EVERYBODY has been having a bad time recently in the British car market, but Alfa Romeo has suffered more than most. Just when it was getting its sales moving again in this country with the 164 executive saloon, the recession snuffed out that glimmer of hope.

The unsettling effect on dealers of Alfa Romeo's change of ownership in the UK (the Italian company took back its sales and service operation from an independent British distributor) has not helped.

Neither has Alfa's model line- up. The 164 is excellent, both aesthetically and dynamically; but it is hardly the stuff of which big market shares are made. The other models in the 1991 range - the 33, Spider, and 75 - have long passed their sell-by dates; but only the latter has been removed from the shelf.

Taking over from the 75 is the 155. Like its predecessor, this new range competes with Ford Sierra at its bottom end and the BMW 3- series at the top.

A lot is expected of the 155. Alfa wants it to attract new buyers to the make - one that most people regard as slightly quirky and exotic - but also expects it to appeal to the hard-core Alfisti who have bought its products in the past. In common with other manufacturers, Alfa envies the success of the BMW 3-series, a prestige car with a prestige price, which sells in comparatively large numbers. It hopes that the 155 will become a sort of southern European 3-series, with its dash of Italian panache.

The launch advertising for the car certainly pandered to the enthusiast, with a potted pictorial evolution of the make titled Origin of the Species. This seems an odd approach: die-hard Alfa fans may well buy a 155 anyway, and people who had forgotten about Alfa's past - particularly its old reputation for rust and unreliability - probably shouldn't have their memories jogged.

And although the 155's sharp, angular lines are to be commended for their boldness and originality (and for bucking the trend towards homogeneity), they can't compare with those of its predecessors shown in the ads.

The 155's most striking aspect is head-on. When it first thunders up behind you in traffic, you'll probably be struck by how aggressive it looks. Stare a bit longer, and if you were a fan of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, you might spot a resemblance to Marvin the Paranoid Android.

What you can't see is that under its skin the 155 has the same core structure (including the basic layout of its suspension) as the Fiat Tipo and Tempra, and the Lancia Dedra. Alfa is part of the Fiat group, and sharing components in this way dramatically reduces development costs.

Inside, however, all the 155 shares with the Tipo is a colossal amount of interior space, and its multi-function steering column stalks. The cabin is reasonably stylish, but while the quality of some of its plastic fittings (notably the facia) surpass those of the BMW, other bits are very low- rent. How comfortable you will find it depends on whether you're sitting in the front or rear, and what shape you are. Back-seat riders are very well catered for - there's enough width for three adults to sit together without becoming overly familiar.

The front seats, especially in the pounds 19,050, top-spec V6 model tested here, aren't so good. There is electric seat adjustment as a standard fitting, but if your body proportions don't fit the norm, the range of adjustment is inadequate. And if you are broadish across the back and shoulders, the plump side- bolsters of the seats threaten to squeeze you out of them.

Compensation arrives when you start the engine. Sweet-sounding engines are what Alfa is all about, and the 2.5-litre V6 of the 155 delivers from its first revolution. At idle or flat-out it sounds superb, yet on the motorway the noise level and drama go down to a more dignified, soothing level.

A side-effect of the V6's sound qualities is that the car feels faster than it really is - no great disadvantage in the days of speed-limit radar cameras. Still, it's no slowcoach, and there is plenty of power in the mid-range, where you need it most. Use the performance to the full, however, and the fuel economy takes a severe battering: it can dip as low as 20.8mpg.

Sadly, the rest of the car isn't as fabulous as the engine. The electronically adjustable dampers offer either a soft setting, which makes the car too bouncy, or a rock-hard one suitable only for marble-smooth roads. Although fat Pirelli tyres give the V6 excellent roadholding, it is hard to get into a smooth rhythm driving down a demanding stretch of road. It goes round corners well enough, but the bobbing, pitching ride can upset the balance of the car long before you reach the bend. Spongy brakes rob you of the confidence to charge hard towards a corner, and a clumsy gear- change means you sometimes don't accelerate as hard as you might away from one.

But while the 155 V6 may not satisfy the keen driver, its equipment levels should help its cause in the showroom. It has alloy wheels, anti-lock brakes, those wretched electronic dampers, power steering, air-conditioning, headlamp washers, electrically adjusted and heated seats, and powered windows, sunroof and mirrors. And on the average drive around the block, doubtless what you'll notice most is that glorious engine. Which is lucky for Alfa.

(Photograph omitted)

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