An Alfa Less Loved

The 2005 Alfa Romeo 159 had a tough act to follow in the delightful 156. We examine how it fared.

2006 Alfa Romeo 159. Image: pruebatucoche.es

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.

2007 Alfa Romeo 159 Sporfwagen. Image: car-info.com

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.

2007 Alfa Romeo 159 interior. Image: topspeed.com

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 [159]. 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).

2006 Alfa Romeo 159.  Image: autodius

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.

2006 Alfa Romeo 159.  Image: The RAC

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

46 thoughts on “An Alfa Less Loved”

  1. The 159 was a car very much in the Alfa tradition of building Alfas for people that wouldn’t buy an Alfa in the first place. It improved upon the 156 in areas that weren’t top priority for Alfisti but it was much worse than the old car were it was most important. The fuel engines in particular were a big disappointment. The Opel-sourced 2.2 was gutless and unreliable, the Holden-derived 3.2 from a driver’s perspective was inferior to its ‘Busso’ predecessor in every aspect except production costs and that it initially only was available with AWD didn’t help its agility and efficiency/fuel consumption. The 159 was the first Alfa with a diesel engine as the most attractive option.

    Personally I never liked the 159’s design which I always thought (and still do) looked as heavy and overweight as the car actually was and had some silly gimmicks like the rear lights (I also never liked the ‘yoghurt pots on a shelf’ front lights).

    But honour to whom it’s due, the 159 might not have been particularly agile or sporty but it had very secure road manners. There was a ‘giant test’ of a German magazine with a slalom. The 159 was the fastest car by far and still looked very controllable and the exact opposite of the BMW Three which was significantly slower and gave the impressoin that the driver was trying to ride an alligator that had caught a bullet.

    1. “The 159 was a car very much in the Alfa tradition of building Alfas for people that wouldn’t buy an Alfa in the first place,” sayeth Dave. But isn’t there a fairly obvious problem with this statement? For Alfa Romeo to have designed and built cars to appeal purely to Alfisti was not a viable business model, then or now. Part of the rationale behind the 159 was to produce a car which would have a broader appeal. Alfas were perceived as being fragile. Okay, build a more substantial car. Alfas were perceived as being unreliable. Try to make a more durable motor car. Nobody had a problem with the 156’s styling, so the 159 was very much an evolution of that theme.

      The reasons that people wouldn’t buy an Alfa over the German opposition was factored upon perception as well. The established leaders were considered a safe ownership bet, while Alfa Romeo, largely owing to past reputation and ongoing poor representation at sales and aftersales levels were not. Alfas also depreciated precipitously.

      The 159 was an attempt to address some of these issues, but product alone was not going to shift perceptions. Had the 159 retained the Twin Spark engines (uprated and debugged) and been a bit lighter on its feet it might have appealed more to the Alfisti element, but it would have made not a jot of difference. Why? Because so many former Alfisti were no longer willing to submit themselves to the Alfa Romeo dealership experience, no matter how well executed the product might have been.

      Personally, I consider the 159 to be a superb design. I recall being a little disappointed by its evolutionary nature when it first emerged – the fact that it looked a bit steroidal compared to the 156 – like a chap who has gone a bit overboard in the gym. But with the passage of time, I now consider it to be more attractive car than its predecessor. I still see a few around here and they always turn my head. For a front-driven saloon of its size, the proportions are superb. I think Giugiaro did a very good job there. (As he did with the original 156 as well….)

      A friend of mine ran a 2.4 litre diesel Sportwagon for a couple of years and had nothing but praise for it. It replaced a 156 TS.

      An Alfa for people who wouldn’t buy Alfas? They made lots of those. The 159 was amongst the least of them.

    2. My experience of the most vocal Alfisti on the internet is that they all buy their Alfas when they are 8 years old, cost two and tuppence, and they do their own spannering or take it to a local independent garage. As a marque I think Alfa Romeo is challenged only by the Land Rover Defender for the noisiness of fans who would never, under any circumstances whatsoever, buy a brand new car anyway.

