For Your Isles Only

It is a nice idea: Britain traditionally has just about the strongest demand for estate cars anywhere. Alfa Romeo's reputation was made and is being revived on sporting cars. Marry the two, and the result ought to be irresistible.

Well, of course the truth lies somewhere in between. The result is the Sportwagon, and it is an attractive concept developed from the 33 range; only the newest and largest 1712cc version of the boxer four is offered, with 118 bhp available at the front wheels to pull anything up to 47 cubic feet of luggage. That translates into a good deal of fishing tackle, for such was the aim of the week's tour our example undertook. Suitcases, waders, landing nets, bait boxes; all went easily through the large rear opening, released by a toggle beside the driver, though of course the rods went steerage on the roof. A convenient mechanism folds the split rear seat, and the easily removable luggage cover is a bonus.

Despite the unusual angled C-pillar, approaching traffic can be seen from all directions, and even in dirty weather the side windows are kept clean by the perspex deflectors. Seating, like the rest of the interior, follows the latest revisions to the 33 range with a new bucket-type design which proved perfectly restful over the journeys between London and Devon, while the attractive new fascia is pretty successful, especially the controls for the powerful lights. But with the wheel adjusted for the taller driver, part of the panel is obscured.

This is not the quietest of cars, but the noises tend to be pleasant accelerative ones and by the time the Sportwagon settles into a 70-80 mph cruise it has left most of them behind. It rides nicely, perhaps with a little more fore-and-aft pitch than expected, but the steering ratio is still much too low, which does not make the best use of the chassis' grip. And it is even quite light; surely a quicker rack would not be too heavy.

Braking is good enough, if a trifle soggy, to keep a check on the car's powers, for this wagon can sprint to 60 mph in a mere 8.9 seconds — if the pilot can pull the gear lever into second fast enough, for the change still feels slightly disjointed. But testing Alfa's claims of 120 mph, while perhaps helping to boost the value of BP shares, is not sound economy, whereas in a week of normal driving the 1.7 engine returned an impressive 37 mpg.

Overall this is a grippy little car once enough lock is wound on, but our West Country trip highlighted its dislike of rain: on streaming roads it was reluctant to obey the front wheels, although the tyres are not unduly wide at 185/60 R14, and it was not hard to lock the fronts up.

Alfa Romeo GB sees this car as appealing the GTi/XR3i sector while offering real advantages in practicality, and both models would seem to be rather good value: £9969 buys the Veloce with its colour-keyed spoilers and side skirts, while choosing the slightly plainer Cloverleaf would save you £400. The cars are otherwise identical, and the spec of each version includes alloy wheels, electric windows and locks, and a leather-trimmed steering wheel.

There are always variations in the chosen specifications made available in each country, but the Sportwagon is unusual in being put together uniquely for the British market, in response to the request of ARGB. On the continent the Pininfarina-styled "break" comes only with the lower-power engines and with the choice of part-time 4WD; over here all other versions of the estate have been dropped in favour of this one. It is only a pity that nothing has, or perhaps can, be done about the dreadful pedal position which continues to afflict the 33. I can live with a homeless clutch foot, but the acute angle which the right ankle has to adopt for anything other than full throttle becomes painful rather quickly. Isis an old joke to suggest that Alfas are meant to be driven flat out; jokes can wear thin.

In summary, then, I approve of the idea of the car; with the Lancia HPE in extinction, the Reliant Scimitar GTE in limbo, and the gorgeous Lynx Eventer XJS estate conversion in cloud-cuckoo land for most of us, only Volvo's 480ES has attempted to sustain the idea of a sports-estate (as opposed to a sporting estate, of which there are more and more); and as I have not managed to drive that yet I reserve judgement.

Perhaps it is stretching a point to include the four-door Sportwagon amongst these two-door offerings, but for me that extra compartment somehow makes it look more sporting than the normal 33. I like the looks of the estate, I like the interior, I like the way it goes, most of the time, and now that the feeling is returning to my ankle I am beginning to forget about the drawbacks. All of which makes this car a typical Alfa Romeo — or perhaps it is just that I am a typical Alfa lover. GC