The 2005 Alfa Romeo 159 had a tough act to follow in the delightful 156. We examine how it fared.
The 1997 Alfa 156 was the first Alfa Romeo for many years that was greeted with near-universal praise for its styling. The company’s designers had spent the previous couple of decades playing with their geometry sets and producing rectilinear designs that were, to say the least, rather challenging in their appearance.
Under the styling leadership of Walter de Silva at Centro Stile Alfa Romeo, the designers of the 156 looked further back into the company’s past and produced a shape that was organic, lithe and sinuous, one that was regarded by many Alfisti as the most authentic expression of the marque’s qualities in years.
Those alluring looks did not come without some penalty, in this case limited accommodation for passengers and their luggage(1) and that old Alfa Romeo bugbear, poor reliability. Premature cambelt and tensioner failures were common on the Twin-Spark engines, forcing the company to halve the replacement intervals to 36k miles (60k km). This failure could be catastrophic, but there were numerous other less serious issues that turned fleet buyers and warranty providers against the 156, which was often found at the bottom of reliability surveys.
When designing the replacement for the 156, Alfa Romeo wanted to mount a much more serious assault on the compact premium market, dominated by the German premium trio. The new Alfa, to be called the 159, would be larger and more robust, to meet the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class head-on.
Walter de Silva had been lured away from Alfa Romeo in 1999 by Volkswagen Group CEO, Ferdinand Piëch, so Giorgetto Giugiaro at Italdesign, who had penned the 2003 facelift of the 156, was again commissioned to design the 159. It would be one of a trio of new models sharing similar styling features, the other two being the 2005 Brera and 2006 Spider.
Giugiaro produced a design that was strikingly smooth and handsome, with sheer, unadorned surfaces and a highly distinctive front end. This comprised a deep Alfa Romeo shield grille, either side of which were recessed air intakes, each containing what appeared to be three small cylindrical projector-style headlamps(2). A fourth similarly sized fog light was contained in the lower valance. As with the 156, the shield front grille necessitated an offset mounting for the front number plate.
The 159 saloon was unveiled at the Geneva motor show in March 2005, with the Sportwagon estate version unveiled at the same event a year later. The new model was 230mm (9”) longer, 85mm (3¼”) wider and with a wheelbase that had grown by 105mm (4¼”) over its predecessor. The 159 also weighed a substantial 160kg (353 lbs) more than the 156.
The extent of the growth in size and weight was not, however, fully intended. Under an alliance signed in 2000(3), Fiat and General Motors agreed to co-develop a new premium front / four-wheel-drive E-segment platform for both automakers. From Fiat Auto’s perspective, the platform was originally intended for a proposed replacement for the 166 large saloon. When this was canned, Alfa Romeo instead repurposed the platform for the 159, to salvage something from its investment(4).
Where the 156 had been pretty and lithe, the 159 was a handsome and substantial looking car, both in saloon and Sportwagon variants. The interior and dashboard still sported traditional Alfa Romeo design cues like the deeply recessed instruments, but there was a noticeable improvement in both material quality and fit.
Car Magazine tested the 159 in top of the range Ti trim with a 2.4-litre five-cylinder diesel engine in December 2007. This engine produced maximum power of 207bhp (154kW). It was good for a claimed 0 to 100km/h (62mph) time of 8.2 seconds and a top speed of 143mph (210km/h). Petrol engine options(5) for the Ti variant comprised a 2.2-litre four-cylinder unit producing 182bhp (136kW) or a 3.2 litre V6 producing 256bhp (191kW). The smaller petrol engined model reached 100km/h (62mph) in 8.8 seconds, the larger in 7.1 seconds. The option of 4WD was available on the diesel and V6 petrol models and carried a weight penalty of 60kg (132 lbs).
The reviewer was impressed with the 159’s handsome, chiselled looks, embellished in Ti trim with 19” multispoke alloy wheels and a body kit. Inside, leather sports seats, aluminium trim and a “sexy bank of instruments facing the driver” created an appropriately sporting ambience.