      The Mito and Giulietta are cars that the internet Alfisti hate but owners seem to love, and could have formed part of a long term strategy to bring buyers into your “brand” and then upsell them into models higher up the range, as the German companies manage so effectively, if only FCA had an attention span longer than that of a toddler who subsists entirely on a diet of blue smarties and Irn Bru.

      Ultimately the attempt to bring in conquest sales was not effective, failing in execution more than concept I feel because the rationale behind trying to do so was absolutely sound. Building a car that only appears to a naturally diminishing pool of existing customers leads to such follies as the Rover 75.

    3. David Edney: that´s a wretched state for a brand. People buy Fords and BMWS and Toyotas brand new and that´s where those companies find their income. Every second hand car has to be bought new once, after all. Who do those passionate Alfisti think is taking the depreciation hit if almost nobody wants one new?

  2. I found the 159 a disappointment after the entrancing 156, but looking at it now it just looks like a very nicely done Alfa saloon. I like the six-lamp effect at the front (if a little ‘on the nose’), but agree the rear is weaker on the saloon at least. It does look more substantial/ heavier, depending on whether one is prejudiced for or against, and I think that’s what I missed compared with its (original) forebear (the facelifted 156 was neither fish nor foul); the delicacy and sense of compactness has gone.

    As I have said before, I remember sitting in one in a showroom in Hitchin, mentally comparing it with my then Legacy and thinking it more stylish but also a lot more expensive and lacking in the sense of engineering thought one gets with a Subaru (knowing that much of the drive-train and basic platform was shared with GM). Hence, I also feared that it would prove less reliable than the robust Subaru. I have the odd pang of regret about it, but not for long; the Subaru remains a car that I wish I could have kept.

  3. First off, thank you Daniel, Eoin and DTW team for featuring the 159. I have been looking forward to this for a long time.

    I believe the 159 design to be one of the best resolved, least flawed three-box saloon designs of the last 20 years. It’s so restrained in its surfacing and detailing, yet somehow manages to look purposeful and aggressive without shouting about it or resorting to gimmicks. Perfect stance, too. It straddles the line between Prestige and Sporting idioms perfectly. It’s only weakness is in the dead-side-on view, where the long pointy front overhang is exposed. But that is a view one almost never sees in practice.

    My 159 Ti’s appearance was much admired by friends, throughout my tenure. Parked alongside BMW 3s and A4s, it never failed to steal the show. I thought that Alfa were really onto something with the triple front light face. It was a chance to create a unique and interesting identity. I was sorry to see it never went further than the Brera and 159. I guess I prefer Alfa faces where the lateral grilles either side of the central shield are level with its top, rather than with its bottom, as on the current Giulia, or the dreadful Mito and Giulietta. The regular “T” shape that results is more satisfying and dynamic than the inverted “T” those cars have. I am glad to see that it looks like Alfa may have twigged to this and will be bringing it back with the Tonale.

    As a car, my 159 was exemplary. Nothing fell off, or went wrong, in all the time I had it. It didn’t rattle at all. I was expecting far worse! It was an enjoyable drive, with solid, precise steering, little body roll and a decent ride, considering it was running 19″ wheels and low profile tyres. The 5 cylinder diesel was a hoot – a lovely irregular beat, and massively torquey. I’d had mine chipped to 250bhp and 480Nm. I took it all over Europe and it never missed a beat. As a second hand prospect, it’s tremendous value. Style, quality and fun in equal measure for very reasonable outlay. Just one downside : fuel consumption. It’s not an ideal town car, and it’ll drink quite heavily (barely over 20mpg), but out on open roads and motorways you can confidently double that figure.

    1. Good morning Ric. Happy to oblige, especially as the 159 is also a favourite of mine, as is the Brera:

      I think Giugiaro really hit the spot with these cars. Yes, the front overhang was extreme, but that’s part of the character, in my eyes. It’s just a shame that they didn’t do better in the market. Imagine if any contemporary Audi looked as good, it would have flown out the showroom doors!

