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Car reviews - Alfa Romeo - 159 - Ti 2.4 JTDm sedan

Our Opinion

We like
No Selespeed – so idea of the auto is always welcome beautiful styling, cabin ambience, loads of safety features, diesel engine’s rorty performance once on the move unique proposition among luxury-car lemmings
Room for improvement
Unyielding ride, engine noise, relatively space inefficient, squeaky trim, huge turning circle, poor ground clearance

14 May 2009

THE ride is hard, you can barely concentrate on anything other than the five-cylinder turbo-diesel’s guttural roar when cold that sounds as if you’re dragging a plastic sack of broken glass along concrete, the turning circle is more like a turning orbit, and a rustling from somewhere inside the dash at about 90km/h drove us to distraction … yet the Alfa Romeo 159 has finally come good.

Introduced three years ago, the first lot looked brilliant but the whole thing felt underdone.

Back then, our 159 2.2 JTS manual sedan seemed overweight yet undernourished, and suffered from electrical gremlins, just like the Sportswagon 2.4 JTD tested afterwards, which added a sizeable diesel racket and sluggish automatic gearbox response to the mix.

A Mazda6 Diesel wagon also under review at the time showed up the Alfa in virtually every department, so you can imagine how epically disappointed we were. After all, some of us here at GoAuto learnt to drive in Alfas like the 1970s Alfetta.

Now we have the 159 Ti (for Tourism International – how very Peter Stuyvesant of them), and while the Italians have thankfully left the styling well alone except for the inclusion of gorgeous 19-inch multi-spoke alloy wheels as part of a subtle body kit (we love the burnished aluminium-finish door mirror cappings though), a bevy of minor but vital improvements have substantially altered the car underneath.

Not that you will appreciate the sorry lack of spring travel as a result of the 20mm “sports suspension” drop when you crash over a speed hump or scrape your hilly driveway, or the ever-constant busy ride.

On the other hand, aided by nicely weighted steering, the front-wheel-drive 159 Ti 2.4 JTDM sedan changes direction with measurably more agility and poise than before. It stays hunkered down through corners, much like a bobsled, wearing grippy 235/40/R19 rubber shoes ensconcing a fine Brembo brake set-up.

Let’s not get carried away though.

The truth is, a Ford Mondeo – let alone a BMW 3 Series or Mercedes C-class – is dynamically more accomplished and involving. The Ti 2.4 JTDM – like all 159s – still feels too wooden and inert to be classed as a proper sports sedan, lacking the taut body control and supple ride comfort that sets the best ones apart.

Curse Giugiaro for creating such a timeless and athletic design. Next to most rivals, the 159 Ti is George Clooney standing besides Aerosmith, and no contemporary sedan priced south of a Maserati Quattroporte or Aston Martin Rapide can touch it visually.

Under that wonderfully Cyrano de Bergerac bonnet beats a revised version of that hoary old 2.4-litre five-cylinder JTD turbo-diesel.

Improved low-rev response is the new promise for 2009, and this 154kW unit (up from 147kW) certainly delivers better acceleration from standstill. It is now brisk when pulling away normally, and fast after an acceptably short delay if you want to take off in a hurry, with the front wheels coping well with the torrent of torque cascading through them. The 8.4s 100km/h-sprint time claim is entirely believable, as is the 224km/h top speed.

Conversely, we could not really better 11.5L/100km in inner-urban/freeway conditions against the official combined figure of 7L/100km.

Alfa says it has worked on the Aisin six-speed automatic unit to provide smoother and more instantaneous response, especially at lower speeds, and we can certainly vouch for the progress made here. No longer does this ‘Q-Tronic’ gearbox feel as if it is working against – rather than with – the car.

Forget the silly sequential shifter paddles, and don’t bother about putting the selector in ‘Sport’ mode – just ride the tsunami of torque that swells from low engine revs. You’ll find that this is the secret to cutting that diesel din right down as well.

