Jeff Fielding, UK fleet operations manager for Fiat and Alfa Romeo, said: 'I find it hard to believe the Government isn't listening to manufacturers about the obvious benefits of diesel and the technological advances we are making in this field. We are confident our new diesel-engined cars will find favour with environmentally-conscious fleets. We have been too long without a diesel car for us to change the strategy now.'
Alfa estimates this year will see diesel sales make up about 10% (750 units) of 156 total sales, all of which will mean growth as it eats into an area dominated by the German manufacturers. And Alfa has not gone half way in rising to the challenge, with its common rail engine impressive in performance, torque and economy. With 136bhp and 224lb-ft of torque available at just 2,000rpm, taking the 2.4 JTD from 0-62mph in 9.5secs, it oozes power and is a step up from the 130bhp 2.4-litre Fiat Marea diesel on which it is based.
What I find amazing is the sound of the engine. Alfa Romeo engineers have somehow managed to not only create a super-quiet diesel, but one that sounds almost as sexy as the petrol models. Add to this a combined fuel economy of 42.2mpg and the JTD represents a tidy compromise between performance and economy. Of course, fuel consumption may suffer slightly as the engine roars its way up the revs, encouraging even the most mild-mannered of drivers to be heavy with their right foot.
The secret to this quieter and sporty-sounding diesel is down to the Unijet common rail system designed and initially developed by the Fiat Group, with contributions from Magneti Marelli and the Fiat Research Centre, before being handed over to Bosch for final development and production. Unijet makes it possible to combine very high injection pressures with the electronically-controlled delivery of minute quantities of diesel fuel to achieve pre-injection, known as pilot injection. The advantages of this are twofold: the 'pressure pile-up' concept makes for more efficient combustion creating improved performance, while pilot injection reduces combustion noise.
High pressure injection also significantly reduces fuel consumption and exhaust fumes. This is good news for any fleet looking to 2002 when the Government proposes to change the way company car tax is charged. Currently the system is dependent on mileage, but it is understood that the changes will focus on carbon dioxide emissions with 135g/km of CO2 the benchmark for company car tax charging. At this level a company car driver will pay 15% of the vehicle's list price in tax. According to the proposals this would then increase 1% for every extra 5g/k of CO2. The Alfa puts out 178g/km of CO2.
Taking into account the latest announcement by the Inland Revenue that diesel-engined cars could be subject to a 3% premium on their tax rating means a company car driver would pay 27% of list price on the 2.4 JTD and not 24%.Under the current system, many drivers will face an additional 2% in tax if they do more than 2,500 business miles a year. And for perk drivers who do less than this, the system would mean a saving of 8%. The 156 JTD's ride and handling is almost identical to the petrol model's, available in standard and sport set-ups. Responsive and with masses of grip, the JTD handles as well as it sounds, with quick and direct steering.
The interior has body-hugging sports seats, the rev counter and speedometer are set in pods, there are rotary console knobs, and a wooden steering wheel and gearknob are standard on the base model. Safety and security are also good and the standard specification includes ABS and EBD (electronic brake distribution), driver, passenger and side airbags, front seatbelt pretensioners, side impact protection bars, remote central locking and immobiliser and alarm system.
Other standard items for the entry-level 2.4 JTD at £20,335 on-the-road include electric front and rear windows, electric and heated door mirrors, climate control, reach and rake steering adjustment, driver seat height and lumbar adjustment. Sport pack 1 adds £994 and includes carbon-effect console, instruments with black background and red graphics, body-coloured side skirts, revised spring and damper settings, 16in alloy wheels and sports cloth trim.
Sports pack 2, at £1,421, includes the same as pack 1 plus Recaro sports front seats (but these do not have the side airbags). Sports pack 3 (£1,659) tops the current diesel range at £21,994 on-the-road and includes the same as pack 1 plus Momo leather trim.
The JTD is a car which offers high specification, potentially lower company car tax and good economy. The relative exclusivity of the diesel is sure to keep residuals on a par, if not higher than petrol models, making it all the more attractive to fleets concerned about wholelife costs. There is only one problem: just 750 right-hand drive models are destined for the UK this year.