Fleet-friendly Alfa 159 leaves too much to be desired on quality and refinement to rival the best in class

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Alfa Romeo’s now rather elderly 159, which has just been given a stay of execution. Its replacement, the Alfa Romeo Giulia, was delayed until 2016; sent back to the drawing board for a styling rethink, or so the rumour goes.

And with this, the 2011-model-year 159, Alfa is took one last crack at the UK fleet market before the Giulia arrives. This 159 has been on sale since the turn of the year in 168bhp turbodiesel form, but only now are examples of the lower-emissions 134bhp 2.0-litre oil-burner arriving in Britain, which squeezes in for 19% benefit-in-kind company car tax, and for VED band E for a £115 road tax disc.

Although Alfa insists this car’s turbo-diesel engine is state-of-the-art, it’s noisy

The cleanest diesel version of the Honda Accord, Mazda 6, Seat Exeo, Skoda Superb and Volvo S60 miss one or the other of those classifications, some miss both. Although, over its life span there have been a variety of petrol and diesel engines for motorists to choose from, including the range-topping 3.2-litre V6 powerplant.

Even now, the 159 still looks remarkably fresh and appealing. The interior isn’t quite as convincing, despite the addition of some new leather upholstery and ‘black aluminium’ fascia trim which is as attractive as it is unusual.

The 159’s driving position feels high, the seats slightly narrow and short of squab. And material quality is a little shoddy too: our test car had a few too many rough, flimsy and sharp plastics to do Alfa’s quality men much credit.

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The 159 is clattery at idle, and unusually coarse by class standards above 3000rpm. It’s got plenty of usable torque and a slick six-speed box, but there’s more turbo lag than you expect, too.

The 159 rides and handles acceptably, but it’s certainly no sports saloon, coming up short in terms of responsiveness and dynamic poise, as well as refinement.

Its steering encapsulates the nature of the car perfectly: the wheel’s imaginatively contoured and beautifully tactile, wrapped in black leather – but it sprouts towards you at an awkward angle, as if the steering column ran through the bulkhead between your feet.

It also acts on the front wheels with a variable pace, giving the car an unusually large and unpleasant ‘dead-zone’ of steering angle right at the straight ahead, and then a tendency to dart towards an apex mid-corner that comes without a matching increase in required steering weight.

All things considered, the car’s grippy and reasonably game, but feels a little too inert and unpredictable to drive with precision or get much satisfaction from.

This new 159 remains quite alluring in its own alternative, Italian fashionista way, but unless you’re offered a particularly appealing contract hire rate, we’d shop elsewhere – even if you do have to pay a little more company car tax.

A Ford Mondeo is a much more capable saloon, and a BMW 318d, which is broadly comparable to the 159 on price if not equipment, is a much more rewarding drive. Don't think for one moment that the new Alfa Romeo Giulia is a wet lettuce, as it has proven equally enticing, enough to choose over the BMW 3 Series and the Jaguar XE.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Alfa Romeo 159 2006-2011 First drives