What is it that made me crave an Alfa Romeo? Was it the fact that I grew up on a TV diet of endless reruns of Clarkson-Hammond-May era Top Gear, and was therefore constantly told I couldn’t be a car person until I owned one? Was it the fact that I’m generally drawn to most things from the world’s most boot-shaped country? Or was it simply the fact that some Alfas are just too downright gorgeous to not want? Whatever it was, ownership was a bucket list thing for me, and I finally ticked it off in February 2023 with my first Alfa: a black 159 2.2 JTS.
A year in, it’s been an… emotional journey. The Alfa cliches ring very true. When it’s working well, it’s a soul-warming, life-enriching thing to own, making humdrum days feel that bit more special. When something breaks, well… let’s not go there. This is why, despite everything Alfa ownership has thrown at me, I haven’t regretted my purchase. Most of the time.
It’s beautiful outside…
Name a prettier saloon from the 21st century. Go on, I’ll wait. The 159 was a collaboration between famed stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro and Alfa’s in-house Centro Stile, and what a thing they cooked up. Everything about it, from the way the lines of the scudetto grille continue up the bonnet in a deep sculpted V, to the door handles that look like bits of mid-century Scandinavian silverware, is spectacular, especially for what’s ultimately a fairly pedestrian saloon car.
The icing on the cake are those wheels, though. Perhaps the finest interpretation of Alfa’s famous teledial design, they’re not original 159 rims, but are the 19-inch units from the UK-exclusive, Prodrive-fettled Brera S, and are the same design featured on the staggering 8C Competizione.
Gorgeous as the outside is, it’s the interior where you spend most of the time, and thankfully it’s just as good. It’s so much more brilliantly stylish in here than anything the tech-obsessed Germans or backwards-looking Brits were producing in this class at the time. I’m not usually one for red leather, but in a black Alfa, it just works, especially on these seats with their ribbed details.
The dash is angled towards the driver in the Alfa tradition, and it just feels so much more exotic to look at those three deep set gauges in the centre and see that they read olio, acqua and benzina. Even if the benzina gauge drops at an alarming rate and the olio one has never worked.
It’s pretty good to drive
As a driver’s car, the 159 received a bit of a mixed reaction from the press when new, and I’m not here to claim that it’s some hidden sports saloon gem or even that it lives up to its lighter, fizzier 156 predecessor. But I will say that for a slightly overweight, front-drive saloon car, it puts up a decent effort. The steering is quick and talkative and it’s a lovely thing to pour through a series of more open bends. The engine is a keen little unit, too: it’s a 2.2-litre, naturally-aspirated petrol four-pot based on General Motors’ Ecotec block, but with Alfa’s own cylinder heads and a few other tweaks. With just 185bhp and a 0-62 time of 8.5 seconds, it sometimes needs working hard, but the reward is a motor that makes all the right noises, especially once it gets somewhere north of 3500rpm.
A surprise highlight is the gearchange: the stubby little round-topped lever has a pleasingly short, chunky throw. It’s the kind of car you can take great pleasure in driving at around seven tenths, and in the real world of wet, lumpy British roads, that’s just fine with me.
It’s a fantastic daily
This is by far the best all-round car I’ve owned - admittedly, I’ve only owned three other cars so it’s not a long list. But still, it combines superb comfort on a long run with lots of space (as long as you’re not sat behind me) and just enough fun and performance to make it rewarding when a good bit of road does open up. I used to own a Renault Megane R26 and, before that, a Mk2 Mazda MX-5. On an empty stretch of twisty road, the 159 wouldn’t see which way either of them went, but the other 98% of the time, the Alfa is so much more pleasant.
Yes, it’s quite thirsty and yes, there’s always that slight nagging doubt in the back of your mind that comes with Alfa ownership, but all in all, it’s just a wonderful car to use day after day. Although you can tell it was designed by Italians - there’s only one cupholder and it’s just about big enough to fit a macchiato.
Owning it feels good
Above everything else, it’s just a lovely feeling to walk outside on a morning and see an Alfa Romeo sitting there. Yes, it’s flawed. Yes, quite a bit’s gone wrong on it. Yes, an E90 BMW 320i is better in pretty much every objective way. But I didn’t want a BMW, or any other make of car that regular people can afford. I wanted an Alfa Romeo, because something about them makes every day more special.
That’s the thing with Alfa ownership. There are plenty who don’t understand the allure, and I completely get that. But for certain people, an Alfa gets under your skin like nothing else. Now, if I can just get that oil temperature gauge working…