Although I’ve sat in the 159 at a couple of shows in the past, I was initially a little shocked at the one I got. Shocked because it all seemed so complicated. First there is the key. Well, it is not so much a key as a bulky stubby thing that you insert in a slot to the left of the column, then when the sign on the dash tells you, you put your foot on the clutch, and press the “Start/Stop” button. I still cannot see why this arrangement in any car is in any superior to a conventional key. Then I tried to adjust the seat and the steering wheel, and this proved far harder to get right than in any Alfa I’ve ever driven. A bewildering array of levers, ratchet levers and slide controls under the seat all provided movement, but it took many efforts to get it just right. Then I noticed the set of switches mounted up above my head in the middle of the roof, which include the interior boot release. Nothing wrong per se, but it just helps to add the impression of fussiness. There’s a trip computer, and there are buttons on the left hand column stalk to switch between the functions, but they did not seem to be useful things, and the default seemed to be a huge display telling me the date.
Of course, the Alfa experience is a lot about the driving. Since this was a diesel, I knew that I was not going to hear the traditional Alfa engine sound, and I was not wrong. The engine is reasonably quiet on start up and at idle, and definitely refined and smooth once underway, but nevertheless, it is a diesel. It pulls well, and does drive more closely like a petrol engine than many a diesel, but the consequence of this is that you also have to drive it like one, which means making frequent gearchanges, and using the relatively narrow rev band. Luckily, using the gears was no hardship at all, and the 159 for sure has the best Alfa change I have ever come across. Instead of the long lever, and the slightly obstructive feel, this one has a much shorter lever, and a very precise change more reminiscent of a Ford, and all the better for it. Most of my limited mileage was done on the motorway, either at cruising speed, or at traffic jam speed, with only a few miles done on country roads both to test it out and in search of photographic locations. This experience suggested to me that the car has typical safe, predictable handling and roadholding, that the brakes are confidence inspiring, that the car rides well, and that the steering has the usual Alfa characteristics of quick lock and a commensurately rather large turning circle.
Although the 159 looks similar to the 156, it is a significantly bigger car, and this was evident by the amount of space in the passenger compartment and the slightly larger boot. The latter is a good regular size, and the former now has ample room for rear seat passengers whereas things were a bit tight in the 156. Lusso spec brings leather seats, and these were black on the test car. They proved comfortable, and they look that bit better than just about anyone else’s leather seats, certainly in this part of the market.
Interior quality is generally held to have taken a step forward in this car. Certainly the materials are softer plastics, and the build quality is good, but I was always perfectly satisfied with the early 156s, and actually saw the various facelifts as less than an improvement. The worst change that Alfa made at that time was to endow their cars with stereo systems with the tiniest and most impossibly fiddly buttons, but that problem is not evident in the 159. My time with the car coincided with a couple of frosty starts, so I had the opportunity to test out the early morning defrosting capability of the air con. This proved not be as easy as just setting the air flow to the screen and max, and waiting, as you also had to set the fan speed up. l think Audi’s climate control, with which I am particularly familiar is not only more effective, it is more intuitive. But then, Alfa air con jokes are just part of the motoring landscape. The dash layout tries to remind one of Alfa heritage, too, with a curved top over the main instruments, and the auxiliary dials mounted in the middle of the dash, sharply angled to the driver. The left most of these was a turbo boost gauge, and I was intrigued to see the needle swing wildly all over the place, even when I was cruising at a steady speed with my foot not moving on the accelerator. The dash trim is a silver effect, but with an unusual coarse texture, which was actually quite acceptable, and is a little different from all the fake wood that so many manufacturers seem to think we all want in our cars.
So, did the 159 win a place in my heart like the 156? Sadly, it did not. Not because it’s a bad car. Indeed, it is not, and objectively it is doubtless a better car than the model it replaced. But it just came across as less of an Alfa, and more of a premium saloon with some Alfa traits in it. An Alfa for the person who was always put off an Alfa before now, then?