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Click for pictures“Alfa romeo is back!
  A revitalised range
  of three desirable
  models. And first off
  the blocks is the
  159 sports saloon...”

THIS WEEK THE NEW directors of Alfa Romeo UK have been outlining their revitalisation plans for the British market. Fundamental to their success is the new Alfa 159 four-door sports saloon. This new 159 range will be followed in quick succession by the Alfa Brera and the Alfa Spider, both due by the end of April. The 159 range goes on sale in the UK from 25 February, priced from 19,995.

For this review I am giving over more of my limited space to the future of Alfa Romeo in the UK because it is important, when buying a car from some manufacturers, that the head rules the heart.

This is particularly pertinent in the case of Alfa in this country because over the last year or so it has been having a tough time due to both
a lack of direction from senior management and the poor financial state of its parent company, Fiat Auto in Italy. Matters were made worse by customers not buying Alfa models in anywhere near the numbers they need to for the brand to survive here.

Happily, it's not all doom and gloom. Fiat Auto is now profitable again,
a whole new management structure has been put in place in the UK and the dealers are now fully motivated — just in time for the arrival
of their most important new model, the 159 sports saloon. This is the car that Alfa believes will get them back on track and re-establish customer confidence. And it will be shortly followed by the sexy new Alfa Spider, which will definitely encourage customers to buy with their heart although, in the Spider's case, it will be easy for their head to agree.

New managing director, 37-year-old Christopher Nicoll, has been trans-ferred from managing director for Fiat Auto in Switzerland and Austria. British born Nicoll attended this week's media introduction of the new Alfa 159 range. Completing the senior management transfer from Switzerland is 31-year-old Nicholas Bernard, who takes over as UK marketing director.

Bernard revealed that Alfa Romeo has a 6.5 million marketing budget
in place to revitalise the Alfa brand in the UK market. Half of this budget will be spent on launching and sustaining the sales programme for the new 159 range. The remaining 50 per cent will be spent on launching the new Brera, although the lion's share will be used to promote the new Alfa Spider due here in April. Bernard said the long-awaited Spider would be a hearts-and-minds, high-profile convertible. Expected to sell for around 24,000, the Spider is expected to restore the sporting pedigree of the brand and benefit sales of all models in the range — hence the disproportionate marketing spend for the relatively small number of cars available for sale.

New managing director Christopher Nicoll said: "The UK is a key growth market for Alfa Romeo but something must be wrong with our business operation as sales have continued to decline in recent years, down by 20 per cent last year.

"With regards to customer care, the UK has a very negative history for this brand. My own experiences as an Alfa-owning student in London 18 years ago proved to me that it was very costly to keep the car on the road. But this will change.

"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. 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."

Last year Alfa Romeo achieved 6,396 sales — a 0.26 per cent market share.

Nicoll added: "We aim to sell in the UK, in the first full year, in the region of 3,500 units of the new Alfa 159. This will be our best-selling model, replacing the successful Alfa 156 which in its best year in the UK sold 16,000."

The all-new 159 represents a 1 billion Euro investment by Alfa Romeo. It is totally new from the nuts and bolts through to the transmissions. Offering class-leading safety with seven airbags as standard, the car has already obtained a Euro NCAP 5-star safety rating — the first Alfa to do so.

Buyers will be pleased to know that the 159 range has three all-new direct injection petrol engines — 1.9, 2.2 and a 3.2-litre V6 — and that there are also two high-tech MultiJet diesel engines: 1.9 and 2.4-litre. And that there is the option, depending on which engine is chosen,
of Turismo and Lusso specifications while the 3.2 versions have Q4 permanent four-wheel drive. All five engines are mated to a new six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic transmission will become available later this year for selected models.

Bernard says the new 159 "is more entertaining to drive than the 156. It is more mature. It offers more space. And it is longer and wider and has increased luggage capacity.

"Our car will sell in the D segment against the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and the Saab 9.3. We have modest objectives for retail customer sales and I expect fleet business to account for between 35 and 40 per cent of our sales. With only a 500 premium for diesel models over petrol — a big incentive for company car customers as well as retail buyers — we expect the sales split between petrol and diesel to even out at 50:50. If all goes to plan we expect sales of the 159 to increase to around 5,000 units in 2007 and we will be restricting sales in the fleet sector so as not to distress the car's residual values."

Prices for the Alfa Romeo 159 range start at 19,995 and range up to 28,195.

So what does my head and heart think? After listening to the new directors there is no doubt that the Alfa passion for its products has returned, and as they now appear to want to sell sensible numbers of good cars rather than force sales with indifferent products, the signs really look good. It is heartening to believe that the UK dealers are right behind the management and will at last support customers with better advice and customer care.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the sporty looking 159 is everything a proper Alfa should be. The gloriously muscular styling is a joy and the interior of the car, especially the driver's cockpit area, is everything you would expect a stunning Italian sporting car to be — with lots of dials, lots of metal trim and all well made.

Our driving time was restricted to two models from the range but for me the choice model — performance versus price — is the 1.9 JTDm 16-valve turbodiesel priced from 20,495. This is a premium price
but then it is a premium car. And it looks the part. With a top speed
of 130mph it is almost as fast as that of the 1.9 and 2.2-litre petrol versions. And its 0-62mph acceleration in a vigorous 9.4 seconds makes it faster than the 1.9-litre petrol models and only marginally slower than the 2.2-litre petrol versions. With 150bhp and 236lb ft of torque (on tap from just 2,000rpm) it is a willing and very strong engine. It is also very responsive and very quiet. The fuel economy potential is good as well, with 47mpg quoted as the overall average.

I found the comfort of ride good but a little harsher over poor surfaces than the 2.2-litre petrol model, no doubt due to the stiffer suspension used to carry the extra weight of the diesel unit.

The styling is there — inimitable Alfa styling at it best. The engineering is good, the quality is back in the car and — equally importantly — the infrastructure to look after customers in now in place. Hopefully, Alfa depreciation values will now improve. The new 159 is a roomy, 4-door sports saloon featuring a great driver's cockpit and it's sporty to drive. And yes, I'm sure Alfa can succeed with the 159. — David Miles

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Alfa Romeo 159 1.9 JTDm 4-door | 20,495
Maximum speed: 130mph | 0-62mph: 9.4 seconds
Test MPG: 47.1mpg | Power: 150bhp | Torque: 236lb ft

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