagon uses the same chassis, transmission and suspen-sion as other 159 models. Over the previous Sportwagon it has more interior space, more headroom and an improved driving position.

The Sportwagon is available in two specification levels: Turismo, and the main-selling Lusso versions. There are three petrol engine options: 1.9-litre 160bhp; 2.2-litre 185bhp; and the new 3.2-litre V6 260bhp unit. This new high-torque engine is from Fiat/Alfa's partnership
with GM and it is basically a Holden unit from Australia but developed, assembled and tuned by Alfa Romeo in Italy to retain its Alfa charact-eristics and famous engine note. It brings an 8 per cent increase in power and an 11 per cent increase in torque over the previous 3.2-litre engine.

Alfa's new Q4 permanent four-wheel drive system will be used on all
of their models across their range where engines producing over 200bhp are fitted — the one exception being the Alfa GT. Q4 employs three differentials, with a self-locking Torsen C unit at the centre of the system which divides drive torque by a ratio of 57 per cent to the rear wheels and 43 per cent to the front in normal driving conditions.

In addition, there are two MultiJet diesel engine options: the 1.9-litre 150bhp unit and a 200bhp 2.4-litre version. All models use a new six-speed manual gearbox although a new automatic transmission will join the line-up for selected models in the 159 range later this year.

Looks are always a subjective issue, but I think the majority of us motoring pundits are impressed by the manner in which traditional Alfa styling features — such as the legendary Villa d'Este style Alfa shield that dominates the front of the Alfa 159 Sportwagon — and the new requirements for bodyshell design, safety and application have been blended together. From its steeply raked windscreen to its strongly raked, top-hinged tailgate, the Sportwagon exhibits an assertive, purposeful stance, and the rear load area looks as though it was always part of the overall design as opposed to an add-on load box.

Accessed via a full-width, top-hinged tailgate, the Sportwagon offers 445 litres of loadspace below the retractable luggage cover. The 60:40 split/folding rear seat features an integral armrest and ski hatch, and allows for the rapid expansion of the luggage compartment into a robust, practical, flat-floored load platform offering 850 litres of stow-age below the window line, and an impressive 1,235 litres overall.

In addition, there are up to 14 storage areas of various sizes within the passenger compartment itself, including a large glove compartment, an insulated bin in the front centre armrest and a storage compartment in the pull-out central rear armrest.

My only issue with it is the high-ish rear sill which does not allow flat floor loading access to the rear area. Items have to be lifted over the sill and down on to the lower floor. Not easy if you are going to use
the Sportwagon as a load-lugger. However, in reality, this is very much a sports load carrier for golf clubs, shopping and so forth.

As far as the engine choice goes, it's very much the same story as
the 159 saloons. No question about it — the 1.9-litre diesel is by far the best option. The four-cylinder turbocharged and intercooled twin-overhead camshaft MultiJet direct-injection powerplant is fast — 129mph — and quick (0-62mph in 9.6 seconds).

More importantly, the 1.9 JTDm unit combines its power delivery of 150bhp with a hugely impressive 236lb ft of torque at 2,000rpm — comparable to that generated by the 3.2-litre JTS V6 — which makes
it brilliantly responsive to drive. It's quiet, too. Fuel economy is good — with nearly 40mpg recorded on our brief test route over typical Cotswold A- and B-roads. The potential for more — officially, up to 58.9mpg — on long motorway journeys is excellent.

The diesel versions of the Sportwagon ride better as well. The extra weight dampens out any unsettled handling characteristics on poor road surfaces, and the front end stays sharp and responsive. It is a well-settled car even when pushed hard, and because the handling is so good you really can drive it very hard indeed.

I have to say that given the dry roads we experienced during this week's first drive event, the two-wheel drive models felt better than the Q4 four-wheel drive version, which didn't really show us any advantages and seemed to sap the strength of the new V6 engine. The Q4 model needed to be worked quite hard to even get you into
the position of thinking the Sportwagon needs four-wheel drive. In different conditions such as rain, ice and snow the Q4 may well come into its own, but generally it will be an expensive luxury, especially for fuel — under 20mpg on the same test route as the diesel version.

The interior, just like the saloon, is full of sports features with a good array of well positioned instruments. A height adjustable driver's seat allied to a rake/reach adjustable leather steering wheel ensures a comfortable driving position. The driver's instrument binnacle houses large, deeply-hooded speedometer and rev-counter dials, while a multi-function display gives access to a wide range of functions as well as the trip computer.

Secondary gauges comprise fuel, engine temperature and turbo boost. Most controls are in front of the driver and in the centre facia — which is canted towards the driver's line of vision — and are really well sited. Only the multitude of control stalks sprouting from the steering column, and masked by the wide spokes of the steering wheel, are tricky to use. The electronic engine stop/start button is a well-considered touch.

Standard equipment is both comprehensive and generous: seven airbags (driver, passenger, front side, window and driver's knee), Dual Zone climate control, speed-sensitive power-assisted steering, 'Follow-Me-Home' headlamps, electrically folding, adjustable and heated door mirrors, one-touch electric front and rear windows, radio/CD player with 8 speakers, leather steering wheel and gear knob with steering-wheel mounted radio/phone controls, front fog lights, cruise control, front armrest with temperature controlled storage compartment, height adjustable front seats with lumbar support, aluminium centre console and trim inserts, fine-grain leather upholstery, electrochromic rearview mirror with deactivation button, rear parking sensors and 17-inch wire-spoke design alloy wheels.

Rear legroom could be a bit of an issue if you have grown up children to carry on a regular basis. With the front seats pushed backwards legroom is cramped. The new Sportwagon comes with a comprehensive range of state-of-the-art electronic braking, traction control and stability systems: ABS is combined with Electronic Brakeforce Distrib-ution over all four wheels; there's Hydraulic Brake Assistance and Vehicle Dynamic Control to enhance cornering stability. VDC is further augmented by ASR to limit wheelspin during acceleration, MSR to modulate braking torque when changing down through the gears, and
a unique Hill Holder function to facilitate smooth hill starts. There's even a fully integrated Fire Prevention System.

Overall the new Sportwagon is a fine effort and a car which will receive recognition — and I suspect admiring looks — from other estate drivers. I don't see many owners complaining about the boot's high sill or the limited rear legroom because there are so many plus points:
a sleek sports body that's very safe, an extremely comprehensive standard equipment specification and only a 500 premium over the 1.9-litre petrol engine for the potent diesel version. In fact, the new 159 Sportwagon has got so much going for it that it's hard to see how
it could fail to succeed. — David Miles

Alfa Romeo 159 Sportwagon 1.9 JTDm Lusso
| 22,995
Maximum speed: 129mph | 0-62mph: 9.6 seconds
Overall test MPG: 46.3mpg | Power: 150
bhp | Torque: 236lb ft

------------------------------------------------ Alfa Romeo 159 Sportwagon