Unfortunately, the racket is still there at start up, but the JTDM unit quietens down to tolerable background chatter levels as it warms up. We are still in two minds about how we feel about this vociferous powerplant – being Alfa traditionalists, we want to hear the motor working away, but – like all five-pot diesels – its warble is not exactly aural ambrosia. More work is needed here, please.

So the Ti 2.4 JTDM’s driving experience, while undeniably better, remains a 159 work-in-progress. Or, in other words, the athletic styling is still writing cheques that the chassis cannot cash.

However, for your $62,990, the interior certainly can.

The Ti treatment sees black leather upholstery and (delightfully) darker aluminium trim surrounding the beautifully redesigned instrumentation. It all looks Italian-fab and very Versace in a world full of plasticky dull Teutonic efficiency.

So it is pleasing that Alfa has managed to sort out the boring but important stuff, with high marks earned for the 159’s driving position and placement of switches and controls.

The fascia design evolves the old 156 look with a large speedo and tacho sited behind a shapely little steering wheel, while ancillary items such as temperature, fuel and turbo-boost gauges are lined up across the upper reaches of the wide centre console.

Flanking these are a trio of air vents above and a logical array of audio and heater/air-con controls below.

First, the bad points: the (very stylish) front seats are great, especially for shorter or stockier frames, offering ample comfort and support as well as (electric) adjustment, but taller folk may find the lack of rear-travel a pain. The lower dash architecture hinders knees and feet.

The back seats are improved, thanks to a reshape that sees them take up less space than before so that, along with the redesigned roof trim, the 159 sedan is now (slightly) roomier in the rear.

But the smallish rear door apertures and low-ish roof still mean there is not a ton of area for larger bodies to luxuriate in – although the five-berth 159 runs rings around a (four-seater only) VW Passat CC here.

Rear vision is not great either, and it seems all too easy to scuff those beautiful alloys while parking.

Unfortunately we were unable to test if Alfa has improved the previously feeble air-conditioning’s performance on the latest version, but the heating and ventilation worked well in the cooler climate we drove it in, as did the standard heated front seat cushions.

What the 159 Ti offers is an alluring and pampering alternative to the Passat CC’s ‘stylised cool’ look, with the Alfa’s abundance of hide and metal inserts, and design uniformity. You won’t find any clashing colours, ill-matched trim or dodgy afterthoughts here, just luxury, Italian-style. It really does feel special.

Unlike previous 159s, the latest versions have a single-action starter button (hooray!), a rear badge that doubles for an electric boot release VW-style, an easy and functional Bluetooth phone functionality and a USB connection in the (small) glovebox, proving that the Milanese-based company has been listening to press criticism over the years.

Speaking of criticism, few vehicles have stirred up debate as much as the 159 Ti 2.4 JTDM has in our office.

Everybody agrees that the latest Ti is a welcome improvement over the pre-’09 159s (there were earlier Ti iterations from 2007).

And few could argue that a better-looking rival exists.

But the JTDM is still annoyingly loud and the ride is plain hard.

Furthermore, some complained that the steering was not sharp enough and too prone to kickback, the packaging was still flawed (especially in the back seat area), the build quality was inconsistent and there was not enough ground clearance – which, collectively, all served as a 159 Ti deal-breaker.

We believe that if you are not long and lanky, drive on mostly smooth surfaces or use the open road regularly (where this car shines – they ought to have called it the Grand Turismo), and learn to drive the 159 diesel with low throttle openings to make the most of that torrent of torque while conserving fuel as well as the peace, then the Alfa’s compelling attractions make it good value.

After all, cars that spark emotion or debate rather than send you into apathy are becoming increasingly rare, and the stunning, sumptuous, secure, safe and powerful 159 Ti 2.4 JTDM sedan happily obliges.

As we said, even with the hard ride and loud diesel, the ’09 improvements means that the 159 has come good at last.

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