Unfortunately, the handling and ride mix fell short of the 159’s arch rival, the BMW 3-Series. It was summarised as follows: “The steering is nicely weighted and suitably pointy but not great at communicating, and the ride, which is firm at all times, can be a little unsettled.” Performance and economy also suffered because of the car’s hefty weight: “[The 159] never feels much quicker than a 40bhp less powerful BMW 320d on the road, a car that actually manages to hit 62mph 0.3sec ahead of the Alfa. The BMW is also likely to turn in fuel consumption figures 10mpg better than the 41.5mpg Alfa claims for the .” Overall, the 159 was rated at three stars (out of five) and praised for its excellent value. At a list price of £25,400 it was £1,680 cheaper than a BMW 318d M-Sport(6).
Alfa Romeo was aware of the criticism of the 159’s excess heft and in 2008 re-engineered a number of components to reduce the kerb weight by around 45kg (99 lbs). Fuel economy concerns were addressed with the introduction of two new engines in 2009. One was a 1,742cc turbocharged petrol engine, badged 1.75 TBi, with direct injection and variable valve timing. This engine produced maximum power of 197bhp (147kW). It achieved overall fuel economy of 37mpg (7.63L/100km) and CO2 emissions of 189g/km. The claimed 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time and top speed for this model were 7.7 seconds and 146mph (235km/h). Auto Express magazine described the new engine as follows: ”Refinement is first class, and if there is a criticism, it’s that the engine lacks the character associated with Alfa’s old units.”
For company car users, a competitive diesel variant was a priority and the second new engine for 2009 was an inline-four 1,956cc diesel, badged 2.0 JTDM 16V, producing 168bhp (125kW). The claimed 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time and top speed for this model were 8.8 seconds and 135mph (218km/h). Overall fuel economy was 52mpg (5.43 L/100km). A lower powered version of this engine producing 134bhp (100kW) would follow a year later.
The 159 received some trim and specification changes over its lifetime, but the exterior styling remained untouched. This might have been because Alfa Romeo regarded the design as difficult, if not impossible, to improve upon, but a more likely, if pessimistic explanation was that the car’s modest sales did not justify such an investment.
The 159 remained on the market for six years, during which time a total of around 240,000 were sold. This compared poorly with its predecessor’s sales of around 680,000 over a decade from 1997 to 2007. A plan to re-enter the U.S. market with the 159 was abandoned. Production ceased because the Pomigliano d’Arco plant where it was built needed to be retooled to build the current Fiat Panda and it wasn’t considered worthwhile to shift 159 production elsewhere.
The 159 was another ‘nearly’ car for Alfa Romeo. It was very handsome, better built than the 156, if still no paragon of quality, but was hobbled by its excess weight, which blunted its performance, handling and fuel economy. Although it was, objectively, a better car, it never managed to win the hearts of the Alfisti like its predecessor. That said, time has been kind to the 159 and it still looks as fresh and handsome today as it did at launch in 2005.
(1) Oddly, the 156 Sportwagon estate had 20 litres less boot space up to window level with the rear seats in place than the saloon, 360 litres versus 380 litres.
(2) The centrally located one of the three lamps actually contained the turn indicator.
(3) In 2000, Fiat Auto and General Motors had agreed a share swap whereby GM took a 20% stake in Fiat, in exchange for which Fiat received a 6% stake in GM and a ‘put’ option to sell the remaining 80% to GM in 2005. The alliance soured and GM paid Fiat over £1bn to cancel the option (and avoid being forced to buy the remaining 80% of Fiat).
(4) GM fared even worse out of the joint-venture and only used the platform for one concept car before replacing it with its own Epsilon II design.
(5) Smaller petrol and diesel engine options were available with lower trim levels.
(6) Although it is unlikely that this would translate into a lower monthly PCP / leasing charge, given the greater expected depreciation on the 159.