    2. There´s a good reason inverted t-shapes look wrong. It´s the essence of the face, upside down. Human are sensitive to t-shapes from birth. Inverting it was nuts.
      I suppose there aren´t enough fans of angular cars like me. The 155 is a car I´ve always enjoyed looking at, in whichever version. When I started drawing cars it was the 75 I focused on. Yes, it´s strange yet it has bags of character. The upkickd boot and plastic trim gave it a clear identity.
      Nice as the 159 is, I find it bordering on bland. It´s a bit too smooth. Maybe that´s the (manqué) car designer in me. I like a bit of strangeness and off-beat in a design. The same goes for the Giulia. It´s still good though however I couldn´t imagine wanting one as it has a whiff of Ferrari about it whereas a top-spec Insignia or Mondeo seem to me to be more comfortable propositions. That said, it´s very obvious to me why one might like either car a lot.

    3. Hi Richard. Regarding angular cars, I think it’s more nuanced than simply liking or disliking them as a whole. I’ve always really liked the Alfa Romeo 90, but hated the 75. The 90 looks crisp and coherent to my eyes:

      whereas the 75 looks fussy, disjointed and dissonant:

      With the latter, there’s way too much going on with the bodysides and the abrupt upward break being the rear doors makes it look likes it has been rear-ended. The pointless plastic garnish running the length of the bodysides at waist level looks like an attempt to disguise really poor junctions at the base of the A and C-pillars Horrible!

      Other opinions are, of course, available!

    4. “I believe the 159 design to be one of the best resolved, least flawed three-box saloon designs of the last 20 years.” Quote
      Make that ‘last 50 years’….

    5. Ditto on the 159: something of an anticlimax when introduced as it seemed on the bland side after the original 156 and the weight issues were widely reported from the start, but it has aged spectacularly well. The 156 held its own against the usual premium suspects by being infinitely prettier, the 159 by being just as substantial as said competition, yet still prettier. Such a great looking car, imagine Fiat having the balls to develop the Giorgio platform in the late ‘nineties and sticking Giugiaro’s design on top of that… History might have played out differently and the Brera might have had the proportions it deserved.

      In other Alfa news, Alfa has just introduced the Alfa Romeo GT Junior… tribute model. With a lithe, delicate coupé not handy in their line up, they picked the next most likely candidate: the Stelvio (ahem). They even shot some nice pictures of the Stelvio GT Junior Edition Thingy and the original next to each other… with predictable results (image: autoweek.nl).

      The original GT Junior also nicely shows off the “T” shape and its effectiveness. The Stelvio and Giulia could have benefitted from such a look, along these lines:

      Sorry for the late reaction, by the way, I usually read DTW late in the evening to wind down from the day and mitigate the existential horror of watching the news. I don’t always have the wherewithall to post a comment immediately.

    6. Tom V: Thanks for this. A late addition I’m afraid. Just discovered, covered in detritus from the spam folder. A quick wipe down and here we are.

      Oh dear. The marketer who came up with wheeze this really ought to be made to fall on their own scudetto. Or get eaten by a snake…

  4. One reason that the 159/Brera front end wasn’t continued as a theme is that the aero numbers that resulted were diabolical; this was a contributing factor as to why the fuel economy of 159s and Brera is generally poor even if you drive like a saint with feet of feathers and helium.

    1. The 159 also got 1 star pedestrian impact for the Euro N CAP test. Oh dear.

  5. @stradale The Cd figure I’ve seen for the 159 is 0.325. Not great, but not poor either. According to the denizens of various Alfa forums, the headlight arrangement isn’t as bad aerodynamically as one might expect. The wells fill up with stagnant high-pressure air, effectively acting like a glass cover, forcing the new incoming air up and over the bonnet. My engine (the 2.4 5 cylinder diesel) was well known as a gas-guzzler. I also had a QTronic gearbox, which upped the consumption. However, other models are much more economical (in as far as any Italian cars ever are).

