This five-door version of the classy 156 saloon is theoretically an estate, though in practice, there's less luggage room inside than your average family hatchback. Actually, there's even less space in the boot than there is in the four-door model. But that isn't the point. Buy something else if you want to transport a sofa or a grandfather clock. Buy this if you still want to enjoy getting from A to B via X and Y with a small backroad detour through Z.
The other 'lifestyle' estates which the 156 Sportwagon went up against all claimed to do this but none really do. BMW's 3 Series Touring, Audi's A4 Avant and Volvo's V40 are all stylish cars but they don't really make you feel young again behind the wheel. And what's worse, though slightly more spacious, they can't carry a grandfather clock either.
Not that this Alfa is entirely without practical merit. What boot space there is (360 litres) is easily accessible via an unexpectedly large hatch aperture, though unfortunately, there's a lip over which heavy items must be lifted. The rear 60:40 split rear seat folding mechanism is user-friendly though. You simply pull a strap to lift the seat bases, enabling the backs to drop down and create a completely flat loading area of 1,180 litres.
In the estate compartment, the floor panel covering the spare wheel is reversible and can be flipped over to reveal a practical, if rather shallow, waterproof tray that will keep muddy dogs - or muddy boots - from soiling the smart carpets. This is an idea that was shamelessly copied from Nissan's Primera Estate and has since popped up in all manner of other vehicles. A couple of smaller drawers are built into the sides of the boot area and plusher Sportwagons can accommodate longer items via a ski hatch built into the back seat. Sadly, the self-levelling suspension system (which would be so useful on those occasions you really want to carry heavy loads) was optional.
The 156 Sportwagon has had a mixed reliability record, with several niggling electrical issues marring an otherwise decent report card. The only major issue that has affected the 156 range is the problem some cars have had with porous engine blocks. This leads to compression loss although once detected much of this work should have been carried out under warranty. Later cars (2001 on) have largely had this problem ironed out. Look for shredded front tyres, worn suspension and kerb damage to alloy wheels and inspect the load bay for signs of damage. Be suspicious of cars other than the 2.5 V6 or the big diesel fitted with tow bars.
(based on a 2.0 Twinspark Sportwagon) A clutch assembly is around £138. Front and rear brakepads are around £50 per set of each, a rear exhaust box about £143 (excluding catalyst), a starter motor around £190. A replacement headlamp is about £145.
You'll forget that you're in the presence of what loosely purports to be an estate car as soon as you drop into the driver's seat. Reassure yourself that your Sportwagon carries less luggage than the saloon, congratulate yourself on your sound choice, twist the key and go. Gone is the strange Italianate seating position of previous models. "If you can't get comfortable in this car", observed a company spokesman at the time of its launch, "then you need to see a doctor, not a dealer". The controls are angled towards the driver; so is the gearstick. Plus, there's a climate control system good enough to deliver everything from Malibu in March to Alaska in August.
Select your favourite road. That one you love with the sweeping, open bends, the curving cambers and the blind brows. The Sportwagon is soon humming along it, the response to your every movement immediate. Your brain tells your hands to turn. The car responds as if it were eavesdropping.
Rest to sixty occupies a mere 9.3 seconds in the 144bhp 1.8, 8.6s in the 155bhp 2.0 and 7.3s in the 190bhp V6. The 2.4-litre diesel may well be the pick of the range for the used buyer. It delivers 42mpg fuel economy along with an 8.4s 0-60mph time and oodles of mid-range pulling power. Be careful on very severely undulating roads in the V6 car as it can ground out at the front with the extra weight it's carrying.
The 156 is the car that marked Alfa Romeo's global renaissance and the Sportwagon merely offers a different ending to this success story. If estate cars still mean frumpy antique dealers to you, the Alfa 156 Sportwagon is the perfect antidote.