After a long gestation period, Alfa Romeo has produced a sporty saloon with a sleek, aerodynamic profile and muscular flanks
Executive express with style Alfa Romeo 166 3.0 V6 -- PHOTO: TONY WATTS

AFTER its glory days in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Alfa Romeo image began fading slowly. Questionable quality, poor reliability and a tendency to rust conspired to tarnish the reputation of a once-great marque.

But a determined effort to stem the slide started in the late 1980s and has largely succeeded.

The 156, released in 1998, had become a huge hit in Europe, stealing a fair share of sales from rivals like the BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes C-class.

In Singapore, re-acceptance of the Alfa marque is evident with increasing sales of the excellent 156.

With Alfa now back on track, the next logical step is a move further upmarket.

Enter the 166, successor of the 164. Conceived even before the 156, this flagship model has had an unusually long gestation period. The result is a sporty executive saloon with a sleek, aerodynamic profile and muscular flanks.

A low drooping bonnet line tapers to a beak enclosing the famous Alfa triangle, with "whiskers" stretching to the headlights. Probably the only criticism that can be levelled against the styling of the 166 is the shape and size of the headlights.

The downward slope of the smallish headlights gives the 166 a somewhat mopey demeanour.

Smart 17-inch alloy wheels with the signature Alfa circular disc design highlight its overall sporty nature. The cabin is no less striking. Fascia design is unique, with an artful combination of curves and five circular air-con vents.

Pride of place for the aluminum-faced central console goes to the Integrated Control System (ICS) screen, which monitors ventilation, audio, trip computer and (when fitted) a mobile telephone and navigation system.

A low roofline restricts headroom for those built like NBA basketballers, with the rear a little cramped for both legs and heads.

Alfa has come a long way in the quality stakes, judging by the overall build quality of both the car body and interior fittings. The 166 has a solid, well-integrated feel.

For Singapore, the agents have brought in only the top-of-the-line 3.0-litre V6 model to do battle with its illustrious rivals from Lexus, BMW, Mercedes and other European marques.

Developed from the earlier 3.0-litre V6, the revised engine features an electronic accelerator plus variable geometry manifold for quicker engine response.

Below 2,500 rpm, torque output does not feel particularly strong, but once the engine is extended, there is a smooth surge of power right up to its 6,200 rpm redline.

The V6 has a sporty exhaust note both pleasant and invigorating, but ultimately lacking the crisp "rustle-of-leaves" tone of earlier, non-sanitised Alfas.

Still, a sprint from rest to 100kmh in 8.5 seconds is decently-quick for an executive saloon with an automatic. The latter has only four-forward speeds but features Sportronic shift, Alfa-speak for Tiptronic, which allows manual selection of gears.

Gear changes are smooth, although the adaptive autobox sometimes has a tendency to hang on to lower gears, possibly to mimic the way many Italians drive. The huge 17-inch Bridgestone S02 tyres give excellent grip and traction, but their extremely low profile does have a deleterious effort on around-town ride comfort.

Sixteen-inch tyres might offer a better ride/handling compromise, but they would never match the macho looks of the smart 17-inch alloys. With so much available power, the 166 is equipped with Anti-Slip Regulation (ASR), a form of automatic traction control which reduces torque to the slipping wheel.

The ASR works reasonably well, with minimal torque steer, apparent only when you floor the accelerator around tight corners.

With its stylish appearance and sporty performance, the Alfa 166 3.0 V6 at $198,800 is worth serious consideration if you want an executive express which is stylish and truly out-of-the-ordinary.

Its main rivals are the BMW 5 Series, Lexus GS300 and Volvo S80. Pricewise, the BMW 520i is the model closest to the 166.

The 5 Series has a more accomplished chassis and the allure of the BMW badge, but unless you opt for the expensive 528i, performance is well down on the Alfa.

The GS300 is a close match in performance and handling. A name plate without the cachet of a rich history added to its controversial looks mitigate against the Lexus, but the Japanese car scores in build quality, space and reliability.

Volvo's S80 is more luxurious and offers quite a bit more passenger room but lacks the sporty character and strong personality of the 166.

SPECS

Alfa Romeo 166 3.0 V6

Price: $198,800 with COE

Engine: 2,959 cc QOHC 24V V6

Gearbox: Four-speed auto with Sportronic

Power: 226 bhp at 6,200 rpm

Torque: 275 Nm at 5,000 rpm

0-100 kmh: 8.5 seconds

Top speed: 237 kmh

For enquiries: Call Massa Motor on 566-2200 or 338-5252