Motoring: Road Test; New Romeo rekindles a love affair

The Alfa 166 re-establishes the Italian car-maker's street cred and gives the Germans a run for their money. By John Simister

Jaded by the German cars that monopolise the grander end of the carscape? Then try this for size: a new car with a super-evocative marque name from a company that zoomed back into credibility a year or so ago with one of the tastiest-looking cars to pitch up in dealers' showrooms for quite some time. We are, of course, talking Alfa Romeo.

Specifically, we are talking Alfa 166. As its name suggests, there's a clear relationship with the delicious-looking 156, but it's bigger. Here we're chasing BMW Fives and Audi A6s, rather than BMW Threes and Audi A4s. Is it a hopeless quest?

It shouldn't be, if Alfa Romeo has learnt from past cost-cutting and golden-goose killing. The handsome 164, which the 166 replaces, was a case of nearly but not quite. With the 166, Alfa Romeo aims to do the job properly. And that means building a car which not only looks desirable, but which is properly designed and put together and gives a good drive without excuses.

Has Alfa found the plot? Let's begin on the inside, in a cabin as attention- grabbing as its rivals' are discreet. It's the swathe of contrasting colour and texture that does it, beginning across the bottom of the dashboard, expanding into a sweep across the front doors, rising and broadening as it continues into the rear doors. It pulls the interior into one unified vision.

Then there's the dashboard itself, with chrome-rimmed, overlapping instruments, and a centre console - it looks better in metallised grey than in the optional not-wood - which contains an "integrated control system". This shows, on an LCD screen, the settings and readings for the stereo, the air-conditioning and the trip computer, and options include satellite navigation and a built-in telephone, for which you will need a SIM card. If you have a mobile phone, it will probably contain one.

Be sure to follow the instructions and enter the right pin number. The first 166 I drove, in Italy, had its computer menu in Italian, and I didn't do quite as I was asked. The result was that the Alfa's phone destroyed my SIM card, so ending a week in which I locked myself out of my house, was stopped for speeding in France and suffered my worst-ever computer crash.

You might expect this to have set me against the Alfa, but it didn't. Now, reacquainted with it in right-hand-drive UK form, I remember why I liked it so much. The looks play a part, less startling than the 156's style but still dramatic, with a bold scallop along the sides, headlights so slim they look like sidelights, and a high tail adorned only by two tapering tail-lights illuminated by a bank of light-emitting diodes instead of mere bulbs. It's a pity the nose extends so far beyond the front wheels, though.

There are three engine variants, and the two extremes are better than the one in the middle. Grandest is a 3.0-litre V6 matched to a six-speed gearbox; next down is a 2.5-litre V6 which lacks puff at low revs; and humblest is a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder with balancer shafts and "Twin Spark" ignition (two spark plugs per cylinder, long an Alfa speciality).

This sweet-spinning, crisp-sounding 2.0-litre propels the hefty Alfa with surprising vigour if you use its ready revvability. There's little real need for anything more muscular, especially as you'll also get the slickest gearchange and lightest clutch. The V6's clutches are tiringly heavy, so you might be better off with the Sportronic automatic option.

The Twin Spark is also the most agile, thanks to its lighter front end. Actually, I can't think of a big, front-wheel-drive saloon that handles better. The steering is direct and well weighted, and the front wheels bite hard into the road long after you expected them to drift towards the outside of the bend. Much of this is down to the clever rear suspension, which helps to point the nose tidily into the next twist with just a flick of the steering.

It's comfortable, too, with a firm but rounded ride, supportive seats and a good view forward over the low bonnet. And I'm pleased to report that it's also the most solidly built Alfa I have yet encountered, with door hinges that would surely support the door of a bank vault. The trim parts fit unexpectedly well, too, although the hard plastic lid of the dash-top storage box feels disappointingly cheap.

So, as good as the German competition? Yes. Better? Probably not. Different? Very ... This is a car with real spirit, more a companion than a high-class transport tool. It's a proper Alfa, but upsized and without maddening oddnesses. See, it's possible after all.

Specifications

Make and model: Alfa 166 2.0 Twin Spark

Price: pounds 23,371

Engine: 1,970cc, four cylinders, 16 valves; produces 155bhp at 6,400rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive.

Performance: Top speed: 132mph; acceleration: 0-60 in 9.4 seconds; economy: 24-29mpg.

RIVALS

Audi A6 1.8T: pounds 23,703. Latter-day Bauhaus looks, terrific build quality, lively pace from turbo engine, but less fun to drive than the Alfa.

BMW 520i: pounds 24,405. Six-cylinder engine is smooth but lacks low-revs pull; again, it is beautifully built, but the whole car has a clumsy feel after experiencing the Alfa.

Saab 9-5 2.0T: pounds 22,795. Lusty turbo engine gives the Saab strong pace, and 9-5 has the world's best cup-holder. Rather a squashy drive, though.

Volvo S70 2.5 20V: pounds 21,795. Good-value Volvo is showing its age but is lively, and the five-cylinder engine sounds great.

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