    @Richard As for the Euro NCAP pedestrian rating, the equivalent BMW 3 series and Audi A4 also got only 1 star. We expect better these days, I suppose. But I’d need to look up some of today’s SUV behemoths to be sure of how well they rate. My instinct tells me that they probably do just as badly.

    1. Didn’t those NCAP ratings come after the regime had been given a rigorous tightening up of standards? I am pretty sure that a number of cars were re-tested and rated. I think that the only way a car can get close to 5-stars these days is for them to be over-loaded with annoying ‘crash-avoidance driving aids, like ‘lane assist’ and that super-annoying (but potentially life-saving) one which slams the brakes on if suddenly confronted with an obstacle (it’s annoying because it seems to go ‘off’ for no reason at all on some cars I have driven, like the Peugeot 308). Interesting, Dacia recently publicly stated that it won’t be chasing NCAP stars by adding expensive electronic systems like those aforementioned because their customers see them as unnecessary and would rather have a cheaper car which at least performs well in crash-tests.

  6. Daniel: I won´t try to dissuade you and I can see why you react to the 75 the way you do. Some of my fondnes is nostalgia though most of it is a liking for the features you dislike. I view the 75 as a whole and so the creases merge into the overall volumes. Thanks for showing us the 90 again – it´s a real charmer and, yes, neater than the 75. My imaginary car museum must include the 90 but the chance of imaginarily finding one as lushly shiny as the one in the photo are slim. One might almost consider a touring holiday set up around a schedule of rare cars to test. If you were lucky you could do one every couple of days. It would be a rather fun kind of trip!

    1. Hmm, I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Richard. What is it they say about never meeting your heroes? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 90 in the metal, so rare were they in the UK. I have seen the 75 though, so I’m sure I hate it!

  7. The good thing about the 159, for me at least, is that the basic shape is rather nice. From there things start to get worse. The front overhang is way too long which makes it look heavy. The Giulia doesn’t have this issue. I drove the 159 as soon as it came out and was disappointed. It felt really heavy, the gear change didn’t feel right and the driving position wasn’t great. I can’t recall which version, but I think it was a 4 cylinder petrol.

  8. Even though the following is only slightly connected to the 159 and collaboration between GM and Fiat, to what extent was the former still handicapped by the aggressive unending cost-cutting of Jose Ignacio Lopez that appeared to severely undermine GM Europe’s ability to trend in a more (late-1990s+) Ford Europe-like direction of producing dynamically accomplished cars?

    It seems like GM Europe and Fiat were (along with PSA) producing dynamically inferior cars during the time of their collaboration, however it probably would not have been bad from the perspective of Fiat/Alfa/etc had the platforms GM Europe helped develop with Fiat were competitive with what Ford of Europe were producing (unless much of the blame can be pinned on Fiat). Would love to know which figures were to blame for the decline of both Fiat and PSA’s fortunes during the late-90s to early-00.

    The 159 and Brera/Spider are visually appealing, yet its heft, roots as an E-Segment platform to possibly replace the 166 and competitiveness against its rivals diminish their overall appeal.

    1. That is a super question, Bob. VW should be very glad Lopez went off to wherever he did. If I recall correctly, GM quality in the US nosedived. The general decline in dynamics must have been an industry trend. I wonder if there was market research to back that up though? It ruined Peugeot for me. I probably would not consider buying a new one.

    2. One of the books in my slush pile to read is by Arnold O’Byrne, who headed up Opel Ireland during the period of GM’s quality nose-dive. I’ve only glanced through it yet, but his frustration with GM senior management is evident. I might consider writing a review/account of it when I get to it if enough of the content looks likely to interest DTW readers. (There’s rather a lot about the Irish soccer team as well, which is a bit of a niche!)

    3. Michael: If you feel there is enough of an article there, I would be happy to consider it.

    4. richard herriott

      In Peugeot’s case seem to recall of renowned engineer or few that were involved in the company’s greatest hits under Gerard Welter’s helm during the 1970s to early-1990s, only to retire roughly prior to genesis of the Peugeot 206 project that heralded Peugeot’s dynamic decline.

