The 166 is a value-for-money cracker and at £23,371 to £30,471 on-the-road it is a worthy competitor for such executive sector luminaries as the Audi A6, BMW 5-series, Mercedes-Benz E-class, Volvo S80 and Lexus GS300. It is also sure to give the yet-to-be-launched Jaguar S-type and Rover 75 a run for their money.
The 166 fills the gap at the top of the Alfa Romeo range left by the demise of the 164 two years ago and manages to successfully combine executive elegance with the Italian marque's sporting heritage. The 166's coupe-like design and 'drop' front gives it a stylish presence on the road, and Alfa Romeo hopes the arrival of one in a company car park will result in snowballing sales.
The manufacturer had planned for the 166 to be launched before the 156. However, the company decided more work was required 'on the little extras' to make the 166 a true competitor to the mainly German opposition. It appears to be a sound decision as the 166 comes with a raft of neat touches - a one-touch button to bring the door mirrors tight into the doors when parking in a tight space, kerbside lighting at night when doors are opened so driver and passengers do not step into puddles, and a superb Integrated Control System featuring a 5in TV-style screen containing audio, telephone, navigation, air conditioning settings and trip computer.
There is a choice of three engines - 2.0-litre Twin Spark 16v and 2.5-litre V6 24v already in the 156 and a 3.0-litre V6 24v from the GTV Coupe. The 2.0-litre, only available with manual transmission, has been further developed to meet the executive requirements of the 166 and provides low-speed torque - 90% of which is delivered below 2,000rpm - with maximum power of 155bhp at 6,400rpm. The six-cylinder 2.5-litre V6 offers 190bhp and torque of 163lb-ft and can accelerate from 0-62 mph in 8.4 seconds and has a top speed of almost 140mph. The 2.5 is available either as a five-speed manual or equipped with Alfa Romeo's new electronic automatic transmission.
The 3.0-litre V6 develops 226bhp, delivers maximum torque of 202lb-ft, has a top speed of 150mph and a 0-62mph time of 7.8 seconds. The range-topper comes with a choice of a six-speed manual, badged 'Super', or the Sportronic automatic option. The entry-level 2.0-litre is expected to account for 35% of this year's anticipated 2,500 sales, and it represents a hugely competitive package: standard items include ABS, twin airbags and side airbags, radio-cassette, alarm immobiliser, electrically adjusted and heated mirrors, all-round electric windows, remote central locking, automatic climate control, leather steering wheel, heated front seats and 16in alloy wheels
On a 100-mile trip the 2.0-litre returned fuel consumption of 25.7 mpg (the official combined figure is 29.1mpg). While the model benefits from low-down grunt the power does not really start to surge until about 4,000rpm. Despite the weight of the car the 2.0-litre is no slouch. Driven enthusiastically, the car's road holding and cornering ability are not compromised, and that's helped by the new chassis arrangement - double wishbone at the front from the 156 and a new multilink arrangement at the rear.
The stylish solidity of the car translates itself to occupants in the form of unruffled ride quality and pin-sharp steering. But, the best feature of the entire range is noise - or rather lack of it. The 166 is perhaps the quietest car in terms of wind and road noise I have driven. An Alfa Romeo executive said one design aim was silence, with the exception of the glorious engine growl. The engineers have achieved their objective. The loudest sound during the test drive on roads close to John o' Groats was the rain on the windscreen.
Fears that the 2.0-litre would be underpowered proved unfounded and I reckon that against an additional £3,000 on-the-road for the 2.5-litre V6 manual, which adds 35bhp, the entry-model is the one to have. Don't get me wrong: the 2.5 V6 manual is a fine car. It has Sport Throttle Response - also standard on the 3.0 V6 manual - which modulates engine reaction to the accelerator pedal to give the driver the choice of a sporty or a sedate drive. However, on our test car initial good impressions were disturbed by an extremely heavy clutch and vague brakes.
But move on to either the 2.5- litre automatic or the 3.0-litre V6 and the story is different. Automatics are great for town motoring but they can take the fun out of driving such a dynamic car on quiet Scottish roads. The point about Alfa Romeo's Sportronic box, available on both 2.5 and 3.0-litre models as an option, is that it can be driven either as an automatic - boring - or as a clutchless manual. Now you're talking!
In essence, Sportronic mimics the Tiptronic-type transmissions found on Audis, Porsches and BMWs, where clutchless manual gear selection is made by pushing the gearlever forward for an upchange, or pulling it back to shift down. Slotting the gearlever into D at rest selects the regular fully automatic transmission, while moving it to the adjacent plane engages Sportronic. In this mode, the four gears can be selected by 'tipping' the lever to the required gear.
The problem with Alfa's Sportronic is that it has only four gears, whereas its rivals from BMW, Audi and - now with the new S-class - Mercedes, offer five. With only four gears, the gaps between ratios widen - not a problem for the 3.0-litre as it has ample power and torque to 'fill in', but less convincing on the 2.5 with its lower outputs. In the 2.5, Sportronic feels sluggish and unresponsive, and blunts performance: it knocks more than a second off the 0-62mph time, reducing it to 9.5secs and increasing combined fuel consumption from 24.8 to 23.2mpg.
The 166's piece de resistance is the Integrated Control System (ICS). Slightly angled towards the driver the little TV screen is the hub of several features, including the stereo, climate control, car phone, satellite navigation and trip computer - a significant breakthrough in deleting knobs and dials from the dashboard and centre console.
Front seat passenger comfort is aided by a recessed dashboard giving vastly improved legroom and aiding rear legroom. On the downside, access to the 166's deep boot could be difficult with large or heavy objects because of the high lip. Internal storage is plentiful.
The overall feel that you are in a sophisticated car is completed by the leather trim on the door panels and around the 'metal-effect' centre console. The dashboard may be plastic, but it is stylish and not in the least cheap-looking.