The Verdict: Fuel to the fire

Can a car be both sporty and economical? Alfa Romeo's new 156 has rewritten the rules by making diesel power sexy
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If Damien Hirst had taken to producing delicate water-colours of the Devon countryside, or Michael Owen had jacked in football for a life down the coal mines, the commotion couldn't have been greater. A diesel Alfa Romeo! Had the world gone completely giddy?

That was the UK motoring press response at least, but the real story was not the supposedly sacrilegious transplanting of an oil burning heart to their beloved, free revving sports car (after all, Alfa 155s and 164s have been sold with diesel engines on the continent for years). What they should have been shouting about is that the new-to-this-country 2.4 litre, five cylinder turbo diesel Alfa 156 is actually as good as, if not better than, some of its petrol-powered siblings. Firstly, as most of our testers confirmed, the 156 JTD (from pounds 20,335) sounds like no other Derv donkey on earth. Okay, there is a smidgen of the taxi-cab death rattle if you start the thing from cold, but other than that all is silky smoothness until you demand otherwise. And this brings the second surprise: drive this car as you would any Alfa (stirring the gears, dancing across the pedals, flicking the wheel left and right like freshly-made pizza dough), and it will actually do a passable impression of a `real' Alfa.

From the rorty engine bark, to the zippy pick-up and pert handling, this car has Made In Milan stamped right through the centre. In fact, it deserves to wear the serpent badge far more than most of the cars the company has palmed us off with over the last 20 years. And with a more forgiving ride, far better mid-range torque (all the better to overtake you with, my dear), and of, course fuel economy of 41mpg (compared to the 25mpg of the petrol-engined variant), it is certain to lure diesel virgins who rack up over 15,000 miles a year. Ferrari aside, no other car company has inspired such blind, foundless faith as Alfa Romeo over the years, but at last they are creating genuinely world-beating motor cars. The 156 is already a future classic in terms of its styling and emotional appeal. This new engine should ensure that future engineers will revere it too.

Captions: Max Kingsland, 55, retired sales director, from West Byfleet, Surrey. Currently drives an Audi 80. "If you hadn't told me it was a diesel I wouldn't have known. This is quite high revving for a diesel. It's got much sharper pick up than my car. It's still a long arm/short leg driving position, like all Italian cars, but that wouldn't put me off. I think you really need to do over 18,000 miles a year to justify a diesel, but if you do a lot of stop-start work around town they are good. It's got a nice, light gearbox. Alfas aren't as common as BMWs or Fords, it's a nice alternative for a company car driver who has to have a diesel. The window glass rattles but otherwise it's nicely put together. It could do with a bit more leg space though."

Keith Barnes, 57, gardener, from Woking, Surrey. Currently drives a Renault Traffic Diesel. "It's much quieter than my diesel. I'm an Alfa fan, so I think this is great, it's gorgeous - it's about time Italy gave BMW some competition. I certainly approve of the retro dash - very Italian, and I've got short legs and long arms so I was born to drive it. The only thing I'd wonder about is how many dealers they have left after the Eighties when they were going the same way as Lancia, in Woking our nearest one is 15 miles away. I'm confident enough in the build quality, it feels terrifically well made."

Shan Hughes, 42, management consultant, from New Haw, Surrey. Currently drives a Vauxhall Astra. "It's very sleek and exclusive. The seats are like racing seats, they hold you really tight. There's plenty of head room and the boot is spacious, but the dash trim isn't designed to stay clean. I live in my car so I need plenty of storage space and this is fine. It's good that it has air conditioning. It handles well, it's not too noisy for a diesel although you do hear a bit of noise when you start up. The rear view is more limited than I would like and my sense of symmetry is offended by the number plate. Everything is nice and light. Alfas are a bit out of the ordinary, a bit flash, a poor man's Ferrari. I like the glamour appeal and the fact that it stands out in a crowd, but I'd probably prefer an Audi."

Jane Pettingell, 43, senior manager for London Borough of Richmond, from Kingston, Surrey. Currently carless. "I hate big cars but the size of this is fine. I like the feel of the steering wheel and the dash is nicely laid out. It's actually very smooth for a diesel and the visibility is good. BMWs are boring, I like the idea of Alfa's sportiness but I really need to be able to get a bike in the back or be able to take rubbish down the tip. It just wouldn't suit my lifestyle, I'd also be slightly out of context turning up for work in this. It looks nice, quite flashy, and it's very easy to drive. It's very comfortable on the motorway."