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Alfa Romeo Sportwagon

Alfa Romeo


##alfwgn.jpg --Right##QUESTION: when is an estate car not an estate car? Answer: when it is the Alfa Romeo Sportwagon, which enters showrooms on June 22.

The Sportwagon is a derivative of the fantastically successful 156 saloon and, therefore, it's a surprise that the Italian manufacturer does not make more of the Sportwagon's parentage in the PR blurb - admittedly the 156 nomenclature is on the car's bodywork but it is known as the 'Sportwagon' and not the '156 Sportwagon'.

But don't mention the word 'estate' to Alfa Romeo chiefs as whatever the seven-version Sportwagon is, it is not - in their view - an estate car. 'It is not a stationwagon. It is the Alfa Sportwagon,' a spokesman said at the launch in Scotland.

And to ensure we hacks did not confuse it with upmarket estates such as the BMW 3-series Touring, Audi A4 Avant and the Volvo V40, he added: 'Sportwagon is not an upper class workhorse; it is not a saloon with a box on the back; it is not a loadlugger - no chance.'

So, despite competing in the elite upper medium estate sector what is the Sportwagon?

Alfa claims the car is as close as you can get to a five-door sports coupe and to that extent it's virtually unique. It certainly has coupe attributes with its pod-like dashboard dials and sleek curves.

But in my book, it is a case of style and flair over practicality as for me the only sound reason for having an estate car - sorry Sportwagon - is to lug loads and if the luggage section is so miniscule in an upper medium car, why opt for it unless your loads are limited to a dog or a set of golf clubs?

But the Sportwagon is far from being a bad car. Equipped with Alfa's famed and established engines - 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0-litre Twin Sparks, 2.5 V6 24v and 2.4 JTD diesel - there is also the availability of the 2.0-litre TS with Selespeed transmission and 2.5 V6 24v Q-System gearbox, both of which already exist in the 156 saloon line-up. So, no surprises on the engine front and no surprises on the trim front with standard specifications being further boosted by Lusso and Veloce trims.

To look for differences, you have to move to the rear of the Sportwagon, where a roof spoiler can be found but, more intriguingly, the tailgate is hinged far forward in the roof to increase accessibility.

Alfa claims the Sportwagon has a bit of sporty coupe about it along with estate values and even thinks it can win over lovers of SUVs. They may be bold claims, but as an estate car the Sportwagon is distinctly different and combined with Alfa's established panache, it is a car which will attract admiring glances. Pleasingly, those flamboyant Alfa designers have not just stuck a lump on the back of the 156 saloon - admittedly that appreciation defeats my own earlier argument that an estate is only good for load-lugging so why bother with the designer element?

Access to the load area is either by an internal floor-mounted lever or a button on the remote control unit - there is no tailgate handle - and once inside, the tailgate automatically lifts about two centimetres, which then allows the door to be raised by hand. There are a number of useful features, including fitted side shelves, 'secret' compartments, a dual-sided luggage floor which when turned over acts as a waterproof tray and numerous secure load nets. There is also a ski tunnel. Overall load space is 360 litres, which increases to 1,180 litres with the rear seat squab folded. However, an unexpectedly high sill could make loading difficult.

In-built safety - apart from ABS brakes as standard and six airbags - includes a beam beneath the floor and added roof reinforcements, pillars and bracing bars which make it sturdier than its saloon counterpart. A fully adjustable steering wheel and seat means finding a comfortable driving position shouldn't be a problem and despite the sloping roofline, there is plenty of headroom front and rear - although rear legroom is somewhat limited. The upward sloping waistline and downward sloping roof also means the rear windows appear slightly smaller than on most cars.

Build quality is everything you would expect of an Alfa and comfort and road holding are first-class with the sporty character shining through in its manoeuvrability at speed despite its 'estate' origins. Although heavier than the saloon, a softer suspension and aerodynamic shape means little is lost in the performance stakes.

Although the engines are well-known my favourite, without doubt, on the launch was the 2.4 JTD. I also drove the very lively 2.0- litre and the perky but at speed uphill slightly breathless 1.6 - which recently joined the 156 saloon range.

It is difficult to believe that the 2.4 JTD is truly a diesel and with a 0-62 mph time of 9.9 seconds, fuel economy of 41.5 mpg combined, a CO2 figure of 180g/km and a price just £100 more than the 2.0-litre in Standard trim, it begs the question why opt for a petrol version? Engineers have performed a superb job on damping down noise, vibration and harshness and with a bucketload of low-down torque the diesel was my winner on the twisty Highland roads.

Alfa expects around 25% of UK sales to be diesel with a further quarter coming from the range-topping 2.5 V6 24v and 20% each from the 1.8 and 2.0-litre petrol units and 10% being the 1.6-litre.

The manufacturer has been on the way up in the UK for a few years and following its recent price cuts sales should further increase. The brief for the Sportwagon - Alfa's first 'estate' since the demise of the 33 five years ago - was sportiness and versatility.

There is no doubt that sportiness has been achieved but in opting for style and versatility, practicality in the load stakes has been compromised.

The 156 saloon is the car which has put Alfa Romeo on the corporate map and the 166 saloon has consolidated that progress. Last week saw the world debut of the 147 - which replaces the 145 and 146 models - at the Turin Motor Show, but until that car goes on sale in October, the Sportwagon is Alfa's new kid on the block.

Alfa expects Sportwagon sales to account for around 25% of 156 sales in 2001 and 2002, with small businesses and user-choosers high on the list of potential customers.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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