      Recently found out about Jose Ignacio Lopez from a Vauxpedia article on the development of the Corsa B, where GM Europe was forced to carry over the GM4200 platform instead of developing a newer more dynamically competitive one.
      http://vauxpedianet.uk2sitebuilder.com/vauxhall-gm4200-s93—corsa-b-part-1

    5. Bob: thanks for that. That would make Peugeot´s loss of form rather unfortunate and un-necessary. If senior management had cared about the corporate knowledge they´d have insisted on a transfer of experience. Although some knowledge is implicit, a lot of good can be done by codifying the wish to achieve certain results. “Although Jacques and Jean-Paul are retiring, let´s ensure we find a way to keep our chassis standards high and close to Peugeot norms”. Evidently the didn´t do that. The 406 has Peugeot magic; I see the loss as occurring afterwards at the 307, 407, 207 phase.
      Well done Ignacio- he imported from the US the kind of rubbish cost-saving methods that cost hugely. I bet he was a rather unpleasant person, focused on the bottom line and not on the human factors. A good working relationship is essential for a supplier to go the extra mile. If you bilk them they end up losing the will to bother. What a dunderhead. In the end, it´s not bare finances and cold steel that matters but humans working with humans to do their best. Lopez-like people don´t realise that.

    6. Jean Baudin has been cited as Peugeot’s Chef de Suspensions during their peak, contrast that with Renault building upon its success and Ford’s remarkable turnaround during the mid/late-1990s. Not sure who was the closest equivalent Fiat/Alfa Romeo had to Jean Baudin during the 1980s to 1990s as it was a bit hit and miss dynamically depending on the model prior to the Fiat Stilo where they completely lost the plot.

      https://www.aussiefrogs.com/forum/index.php?threads/pug-suspension-an-interview-with-jean-baudin.111621/

  9. Off topic (as the main interest is in the aesthetics of the 159) why on Earth would GM have agreed to the put option? There can’t have been anything in it for them at all.

    1. The whole 159 saga is frustrating, not least because it’s hard to regret that a Saab on this platform never happened. It sounds so much better suited to Saab’s – or indeed to Opel’s – brand values than to Alfa’s.

  10. I think in this context that GM was a symptom, while the problem was that Gianni Agnelli: once a great leader, stayed long after his acuity was diminished and failed to engineer his succession properly. When the business faltered there was a talent exodus, banishment of the carrozzeria, de Silva leaves, the loyal and accomplished Paolo Canterella falls on his sword, storied engineers like Giacosa and Busso fade into history. Into the vacuum steps a lesser Agnelli, his younger brother Umberto. The rudderless, ill advised GM partnership is convenient financially, so is the black jumpered big talker who played the fashionable shareholder value game, destined only to posthumously deliver the ultimate promise of his derogatory nickname “Mergio”.

    The 159 and Brera remain a testament to how great this dying empire once was, while the nuova 500 and Giulia prove that even a broken clock reads correctly twice a day, or in this case a broken empire.

    GM was already a broken empire when the Fiat deal was forged. How could Agnelli not have noticed how GM was failing with Saab, Saturn, and it’s ongoing vainglorious, though at least valorous quest to restore some semblance of true prestige to Cadillac, not to mention that they couldn’t seem to turn a profit with Opel. Do gamblers who carry heavy debts bet on losers, obviously the “put option” was a way to beat the odds and at least deliver a well-timed cash infusion, but who would be charged to adminsiter it? Did Agnelli really perform his due diligence here, or was he even competent at this point to do so. I still hold him in high regard for his former achievements, and as for the likes of Canterella and de Silva and others whose talents departed the empire: their careers continued to shine, but what a shame how Fiat ended up bereft of what it had accomplished for the previous forty years, not the financial largesse of the empire, but the powerful magnetism that attracted notable talent which kept it relevant and present in the hearts and minds of consumers and enthusiasts even in markets where its bread and butter brands remained absent for decades.

