ALFA ROMEO is gunning for the BMW 3-series and the Audi A4 with its new 156 model, just unveiled. European sales start in October. Sales in right-hand-drive markets, including Britain, begin in early 1998.

The car looks like being Alfa's best shot yet at tackling the Germans in the big-selling and profitable European luxury small-car market, currently dominated by Audi, BMW and Mercedes (with the C-class). The 156 is a curvaceous, sporty looking sedan that boasts three different, twin-cam, twin-spark four-cylinder engines (of 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0 capacities) and a 190bhp 2.5- litre V6. The latter engine also comes with a six-speed manual gearbox. There are also two different diesel engines, both using Fiat's new Unijet direct-injection system that gives extra performance and economy.

One curious styling detail is that the rear door handles are hidden in the C-pillars. This gives the 156 the look of a coupe. The front door handles are old-fashioned chrome affairs. Other retro details include the offset front number plate, borrowed from pre-war Alfa sports cars.

Alfa intends to build 150,000 156s a year, more than double the rate of the old 155, an unloved car. The 156, which is certain to be Alfa's best-selling model, can't come a moment too soon for the Italian company. European sales have been poor, despite the recent introduction of the 145 and 146 models. In 1996, sales in Europe stood at only 118,000. Back in 1990, sales were more than 200,000.

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