The Italians are passionate about food, clothes and cars. True to form, Alfa Romeos have always raised the pulse a little higher - as does the Car of the Year-winning 156. The difference between this car and its predecessors however, is that it will do so across a wider cross-section of people than ever before. People like me, whove never owned one, are used to considering cars on a purely practical level.
However, my first thought on taking a long, slow look at the aristocratic lines of the 156 was not practical at all. It was entirely materialistic: I want one.
Women who enjoy driving will love this car and thats important. By the year 2010, so the statisticians tell us, there will be as many women drivers on Britains roads as men. Current thinking suggests them to be more open-minded, more fashion-orientated and less badge conscious. Current thinking suggests theyll like the 156 a lot.
Having said that, the individuality of the 156 will, I think, appeal to women as much as its eye-catching looks. Not that this is a car you can pigeonhole to either sex. Designer Walter de Silva intended it so. "Si, there are curves on this car it can be feminine. But it is also muscular like a cat". He is insistent on one point however. "We want all kinds of people to buy 156 men and women who want to drive a personal yet balanced car; a balanced car but also a real Alfa Romeo." It is this perfect balance that appeals to me. The contours flow from the new shield on the bonnet, creating the impression that the 156 has been fashioned in a single stroke. There is no break between the glass and the bodywork; the rear door handles are integrated into the window shape, giving this four-door saloon the slimline elegance of a sports coupe. The latest Sportwagon estate version looks equally well proportioned.
This is a car for people who are going places. For me, there has always been a real thrill in turning the ignition key in an Alfa and the 156 is no exception. The muted roar of the engine fulfils the promise of that sporty exterior. Yes, it could be called aggressive, but theres none of the machismo which often steers women like me away from other so-called drivers cars.
And male or female, you will appreciate the interior design. Theres something very intimate I think, about the way the dials on the dashboard are angled towards the driver, to be viewed at a glance by him or her alone. The steering wheel adjusts for both height and reach and it takes only moments to settle comfortably into the seat, which somehow contrives to be luxurious yet supportive, another illustration of that perfect Alfa balance. The gear lever is set high and is also angled towards the driver for ease of reach.
An area of car design I often think would be better left to women - and often is - comes in the choice and fabrics in the cabin. Trust the Italians, however, with their keen eye for fashion, to produce a tasteful array of options across the range. Theres rich velour on most models or the option of soft black leather according to your taste. The interior of the 156 pleases not only the eye but the ear as well.
Refinement is impressive and this, combined with excellent climate control (with air conditioning standard on all models) means comfortable driving, however long you spend behind the wheel. And I couldnt close without touching on the engine itself. Five options are available - 1.6, 1.
8 and 2.0-litre units plus 1.9-litre or a 2.4-litre turbo diesels - spread across saloon and Sportwagon estate bodystyles.
Theres also the 3.2-litre V6 found in the awesome GTA models. I wouldnt worry about the statistics, but even the 1.8 can dispatch rest to 60mph in a mere 9.
3 seconds on the way to a top speed, if you dare, of 130mph.
While were talking figures, its clear that Alfa are going to hold a big advantage over their German competitors on price. This equates to a saving of several thousand pounds, model for model, with the prices ranging from £14,810 for the 1.6 to £27,520 for the GTA. Even so, equipment levels are high, with power steering, air conditioning, twin front and side airbags and anti-lock brakes all as standard.
Its also significant that Alfas resale values have toughened up and their running costs are lower. I was interested to note for example, that over 60,000 miles, a BMW 318i requires over sixteen hours of servicing. An equivalent 156 in contrast needs little more than six.
So whether, like me, youd buy your Alfa Romeo with your heart or, more pragmatically with your head, youll find the arithmetic as pleasing as the car. In Walter de Silvas words, the 156 is indeed "perfectly balanced."