    One advantage of a social entity like a business that runs on process rather than diktat of a single personality is that it can at least endure the loss of a charismatic leader. Enzo Ferrari at least had the prescience to lay plans relatively early in his life to ensure his labour of love could outlive him. By contrast, most other 20th century Italian automotive impresarios such as deTomaso, Nuccio Bertone, and the most powerful Italian automotive giant of all, Gianni Agnelli failed to secure the long term futures of their empires. So while hapless red-tape encumbered GM, being relatively decentralized somehow still endures as an independent entity (for now), the storied Fiat empire is no more, I blame the selfish shortsightedness of one tragically flawed hero. At least all the brand names he shepherded remain alive and valued. Long may they live.

    1. A very thoughtful and eloquently expressed contribution, with much to reflect upon. Thank you gooddog.

  11. Four years and five months…

    The period of time between the end of 159 production, and the availability of the Type 952 Giulia. Solid Fiat Charter stuff, from the myriad chapters about abandoning market sectors in which rivals are doing better, or sometimes just for no reason at all.

    Was Stabilimento Giambattista Vico – as we must learn to call the Neapolitan Linwood – so small or inflexible that it couldn’t accommodate a line to turn out about 500 Alfas a week, as well as the Pandas deported against their will from Poland in exchange for Italian state handouts?

    Panda 319 production has never bettered 200,000 per annum; the Tychy-built 169 peaked just short of 300,000 in 2009. Pomigliano D’Arco’s production capacity was stated as 1000 per day at the Alfasud’s introduction.

    My contention is that if Alfa’s parent had invested modestly in continuing 159 production, its successor would have an easier time. Those who wanted a new 159 after 2011 and found none were available went elsewhere. Many found elsewhere was a good place to be, and were in no hurry to return.

    I suspect darker reasons for the 159’s premature demise, mainly related to GM IP, and the terms of GM and Fiat Auto’s separation.

    1. Robertas: That’s an acute observation. You may well be correct as regards intellectual property – wasn’t there a similar issue with GM’s IP regarding the end of line Saab 9.5? What I do recall from the time was that there was no sales collapse which might have precipitated axing the 159. Factories were being idled, owing to the debt crisis across the Eurozone, which may have been bandied about as a rationale as well, for all I know. Sergio was up to all sorts at the time anyway, so I imagine his left hand had trouble keeping tabs on his right at the best of times.

      Whether anyone will ever be in a position to unravel this period in Fiat Auto’s history is anyone’s guess. I suspect the actual story is a lurid one.

  12. So much to read here, and as a former owner of a 33, 75, 156 and currently 159 Ti, so much I could say! For now I will content myself with one of my favourite 159 angles which isn’t seen as often. Giugiaro is easily my favourite designer and what he and the team achieved with this car is one of his peaks I think. The blunt crop of the nose and the tail makes the car look like a precision instrument – I never tire of looking at it. I’m also very fond of my younger daughter in the front seat, of course.

    1. Good morning Matt. That is just delightful! I would never tire of looking at your 159 if I was lucky enough to own it. Good to hear from a real, committed Alfisto who rates the 159 highly against its predecessors. Long may you continue to enjoy it.

  13. Oops, forgot to mention my 147 and 116GTV. I’m one of the Alfa nuts mentioned upthread who buy them ~ 3rd hand very cheap, and can live with the flakiness for the joy and character. I freely admit the 159 is a tub of lard and doesn’t feel like a true Alfa (probably the 75 with that V6 was the peak, or the dynamics of the 2.0 GTV) but I needed a reliable tourer after my 156 blew a big end bearing in 35 degree heat and had to be towed 200km. The 1750 TBi engine makes a weird characterless fizzing noise BUT has a deep reserve of torque which starts early and keeps on coming, the car is absolutely rock steady under power and it stops very quickly with no fidgeting. I’ll find something better one day (presumably a 3rd hand Giulia) but it’s been a great car with just the normal amount of drama for a ten year old sports sedan.
    And thanks Daniel, I vicariously enjoy your Porsche love as well! Great writing.

