The lifestyle estate is no longer a niche product. Most estates are now marketed at the buyer that has a life rather than just life-producing tendencies. The vast majority of us often require the use of a car with larger than average carrying capacity; be that for water sport paraphernalia or your toddlers' nativity play costumes. It is just as well then that so many car makers produce stylish and practical cars such as the Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon reviewed here.
You may not associate the word "practicality" with the Alfa Romeo brand, and rightly so; the Italian marque is synonymous with racing and full-blooded Mediterranean passion, or so parent Fiat would have us believe. In fairness, the current generation of Alfas do make a decent stab at offering the buyer some Italian sportiness at a good price. In recent years, Alfa has set its sights on traditional BMW and Audi buyers, especially with the original Alfa Romeo 156. Though not dated, the nature of the market pushed Alfa into a quick facelift only a few years before the launch of the proper replacement. The question we asked ourselves was this: does the facelifted Alfa 156 retain the charm of the original, while taking the fight to the German marques?
We received photographs of the facelifted 156 a long time before we saw the car in the metal. First impressions were mixed; it was felt that some of the simple beauty had been lost. Look at the rear: there is an extra swage line between the light clusters that is completely unnecessary, other than to distinguish the new car from the old. I personally love the new car's nose though; it successfully links the wonderfully evocative Alfa grille with sharp contemporary headlight design and an aggressive stance. Much fuss is made of the input by Giorgetto Giugiaro (recently voted Designer of the Year incidentally), with badges on the flanks. The new style particularly suits the Sportwagon version tested here - probably because it does without the design changes to the rear hatch.
Alfa Romeo first coined the "Sportwagon" name for the 33 in the late eighties. There are no prizes for guessing that the 156 Sportwagon is not a much bigger car than the saloon it is based on. Thankfully, form has always come before function in Alfa Romeo estates and the Sportwagon is arguably at least as good looking as the saloon.
You can be sure that the Sportwagon drives no differently to the saloon too. However, this facelift has not been accompanied by significant chassis revisions. The car tested was the 2.0 JTS Veloce, which is fitted with sports suspension as standard. We were a little disappointed with this; it was neither sporty nor particularly supple. I am not saying that the chassis is a lemon; it is composed and stable when being pushed and it is a comfortable car to do a lot of miles in. On the flip side, there is better communication between Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi and German leader Gerhard Schroeder than this car and its driver, especially on a wet road, where you need it most. Things are not all bad for the enthusiastic driver: the steering is deliciously direct and has some feel, though the helm of the BMW 3-series is in a different league. The five-speed 'box is slick and the gear ratios are well spaced, as are the pedals.
Other driving controls will be familiar to regular Alfa drivers, including the column stalks and centre console. Under the driver's and passengers' bums are comfortable, supportive seats. As pictured, the interior was finished in a beige velour-like material called "Alfatex". I admit that it looks good in photographs, but after two days of rain the driver's footwell was sodden from just getting in and out. It is not a practical colour for the carpets and I wouldn't think that many experienced parents would opt for this colour.
Not that you would baulk at transporting your loved ones in the 156. All models in the revised range are equipped with six airbags (front, side and window), ABS with EBD, traction control, stability control and brake assist. What is perhaps a little sad from the perspective of a driving enthusiast is that the 2.0 JTS version of the 156 does not do much to cause you to need the likes of ABS or traction control in anything but an emergency situation. The 2.0-litre engine has plenty of urge, though you need to keep it above its peak torque speed (3250 rpm). It also sounds pleasantly rorty, as an Alfa Romeo should. The performance figures are not bad either. However, the overriding feeling is that you are not encouraged to press on; you will need the fantastic GTA version for that, which has not been facelifted (it didn't need to be).
Other stylish estates in the same bracket include the BMW 318iES Touring (£20,750), and the Audi A4 2.0 (£20,715), though the keener driver may opt for the Subaru Impreza 2.0 WRX 5-door, which sells for £19,995 on-the-road in the UK. With rivals such as these, the charming Italian side of the Alfa 156 needs to come to the fore and whisk buyers off their feet. If Alfa Romeo wants to be more than a niche player it needs to deliver no all fronts. The 156 Sportwagon is a perfectly good lifestyle estate, but an Alfa Romeo needs to be a lot more than that. There is no doubting its style, but we think that more driver appeal is required to justify the illustrious badge.