Model: Alfa 159 2.2 JTS Lusso Sportwagon
Price: £23,395 (Turismo model £21,995), on sale April
Engine: 2,198cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 185bhp at 6,500rpm, 170lb ft at 4,500rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 137mph, 0-60 in 8.8sec, 29.7mpg official average fuel consumption
It was all topsy-turvy last time. The hyper-elegant Alfa 156 Sportwagon had less boot space than its saloon sibling, despite its estate-car-ish shape. But then, with less load-bearing ability it didn't matter that the rear suspension was actually softer than the saloon's (normally the opposite is true) - an engineering ploy designed to disguise the Sportwagon's floppier body. Things are so often not what they seem.
The 156 Sportwagon was still the most elegant of all the sporty quasi-estates, though. The 159 Sportwagon is more substantial than its shapely predecessor (not that rear-seat legroom has improved), so there's the chance of a decent load-bay and the toughness to carry the load.
Cold figures: the new SW has 40 litres more boot space (rear seats in use, load cover deployed) than the saloon, and a massive 85 more litres than the 156 SW. Its front half, of course, is just like the 159 saloon's, and therefore not far removed from the Brera coupé's. Its rear half looks better than the saloon's, I think; the rear side window line is cleaner and more angular and, as the Sportwagon drives away from you, its rear aspect has the squat, stuck-to-the-road look that results from a taut body style and wheels pushed to the edge of their muscular arches.
That the rear window sits slightly proud of its surroundings, with no rubber filler strip, suggests it might open separately as does that of a BMW 3-series Touring. It doesn't; Alfa Romeo's recently-installed CEO, 41-year-old Antonio Baravalle who is wedded to his Blackberry as strongly as he hates it, says it may come in the future. Also on his Sportwagon to-do list is a proper external boot latch.
So, does the Sportwagon cut it as an estate car? Its load space is helped by a rear suspension less encroaching of space than the 156's. The loading sill is much higher than the floor, though, and when you fold the rear seats all that happens is that the backrests rest on top of the cushions forming a step and a shallow incline, not a flat floor.
Not a proper job, then, though it's still a useful load-carrier. And the little window-level cupboards so neat in the 156 boot are carried over to the 159, making storage spaces more useful than the minimal fascia glovebox whose ample door flatters to deceive. So far, then, impressions are mainly good.
The engine range is as for the saloon, with 1.9 and 2.2-litre petrol engines and 1.9 plus 2.4-litre turbodiesels. This last arrives towards the end of the year in the UK, and is a 200bhp, five-cylinder unit. Top of the range is a 260bhp, 3.2-litre V6 mated to a Q4 four-wheel drive transmission, a combination impressive for pace and poise but fairly tragic for fuel economy.
I tried a 2.2 JTS first, and straight away felt differences between it and the saloons I'd tried last year. The steering felt firmer, without the previous excessive lightness; it's more like that of the Brera coupé now, positive and confidence-inspiring.
Also, the smooth-spinning, direct-injection engine feels muscular in the lower-to-middle speed ranges in a way it didn't before; it feels like a big-hearted four-cylinder engine should feel.My test car suffered from a mournful resonance when feathering the accelerator, as if a pigeon was caught under the bonnet and cooing for freedom. A second car suffered similarly; apparently it's a resonance in the petrol return pipe, and will be cured with an extra securing clip. Something for Baravelle to add to the to-do list.
Otherwise the 2.2 is a fine drive, smooth, comfortable, quiet and engagingly agile when aimed through a series of bends. It shows that the Alfa 159 range is indeed a worthy rival to the ubiquitous BMW 3-series.
Feeling positive, and preferring the 159 with squashier 55-profile tyres than with the harsher 50-profile items with their bigger wheels (and mindful that style-conscious buyers will still go for the latter), I climbed into a 3.2 V6 Q4 version (£29,195 in Lusso trim). On the big wheels, of course.
The ride was harsher, true. But the Q4 system, which usually sends more power to the rear wheels than to the fronts, makes for an extra-agile and very rewarding 159. Its ample 260bhp is channelled cleanly to the road with no unseemly wheelspin or tugging at the steering, and the engine is a creamy, revvy, effortless delight.
It's as sonorous as any Alfa V6, despite being an all-new engine with a block sourced from General Motors, and is marred only by the occasional clonks from the transmission. This is a delightful and very rapid, if thirsty car, which has amazing roadholding.
A 159 Sportwagon will cost £1,000 more than the corresponding 159 saloon, and Baravalle is adamant that the UK will be the biggest growth area for his brand. If he's right, this is the car to do it.
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