The Car of the Year judges have judged - and this time the winner is not the usual dull but admirable utility vehicle but the Alfa 156, a gorgeous-looking, fine-driving, sensual-sounding saloon from a noted maker of cars for hedonists. John Simister takes it for a ride.

The unusual object of the Car of the Year judges' adulation is a sleek, four-door saloon which replaces the Alfa 155 and, more important, aims to kidnap buyers away from 3-series BMWs and Audi A4s. Those cars are style and image statements of the highest degree, and that's just the status that the new Alfa Romeo is intended to emulate. Of course, Alfa Romeos have long been considered slightly exotic, with connotations of sportiness and sensuality, but while many car-lovers have been pleased to gaze upon the Alfas of others, they have not risked having one of their own.

Why was this? Too odd, too temperamental, too ergonomically perverse, too attention-seeking? All of these, in varying doses. The result was that the terrific warmth and goodwill that had long surrounded the Alfa idea has, in recent times, been wearing thin. True, in very recent times we've seen sparks of new life in the shape of the 145, the 146, the Spider and the GTV, but this time the fire is really burning.

Look at the 156's nose, that shield-shaped Alfa grille dipping into the bumper, flanked by horizontal "whiskers" just as in Alfas of the 1950s. See the front number-plate offset to the left, like it was on those Alfa Spiders of the 1960s and onwards. Then notice how the side profile rises towards the tail, how the flanks are unsullied by rubbing strakes, how the side crease fades into an anodised aluminium door handle and reasserts itself either side of it. The tail is clean and crisp, the rear door handles are hidden black flaps in the window corners so as not to distract the eye, the whole car looks lithe, dynamic, more organic than a sculpted Audi. And though some of those details have a retro root, they are there to give substance and pride to the car's personality, not to give an excuse for a nostalgic wallow. This is a car for now.

Inside, too, the 156 feels special. It is more neatly designed, and more solidly assembled out of better-quality materials, than any Alfa Romeo I have encountered. And you can get properly comfortable in it, without stretching your arms or crowding your legs as used to be the Alfa way, and take in a racy set of dials buried at the far end of deep cowlings. Most of these dials are hidden from the front passenger - an Alfa driver is boss, you see - and a broad, angled centre console sweeping down from facia top to handbrake heightens the feeling of being in a sports car's cockpit.

To drive, it feels as it looks. British buyers will choose from three engines, four-cylinder units of 1.8 or 2.0 litres, or a 2.5-litre, 24- valve V6, but although the V6 sounds the most melodic and gives you the most gears to play with (six), the 2.0-litre four, with 16 valves, two spark plugs per cylinder and a pair of vibration-cancelling balancer shafts, is a better bet. It has that crisp, raspy eagerness typical of an Alfamotor, pulls strongly from low revs (more so than the V6, oddly) and spins to high speeds with gusto.

The power reaches the road with spirit but without drama, and the 156's cornering style is much the same. It grips hard, but reacts gently and precisely, as well as swiftly, to your inputs, making it possible to flow through bends in a highly satisfying way. Some cars react as though there is too much rubber in the various linkages between you and the wheels, but not this one. It feels much more machined and honed than that, yet it soaks up bumps without a shudder.

In short, this is an Alfa which looks as desirable as an Alfa Romeo should, and which brings you alive when you drive. Even better, it is well-made and detailed with care. There are snags - those unprotected sides will be vulnerable in car parks, the rear seat doesn't fold, the turning circle is poor - but the Alfa 156 is nevertheless that novel proposition, an Alfa which on a rational level is as tempting a prospect as a BMW or an Audi. And on an irrational level? Well, with those looks, with that sound, that aura of zing and zest, it fires the soul. It's been a while since a Car of the Year winner has done that.

Alfa 156 2.0 T.Spark 16V

pounds 19,500. Engine: 1,970cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 155bhp at 6,400rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 134mph, 0-60 in 8.4sec. Fuel consumption: 28-33mpg


Audi A4 1.8T, pounds 21,881: Good-looking, beautifully made, quick and frugal, but less of an interactive driving experience.

BMW 323i, pounds 21,840: With the 320i's mysterious departure, there is no direct BMW rival for the 156 2.0. This one is faster, smoother, pricier.

Peugeot 406 2.0T SRi, pounds 17,885: Competes on power and poise if not the noise.

Subaru Impreza Turbo, pounds 19,110: Slightly smaller than Alfa, has huge pace, astounding four-wheel drive roadholding, cult-car character.

Volkswagen Passat 1.8T Sport SE, pounds 18,795: Mechanically A4-like but roomier and cheaper.