This coupé was a sensation as a concept car three years ago. The production version fulfils all that promise, and then some. John Simister revels in the power and glory of a classic Alfa

Price: £30,000 approx. On sale April
Engine: 3,195cc, V6 cylinders, 24 valves, 260bhp at 6,200rpm, 237lb ft at 4,500rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive
Performance: Top speed 149mph, 0-60 in 6.6sec, 24.6mpg official average
CO2: 270g/km

It's fun, driving a concept car. They usually don't work properly, but this one does. It gets lots of drop-jawed looks as I drive through northern Italian towns and villages, and it's making me feel all that optimism about the future that a really handsome, clever, daring design should.

There's an especially good reason for optimism, because the Alfa Brera isn't actually a concept car. It's a car you can really buy - or will be able to, in the UK, from early April.

But it looks like a concept car, doesn't it? What with that glass roof and low, mean nose and a shape sculpted beyond all reasonable interpretations of car-design strictures?

Well, it was one, once. The Alfa Romeo Brera was a star of the 2002 Geneva show, but it was created by Giorgetto Giugiaro's Ital Design, not Alfa's own styling centre. Giugiaro hadn't intended it to become a production car, but everyone raved about it - and Alfa needed a replacement for the GTV and Spider.

So the Brera, named after a posh suburb in Alfa's home city Milan, became a proper project. Curiously, the production engineering was carried out by Ital Design's archrival Pininfarina, which builds the new coupé (and the forthcoming Spider convertible) in Turin. The look stays faithful to the concept, though, with the original gullwing doors the only concession to reality.

And what an influential look it has been. After that Geneva show, Alfa Romeo facelifted the 156 with a Brera-like nose. Recently, the company replaced the 156 with the 159 saloon, of which the front part - nose to dashboard - is exactly the same as the Brera's apart from the bumper and lower valance (the Brera has a racier-looking air intake). This, in short, is the new look of Alfa Romeo, with the Brera as the most extreme interpretation.

Look at it. There seem to be six headlights lurking in their recesses beneath the bonnet lip, although the outer lenses actually cover the indicators. At the back are eight more light units, four per side, set in a sea of red-tinted chrome and covered by slender, horizontal lenses. The tail's centrepiece, though, is the Alfa badge that doubles as a handle for the tailgate.

One snag, for a high-image coupé, is that the new platform the Brera shares with the 159 is designed around front-wheel drive. Most rivals have rear-wheel drive, traditionally the layout of choice for such cars because it suggests a greater leaning towards driving pleasure. But much of this is in buyers' minds - few venture on to racetracks, after all - and a good front-wheel drive design can be a lot of fun to drive.

But what happens if you fit a really powerful engine? Will the front wheels cope? The Brera has such an engine in its range - a 3.2-litre direct-injection V6 with variable inlet and exhaust-cam timing and 260bhp - but it's matched to a four-wheel drive system that sends more torque (57 per cent) to the rear wheels than the fronts unless tyre grip dictates otherwise. If that happens, a minimum of 28 or a maximum of 78 per cent can be sent rearwards.

Other engines (front-wheel drive only) are a 2.2-litre, four-cylinder unit with 185bhp, again with direct injection and variable valve timing, and (to arrive later) a muscular 2.4-litre, five-cylinder JTD turbodiesel with 200bhp. All have six-speed manual gearboxes.

The last concept car to make it to production with its character intact was the Audi TT. Sadly, the TT has never been as exciting to drive as to look at. Does the Brera keep its promise?

It does. One press of the V6 Q4's starter button, one blip of its accelerator, and you know there's a soul within. This new V6 engine has much the same rich, delicious burble as past Alfa V6s, but it now has the mid-speed pulling power (and the thirst) to match the high-revs energy. I'm hearing its full repertoire as I zoom round a fine test route at the Alfa Romeo and Fiat test-track at Balocco, between Turin and Milan. The four-wheel drive is working well, too; neither front nor rear wheels seem to be giving up on grip, reminding me of the Subaru Impreza WRX. I can feel the tail give a little flourish out of the corners.

Grip, poise, balance, pace, sound effects - this is the best-driving Alfa in ages, and even better than the 159 V6 Q4 because the meatier steering and greater agility make for a more responsive, more intimate drive.

It's going to be expensive, though, at about £30,000. Most Breras sold will be the 2.2-litre version, likely to cost £25,000 but lavishly equipped with leather upholstery and that glass roof. (There may be an entry-level model later, with a steel roof and cloth trim.) And this 2.2 JTS is the Brera I'm driving in the world of real roads and traffic, heading up into the Alpine foothills.

Now that I'm not trying to extract the max, I can feel the smooth ride that comes from well-judged suspension settings and a rigid, rattle-free structure, and I can luxuriate in the leather and the front-seat space. Rear passengers get a raw deal - bowed heads and squashed knees - but this was never a family car. The rear seats can be folded to add to already generous boot space.

There's a good feeling of quality, with every door and dash surface padded, soft cloth in door pockets, real aluminium on the (rather overbearing) centre console, decent-looking pretend aluminium for the door pulls and other embellishments. Passengers feel excluded, though; the dials are deeply recessed and properly visible only to the driver.

Now, at this more leisurely pace, I sense a numbing rubberiness in the first part of the steering's movement. I also discover that the engine isn't as muscular as I thought. It has to be worked quite hard on hills; if pace is your priority and £25,000 your limit, you'd be better off with a Nissan 350Z.

However, the Brera is quieter and has a more comfortable ride. Don't look for fireworks, feel the subtleties; the Brera moves confidently and points with conviction into a fast corner, the grip continuing even if you steer more tightly. At this point, you can feel the tail helping you through, tautly, tidily. It's a crisp, agile car, fun to drive and never frightening.

The Brera, in fact, is all an Alfa Romeo coupé should be in 2005. A lot of us like the idea of owning an Alfa but fear the reality. Well, this one fulfils the promise.

THE RIVALS

AUDI TT V6
£28,710
Stunning-looking at launch and still striking now, the TT is a surprisingly uninspiring drive. This 250bhp V6 version is the best, though, and has a terrific DSG sequential transmission with smooth, instant shifts.

CHRYSLER CROSSFIRE
£25,995
Another striking looker and shamelessly glitzy, the Crossfire is based on old-model Mercedes SLK V6 underpinnings and is built in Germany. Manual transmission is awful, but there's much character here.

NISSAN 350Z GT
£28,000
WMid-range 350Z has more equipment than £25,500 entry model, but fine 280bhp V6 is common to both. A good-looking, fine-handling, hard-edged driver's car, but like the Chrysler has just two seats.

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