road test; Alfa Romeo 146

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This was going to be the compact saloon to break the jellymould. The 145, the 146's three-door sibling, made a splash earlier this year with its startling variation on the classic auto-design theme of Devil's Breadvan, but failed to convince pundits that Alfa had solved all their problems in this most overcrowded of market sectors.

Response to the 145 was guardedly positive. Shape, packaging, concept and general deportment were well-liked but performance was sniffed at. It was quirkily good but not better than the best.

So the five-door, 16-valve, fast-ish 146 arrives to the beating of a different drum (there's already a 1.6 available and a 2-litre ripsnorter to come). Alfa wants you to think less about the car's intrinsic value than about how dull the competition is by comparison. They want you to consider the 146 not as a brilliantly honed driving machine with a utilitarian bent but as a useful yet insistently desirable objet you can actually afford. This is sensible. Because in purely artistic terms the 146 is a honey.

For the money, it's as natty a compact as you could hope to squeeze between your wheelie-bins. The infernal nose you'll know from the 145. The stumpy, tilted rump will be less familiar but rings true as a stylistic feature in a field in which truncation is virtually an aesthetic theme. From both front and rear three-quarter perspectives, the car looks punchy and inviting.

Inside, the 146's ergonomics are shockingly sensible. Even the nastiness of its dashboard plastic is offset by niceness of driving position, steering wheel and instrument layout, all of which are uncluttered and accessible.

Then you plug in, tune up and raise an eyebrow. The flat-four 1.7-litre unit at your toes gives the least satisfying growl of any modern Alfa engine I've heard. It will shove you to 60mph in around 10 seconds, in deliberate surges but without vocal grace, as if nagging you up to speed.

Back on the plus side, steering is sharp (if lacking in feel), suspension taut and braking terrific, which means that the 146 is fun around town and ace on country roads. But even that virtue is compromised by a doodly gear-shift.

It took several years to get big brother 155 right, and that despite raw material that was definitively unpromising. But get it right Alfa did in the end. So there's every reason to presume that the 145/6 will eventually reach some kind of fulfilment as the affordable sports utility of a lot of people's dreams.

Nick Coleman

Specifications

Alpha 146 1.7 16V pounds 13,655

Four cylinders, 129 bhp at 6,500 rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive.

Top speed 125mph, 0-60 in 10.2 seconds. Fuel consumption 26-44 mpg.

Rivals

Citroen ZX Volcane 5-door pounds 14,950 Not as much zing as the Alfa.

Ford Escort Ghia 1.8i 16v pounds 13,655 Dull looks and not much fun to drive.

Honda Civic 5-door 1.6iSR pounds 14,295 Reliable but dull.

Mazda 323F 1.8iGLX pounds 14,285 Well made and looks good.

Peugeot 306XSi 5-door pounds 14,215 All-round, the best car in the class.

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