Motoring: Bad boy Romeo settles down: Alfas always had style, but the new 155 claims reliability too. John Fordham reports

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IN his latest film, My Cousin Vinny, Joe Pesci plays Vincent La Guardia Gambini, a Brooklyn Italian lawyer who wears leathers in court, swears at the judge and winds up on contempt of court charges so often that he spends about as much time in the slammer as his clients. Vinny grows up, of course. To save his pride and do right by the family, he learns to behave himself when it counts. But he never loses the Brooklyn cockiness that's his special charm. All he has to do - surprise, surprise - is keep it in its place.

The Alfa Romeo has traditionally been a kind of Vinny La Guardia Gambini among cars. An unruly, unorthodox and erratic producer of odd-shaped boxes of immense panache and fitful unreliability (like Vinny), Alfa Romeo was the most inconsistent and entertaining car builder ever to sport a long and classy history on the road and in competition. Now, wrestling with recession like everybody else and forced to be sensible, the firm - chaperoned by Fiat - is in the delicate position of having both to live down and play up to its reputation with the new 155.

Alfas traditionally had uncomfortable seats, weird handbrakes and even weirder gear changes, so the Italian firm busked it on the assumption that fans would kill for that inimitable exhaust growl - and maybe even treat all the snags as just personality quirks. Only the delectable 164 was a model that genuinely blended grace and true Alfa style.

But after leaving it to go its own way for years, Fiat is now knocking Alfa into shape - its shape. The company has recognised that if Alfa can continue to attract what the press calls the alfisti, but also seriously tempt the more pragmatic and less emotional sports-saloon buyers who are usually certs for the BMW 3- series, then it might be able to sell it as less of an eccentricity and even attract some fleet buyers too. Alfa UK is adding 27 new dealers to the British network this year.

But the car itself is a manifestation of a deeper change in production philosophy, galvanised by economics and the Turin-based design consultancy IDEA (Institute of Development in Automotive Engineering). The latter services clients not simply with arty sketches and a plaster model, but an understanding of engineering needs down to the last nut and bolt.

All this has come about because automotive costs and sales are forcing a shift to more model variation from the same basic components, and because giving a car a cachet through design subtleties rather than through test-track performance figures is increasingly crucial to sales as roads become choked with traffic.

The IDEA consultancy conceived the 155 under these tough new conditions, and it is fundamentally the same as the Fiat Tipo and the Lancia Dedra - reusing the Tipo's floorpan, road-gear mountings and door frames. It's a front-drive car, which might be heresy to the die-hards, and it has the rear-end shape of the larger Fiat saloons, with a high back and voluminous boot - though the diving nose and slit- eye lights have more in common with Alfa dash. Unlike the BMW 3-series, the Alfa 155 is relatively comfortable in the back and will take five occupants at a push, with a lot of luggage space into the bargain.

The customer confidence bonus is that the car is being built at a new factory on a robotised line which the company claims has transformed quality control, and the pricing is keen for the class. The 155 is therefore a roomier, more practical, better-built, better-priced version of an exciting marque; it performs with an Alfa's traditional impulsiveness and still sounds like a tiger on its way to lunch. But is

it too much of a compromise to fulfil Fiat's aim of doing more with less (and more reliably) and still be enough of an Alfa for the buffs?

First impressions are the 155's weakest points; the body styling (for all the elegant traditional grille and V-shaped swelling on the bonnet) is dull - in striking contrast to the quintessentially stylish 3-series BMWs. The interior isn't very attractive either, draped with the kind of cheap-looking textured vinyl that could almost have come out of a budget-level Far Eastern car.

The seats still aren't particularly comfortable under the thighs, and the rather slab-like centre console is dominated by a bank of drab- looking (and not particularly effective) thermostatic climate-control switches, most of the other switch gear being shifted to fat and fiddly steering-column stalks. Though the pedals are nicely aligned for heel-and-toe gearchanges, the left foot-rest is so close to the clutch that you have to fit your boot squarely over the pedal, or you foul it on the way down. The handbrake, though, is a conventional single lever - rather than the awkward stirrup-shaped device Alfa favoured in the past.

So far, so-so. But when you start it up, Alfa memories come flooding back - and that's just where IDEA has performed a shrewd balancing act. Once you use the car, its virtues do overcome its drawbacks.

Throttle response is very quick, and coupled with that delightful motorbike rumble in the silencer (even in the era of the standard catalytic exhaust, it is not lost), there is enough heady Alfa bouquet for the cognoscenti. The gearshift isn't particularly crisp, and the brakes - though very effective and available with an optional anti-lock system - are soft at the pedal in a way that might be disconcerting to some. But the car handles well and the positive feel at the steering wheel is excellent. Rough roads unsettle it a little, and it tucks into bends so enthusiastically that you have to moderate your steering quickly to allow for its eagerness.

But when it comes to overall perfect balance, the BMW admirers Alfa wants to catch will take some prising away from the unflappable assurance of a rear-wheel-drive 3-series on a fast corner. Ride comfort on bad roads is average only, and it doesn't absorb serious holes particularly well. At high speeds, the crackle of the engine note on the 2.0-litre Twin Spark I drove was very apparent (reputedly more musical and less intrusive on the V6-engined 2.5-litre version). But tyre and wind noise are not so obvious, so motorway travel isn't tiring.

Air-conditioning on the test car was optional, but electric front windows and sunroof, central locking and height-adjustable seats are standard. The price of the Alfa 155 is pounds 15,100.-

(Photograph omitted)