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Alfa Romeo 159 TI

A legend is back at Alfa Romeo.

The TI badge now appears on the 159 saloon. Short for Turismo Inter­nazio­nale, the discreet two-letter label is reserved for only the most sporty and luxurious models in the range.

To mark the occasion, the Italian manufacturer has fitted the newcomer with an upgraded version of its 2.4-litre JTD diesel engine. It now produces 210bhp – up 10bhp on the old unit. Sports suspension has also been added, alongside cosmetic up­-grades inside and out.

However, the Alfa faces stiff competition from prestige challengers such as the accomplished BMW 3-Series and new Audi A4. So are the revisions enough to allow the 159 to take on these premium class leaders?

If the answer was based on looks alone, the Italian should have its rivals well and truly beaten. At the front is the traditional heart-shaped grille, flanked by six circular headlamps sitting beneath a menacing brow. Move around the car and you’ll be struck by the neat design details – such as the alloy door handles – and elegant proportions. To these, the TI adds 10-spoke 19-inch alloy wheels and subtle side skirts, along with silver-finish door mirrors.

The cabin is equally stylish. Its aluminium-trimmed facia, angled towards the driver, features beautiful cowled dials, while the comfortable leather seats wear a special stitched Alfa logo. It’s a pity, then, that space is at a premium for all occupants, and the quality of plastics still lags behind the best in the sector.

Matters aren’t helped by quirky features such as the boot release button being located in the roof­lining, just ahead of the rear view mirror. For many Italian motors, though, the engine is the heart around which everything revolves – and the 159 maintains that tradition.

The five-cylinder turbodiesel unit is smooth and punchy, providing the Alfa with plenty of mid-range torque and the sort of tuneful exhaust note you would more commonly expect to hear from a petrol motor. Refine­ment is excellent and only on start-up is there any hint of diesel clatter.

A highly capable chassis backs up the TI’s spirited straight-line performance. It’s stiffened and lowered by 20mm, so the Alfa dives into corners with minimum body roll, although the ride can get unsettled on poor surfaces. The steering is well weighted and direct, while the six-speed manual gearbox has a light and accurate action. It isn’t quite as sharp as that of a 3-Series, but the Alfa is certainly plenty of fun to drive.

Costing £25,400, the 159 TI represents good value when compared with the pricier, slower and less well equipped German competition. There’s also a practical Sport­wagon estate, and even a charismatic 3.2-litre V6 petrol-engined version on offer. Further options include a six-speed Q-Tronic semi-automatic gearbox and grippy Q4 all-wheel drive.

However, with Alfa Romeo finishing a lowly 30th out of 32 in the 2007 Auto Express Driver Power survey, question marks remain over the brand’s build quality and reliability. If it can overcome these, the 159 TI deserves all the attention it will get.

Rival: BMW 320d M Sport
The oil-burning 3-Series has a great chassis, a prestigious badge and the sort of build quality Alfa can’t currently hope to match. But while the 320d provides excellent fuel returns and low CO2 emissions, it’s pricier and has less standard equipment than the 159.

Price: £25,500

Engine: 2.4-litre 5cyl, 210bhp

Top speed: 140mph

0-60mph: 8.4 seconds

Econ./ CO2: 41.5mpg/179g/km

Standard equipment: Sports suspension, 19-inch alloys, Brembo brakes, electronic stability control, climate control, powered and heated leather seats, aluminium pedals, Bluetooth connectivity