    1. and Robert yes the nose does look like a bird, but this bird:

      Feel free to find a comparable shot of a seagull!

  14. How much of an improvement, handling-wise, was the Prodrive fettled Brera S, and, was it possible and affordable to bring that set up over to the 159? With the improved handling and a rationalized range, I don’t see why the 159 couldn’t have been kept in production another four years to ensure AR had an offering in the segment until the arrival of the Giulia. I’m inclined to agree with Robertas that something related to the GM alliance breaking up ultimately did the 159 in. Perhaps GM simply decided against continuing to give Fiat a sweetheart deal on IP royalty payments without which the numbers didn’t add up.

    Also, it seems odd that Fiat didn’t try to amortize the costs of development of the Premium platform by building a 166 successor off of it, especially as it originated as an E-segment car. Not to mention a pair of Lancias to replace the Lybra and Thesis. Of course, that line of reasoning would also apply to the current Giorgio platform.

    1. It was part of the divorce of the GM-Fiat joint venture that GM paid for the development of the platform and Fiat got the rights. There was nothing to amortize on the part of Fiat of Alfa.
      The 159 never even remotely reached the sales numbers of its predecessor and at the end itsnumbers were so low that it would have made no sense to keep it in production any longer.

    2. Fiat must have spent money on the Premium platform during its development. Did GM reimburse them in addition to the billion to put the put option to bed? And then there’s the cash spent on tooling up P d’A. So there was at least that to amortize.

      Sales were astonishingly disappointing, especially relative to the success of the 156. But it outsold the 155 which was competing in an era before the German big three had cemented their dominance. And looking at Alfa’s sales performance in the segment, they were on a downward trajectory from 2000 on.

    3. After 156 production was at full steam from early 1998 yearly its sales numbers were a consistent 95,000 untiĺ 2001. From 2001 to 2004 it sold about 55,000 and then numbers faded away. 159 numbers never were better than 65,000.
      Alfa’s problem was that they’d screwed the company car fleet leasing market thanks to the non-service of their dealers. Initially large leasing companies like ALD or LeasePlan -Germany’s main providers of corporate leasing contracts – had the 156 on their list of user chooser offerings.
      BMW reacted to this very unfavourably by bullying the leasing companies with threatening to cut their discounts, ruining their calculation base. They wouldn’t have done this if they hadn’t taken the 156 dead serious as a competitor. They needn’t have worried, thanks to Alfa’s dealer network.
      When the 159 arrived the damage was done.
      The German three own the market through their corporate fleet leasing business which counts for more than two thirds of their German sales numbers.

  15. So much food for thought!

    Looking back, the Fiat/GM tie-up looks highly beneficial for Fiat, no? In the end, Fiat got about 1BN cash for NOT being bought, Opel bought the Punto platform for their Corsa for years to come, Fiat got the Sedici and 2nd gen Croma (ahem), Alfa got the 159 …

    The villain was Sergio, quite obviously. Says Wikipedia:

    „ Marchionne was widely recognized for turning around Fiat Group to become one of the fastest growing companies in the auto industry,in less than two years.“

    Well, yes. Maybe. He obviously did so by cutting down all R&D, thereby intentionally creating the empty shell that Fiat is today. Obviously, the Agnellis were very much ready to dispose themselves of Fiat in the late 90s already. With the GM deal not going through, it seems highly likely virtually the only mission for Sergio was to make Fiat an appealing bride. Well done, Sergio.

    1. Good morning Tim. Yes, you’ve nailed it: that’s exactly what Marchionne did, turned the company into a superficially attractive bride, albeit one with no dowry, by slashing its product development budget.

      The auto industry has suffered from some pretty terrible leadership who wreaked havoc by “maximising (short-term) shareholder value” with no regard for the longer term consequences. One of the most egregious examples was Jürgen Schrempp, who took over as CEO of Daimler-Benz in 1995. Schrempp was the driving force behind Mercedes-Benz’s disastrous collapse in quality that destroyed the company’s reputation in the early 2000s, all in the name of maximising shareholder value.

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