Alfa Romeo has created some of the most beautiful and aurally pleasing cars ever made, including the single seater Alfetta 159 and TZ1 racer of the 1960s.
But cars such as the Alfasud, 75 and Spider were distinctly lacking in many areas and this colours my judgement of the brand far more than dim and distant memories of competition success.
But with the 156, Alfa Romeo came back up-to-date with a stylish saloon which had a range of decent engines, including a lovely 2.5-litre V6 and a revvy Twin Spark unit.
These days, though, if you want to get on in fleet you need a diesel and so it is that the Fiat Group's 2.4-litre JTD common rail unit has made its way underneath the 156's stylish bonnet.
With 150bhp on tap, it fits the bill in power terms but in comparison with rival units from the likes of Volkswagen and Volvo, it is off the pace in terms of emissions, fuel economy and refinement.
On the move, the engine provides big dollops of torque for effortless overtaking performance and the five-speed gearbox provides quick changes.
All in all, it's a very pleasant drive as it retains the petrol 156's handling and ride balance, although the car appears more prone to understeer, perhaps because of the heavier diesel engine.
Compared to the rather antiseptic nature of the Volkswagen Bora's driving experience, the Alfa champions the cause of driver involvement.
Inside the focus is on the driver, with twin cowled instrument dials dominating the dashboard and a smart three-spoke steering wheel with audio controls mounted on it. The centre console is finished in smart metal with three chrome-ringed dials to control the air conditioning system and these are mirrored by three dials for the fuel level, clock and engine water temperature.
Continuing the driver-focused theme, the seats are nicely bolstered and supportive in the right places. Much is made of Italian cars offering an awkward seating position for non-Italian people but I felt right at home (although I am a strange shape myself).
In this company, the Alfa is really the car for the driving enthusiast. It may not be the best in terms of economy and emissions, but it is the best car to drive. I'm beginning to understand what my colleague is on about now – the Alfa doesn't pretend to be the best on the block for emissions and economy, but it does offer drivers the chance to have a car with sporting pretensions while still being more cost-effective to run than the petrol engined versions.
And you can't fail to be seduced by the looks of the 156. There is no better looking compact executive saloon about and it includes some nice design touches such as the rear door handles hidden away to give the car more of a coupe look.
If running costs are a top priority, forget the Alfa, but if your staff are keen drivers, this is the car for them. Alfa Romeo 156 2.4 JTD Turismo
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £17,665
CO2 emissions (g/km): 175
BIK % of P11D in 2002: 20%
Graduated VED rate: £150
Insurance group: 14
Combined mpg: 42.8
CAP Monitor residual value: £5,325/30%
Depreciation (18.64 pence per mile x 60,000): £11,184
Maintenance (3.25 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,950
Fuel (9.04 pence per mile x 60,000): £5,424
Wholelife cost (30.93 pence per mile x 60,000): £18,558
Typical contract hire rate:£390 per month
Three rivals to consider
THE Volvo just shades the Alfa Romeo on front-end price, although it is worth remembering that the Alfa is in base Turismo spec while the Volvo is in range-topping Sport guise and therefore more generously equipped. Of the remaining two cars, the Volkswagen is the top-of-the-range in the company's Bora diesel line-up, while the MG is also an entry-level model. However, in junior executive land, where these models compete, equipment is generous on all models.
Alfa Romeo £17,665
THE Volkswagen and Volvo take a clear joint win in terms of servicing, maintenance and repair costs, returning a figure of 2.41ppm each. In second place is the MG on 2.75ppm while the Alfa brings up the rear in this section, quite a way behind on 3.25ppm. However, this sector represents the lowest in cost terms of our running costs comparison, so judgement should not be made on these costs alone.
Alfa Romeo 3.25ppm
THE figures alone do not tell the real story here because of the varying power outputs of our quartet of cars. The Volvo is the cheapest in fuel terms, costing 7.40ppm thanks to its 52.3mpg average economy. However, it only offers 115bhp whereas the Volkswagen in second place offers 150bhp yet still records 51.4mpg for a figure of 7.53ppm. The MG with 114bhp returns 48.8mpg while the Alfa, with 150bhp from its five-cylinder engine, returns a relatively poor 42.8mpg.
Alfa Romeo 9.04ppm
YOU wouldn't expect anything less than a Volkswagen win in a depreciation battle, would you? Well, the Bora doesn't fail to disappoint, topping the tables here thanks to a CAP predicted residual value forecast of 33% after three years and 60,000 miles. But what is surprising is how low the RV forecasts are for our quartet, with the MG predicted to retain 31% of its price new after the same period, the Alfa 30% and the Volvo just 26%. For what are quasi-premium brands, these figures are none too good.
Alfa Romeo 18.64ppm
A convincing win for the Volkswagen here, thanks to a strong performance in SMR fuel and, most importantly, depreciation costs. It all adds up to a 1.5ppm gap over the second-placed Volvo. The MG comes third but is more than a penny per mile more expensive to run than the Volkswagen. The Alfa comes last in this comparison, costing 30.93ppm – more than 2.6ppm more expensive than the Volkswagen. Multiply that gap by 60,000 miles and it is a considerable amount.
Alfa Romeo 30.93ppm
Emissions and BIK tax rates
BY virtue of its lower power output, the Volvo wins the emissions battle, pushing out CO2 at 142g/km. This puts it into the 18% benefit-in-kind tax band this year, the lowest band for non-Euro IV diesels. But that performance is put into context by the Bora, which has 150bhp as opposed to the Volvo's 115bhp, but still falls into the 18% band. The MG also manages 18%. The Alfa is out-classed here thanks to its larger 2.4-litre engine.
Alfa Romeo 175g/km/20%
This is a diverse group of cars, ranging in size and power output but all costing roughly the same amount of money to buy. The Alfa mixes Italian styling and driver involvement with a reasonable diesel engine but, along with the rest of this quartet, is simply outclassed in running costs by the Volkswagen Bora. It has 150bhp, solid build quality, plenty of standard equipment and the best running costs proposition. Quite simply, it's no contest.