Alfa Romeo has taken on the sporty saloons of BMW and Audi with its new 166. Readers find out if it was worth it
Though initially I was overwhelmed by its blandness, the more time I spent with the new Alfa Romeo 166 the more I warmed to the whole slender, sleek package. Where the squat and muscular BMW 5-Series is bruising for a fight, the Alfa stands aloof and elegant. An Audi A6 may be more contemporary, the Jaguar S-Type more retro, but I have a feeling the 166 will prove timeless.

What really sets this car apart is its engine, particularly its noise. While Jaguar and Mercedes busy themselves trying to muffle their engines, Alfa, in recognition of its buyer's more sporting appetites, lets its V6 motor crackle and sing, and have spent their time more sensibly eliminating virtually all wind and road noise. This car has better acoustics than Glyndebourne.

The 166 (prices from pounds 23,000 to pounds 35,000) walks the talk, too. It has an extraordinarily wide power band which means you can potter at low revs and then scream up to 7,000rpm in one fluid surge. Trying to steer and stop isn't such fun though. Until perhaps Stephen Hawking or Bill Gates set their mind to eliminating torque steer, the finest brains in the motor industry will continue to struggle to solve the perennial front-wheel drive curse, and the Alfa, "Anti-Slip Regulation" gizmo or not, is still blighted. The brakes, meanwhile, feel dead to the world.

It is certainly made with more care and from finer materials than any Alfa I've ever driven (the chrome door handles are sublime), but there are still glaring flaws. The paintwork on our car was more orange peel than glass, for instance, and the flip-top lid of the dash cubbyhole gave up flipping with my house keys inside it.

Fuel economy is atrocious, the heavy-footed will see only 23mpg, and the interior of the car, at least in the all-black version we tried, is disappointing - more like Jason King's bachelor pad than an executive's express. The 166 is also the least roomy of its class, with especially poor rear leg and head room.

Though quality doubts persist, in the overtly sporty, 150mph 166, Alfa Romeo has surpassed anything else it's made with four doors. If you squint through rose-tinted glasses you'll see that it's almost built a four-door Ferrari. Objectively it is no match for a BMW, which is faster, roomier, has better handling and makes more financial sense. But since when were Alfa Romeos mere objects? n

Road test

If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.

Jenny Rowland

50, lecturer, and

Peter Rowland

51, teacher, from Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. Currently drive a Saab 9000 and a Ford Fiesta

Peter: "This would be great for the long journeys but there's no way I could afford this on my salary. Alfas are a bit flashier than BMWs, which are somewhat passe. It feels well made and manoeuvres well and I'm 6ft 7in but I could still fit in comfortably."

Jenny: "It's quite rolly round corners which isn't so good for nausea. It's a softer ride than our Saab. It looks sporty but it's a pleasant, easy drive. The front looks like the carapace of a lobster. The boot is tiny."

Will Dew

31, conference organiser, from Rugby, Warwickshire. Currently drives a Citroen AX Gti

"It's quite distinctive, as opposed to BMWs - there are a lot of those about. Alfas do have a reputation for being unreliable. That wouldn't stop me buying a new one though; they've made big improvements. The dash is nice and clear and sixth gear is good for relaxed motorway cruising. The steering has a nice weight to it around corners even though it is power-assisted and the seat gives a lot of support under the thighs but not too much around the shoulders. You really have to keep your eye on your speed in this, the performance is pretty good."

Helena Johnson

51, translator and aromatherapist, from Coventry. Currently drives a VW Golf

"My three sons were very envious when I told them I'd be driving this. It's gorgeous, it purrs beautifully. You could easily be clocked for speeding, that would worry me, but it's a real pleasure accelerating up hills. It's really light to drive and much smaller to drive than it looks from the outside. I think the trim is a little boring - I'd have it in blue with grey leather - and the wing mirrors are too small. I've got to have a car with a big boot to take my aromatherapy table and this is big enough but I think if I was spending this much money I'd like a convertible."

Hillary Rackstraw

45, Montessori teacher, and

David Rackstraw

44, solicitor, from Witherley, Leics. Currently drive an Alfa Romeo 155 and a Land Rover Discovery

Hillary: "You couldn't really get three teenage children in the back and the boot is a bit small. It's very sleek, very

responsive, more stylish than a BMW, more of an anti-middle-aged statement, but I don't think that middle- aged men should be allowed cars like this!"

David: "An Alfa is more of an enthusiast's car than a BMW, but it must be more difficult for them to sell a big car like this to enthusiasts. It feels well made and it's a smooth ride but the back is a bit bland."