Motoring: The Independent Road Test: A gutsy Italian takes on the big Germans: Alfa Romeo hopes to challenge Mercedes and BMW with its rationalised 155 series. Roger Bell finds it lacking the magic to win the sales race

FOR downtrodden Alfa Romeo to take on mighty Mercedes in its own back yard is audacious enough. To beat the German giant's racing teams on their home ground is a historic achievement. The Alfa 155's domination of the German touring car championship this year has enormously bolstered the Fiat subsidiary's standing in sporting circles. But whether or not competition success with 420-horsepower, four-wheel drive specials will translate into extra sales remote from the action in the UK is open to question.

Alfa Romeo (GB) could certainly do with them. With fewer than 1,000 first-half registrations in 1993, its 0.13 per cent market share is a fraction of Mercedes' and BMW's.

It is at the highly successful 3-series BMW - the car that is dominating Britain's televised touring car championship - that Alfa's rationalised range of keenly priced 155s is obliquely aimed. Trouble is, the 155 is from an odd, tall-and-narrow Latin school of design that does not seem to attract BMW buyers swayed by the 3-series' greater elegance and presence.

Recent changes to the 155 have done little for its controversial dart-shaped, slab-sided appearance, which lacks commercial acumen. They have, however, strengthened the protective shell to make it more crash-proof, particularly in offset impacts that are more common than head-on ones in real-life motoring. These extensive body/chassis reinforcements will be supplemented later by a driver's airbag and seat-belt tensioners.

The base 155 is the pounds 13,580 1.8 Twin Spark, so called because its long-in-the-tooth engine has two sparking plugs per cylinder, eight in all. Next up comes the more powerful pounds 14,900 2.0 Twin Spark. The V6 - smoother and more potent than the front-wheel drive 'fours' and a worthier rival to the 3-series BMW - costs just under pounds 19,000. Topping the range is the pounds 22,000 all-drive Cloverleaf turbo, rendered almost redundant here by left-hand drive.

Even the 1.8 is a lively car, its rough and raucous engine making up in spirit what it lacks in decorum. Throttle response is razor sharp, flexibility strong: you do not have to change down to overtake snappily as the Alfa pulls with gusto from low revs in a high gear. And just as well, as the baulky gearchange stodgily discourages indulgent shifting. The low-gear ratios that promote lively pick-up act against peaceful cruising: boom and fussiness are unwanted motorway companions.

Alfa's sporting heritage is fostered in the 155 by responsive (assisted) steering and strong cornering power. The promise of fun-car motoring, however, is only partially fulfilled.

Better results, and much greater fluency, are achieved by the liveliest Fiat Tipo, the basic chassis of which underpins the 155, and that of its Lancia Dedra cousin. Alfa could do a lot worse than adopt the Tipo 16V's suspension without modification.

There are lessons to be learnt, too, from Alfa's splendid 164 flagship, the magic of which has not rubbed off on its mid-range junior. Until it does, the 155 will struggle for recognition and sales.

For a classy compact, the high-tailed, big-booted Alfa is quite roomy, the rear compartment offering decent legroom. Despite its grey trim, the cabin is light, airy and pleasant to ride in.

I have sat in more supportive seats, and enjoyed a smoother ride, but the driving position behind a height-adjustable steering wheel is fine. Assembly and finish appear to have improved since the 155's launch to a lukewarm press.

Loyal Alfisti will no doubt adore the 1.8 Twin Spark and its Italian brio and character. Anyone accustomed to Japanese standards of refinement, quality and blandness will probably find it far too individualistic and patchy.

Specifications

Alfa Romeo 155 1.8 Twin Spark, pounds 13,580. Engine: 1773cc, four- cylinder, eight-valve twin-cam; 129bhp at 6,000rpm. Five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. 0-60mph in 10.0 seconds, top speed 125mph, 30-35mpg unleaded.

Comparisons

BMW 316i, pounds 15,295. More expensive than Alfa 155, but worth it. Strong driver appeal not undermined by modest performance. Fine, fluent handling, very comfortable, elegantly styled, beautifully made and finished. The car to beat in the class. 320i and 325i 'sixes' even better.

Citroen Xantia 1.8i SX, pounds 13,295. Good looks, comfort and refinement. Long wheelbase gives roomy cabin; hydro-pneumatic self-levelling suspension, a smooth ride. Performance and economy average. Unique anti-theft system.

Ford Mondeo 1.8i GLX, pounds 13,155. Pick of the excellent Mondeos on value for money. Matches the 155's performance, despite less power, and betters its ride and handling. A comfortable, classy car. Prices from pounds 11,200 for the base 1.6 to pounds 18,450 for the handsome Ghia estate.

Nissan Primera 2.0 SLX, pounds 13,625. British-made, Japanese-designed, a better all-rounder than the Alfa, but weaker in character. Strong performance, good handling, nicely made and finished. Strong contender for class leadership. Prices from pounds 11,095 to pounds 15,650.

(Photograph omitted)

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