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Motoring: Why Doesn't Anybody Buy The...; Alfa Romeo 166

ALFA ROMEO'S large and enticing 166 went on sale in January. Since then, just 866 have found UK buyers. Contrast that with the Vauxhall Omega and BMW 5-series, with around 15,000 sales each in that period.

The smaller Alfa 156, a rival to the BMW 3-series, has sold rather well. It was the best Alfa for years, a car of extraordinary beauty and character with, in the main, driving characteristics to match. It gave people the excuse they needed to drive a car with the evocative Alfa badge, without having to justify the choice. Next came the 166 - same idea, bigger package and very similar aspirations.

So what has happened? Let's look at that word again. Evocative of what, exactly? Of Alfa's legacy of style, sportiness and passion-led engineering. But this has worn thin in recent years, causing the critics' latent goodwill to do likewise. Fiat, latter-day custodian of the Alfa brand, has done its best to revive this specialness. People remember, and it hasn't been a lost cause after all.

Now, if you're buying a 156-class car, you're probably the sort of person with the freedom to express your automotive desires and enjoy a bit of evocation. However, if you're in the next level up in your life, either financially or chronologically, that freedom is more likely to have given way to a need to conform to understandable indicators of status and investment prudence.

Cue the self-fulfiling prophecy. Alfa Romeo's big cars have, historically, depreciated with the speed of the objects that Galileo dropped from the top of Pisa's leaning tower. Even the last good one, the 164, suffered this fate, which makes it a brilliant second-hand buy but made people wary of buying it new. Naturally, people worry that this could also happen to the 166, and few are ready to take the risk. Result - no demand, used prices fall, and the worry is justified.

It's a tragedy, because the 166 is a great car with the best-designed and constructed interior yet found in an Alfa. It has some great engines and a sleek, sculpted style far more up-front than that of any rival. It went wrong around the nose, following a play-it-safe pre-launch redesign which replaced the 156's boldness with a sad and droopy expression. Yet I'd still rather have a 166 than any rival model because it's so spirited and uncorporate. And there, in our commodified world, lies the problem.