Alfa Romeo

The Saab 9000 Turbo is dead. Long live the Kia Stinger

Kia has tough competition from the Germans for its new Stinger sports saloon

MANY have tried, but none have succeeded. Who’d have thought the Saab 9000 Turbo would be such a tricky act to follow?

It’s a curious (and not particularly lucrative) corner of the car market to capture; the people who are in the market for a tarmac-snorting, junior-sized sports saloon that ISN’T a BMW, AMG-tweaked Mercedes of hotted-up Audi. This particularly elusive species of motorist is after something with just enough cachet to cut it outside a nearby golf club (so that’s virtually every fast Ford and sporty Vauxhall out), and is hung up enough about long-term reliability to give anything made by Alfa Romeo a wide berth. Not entirely fairly, I’ve always reckoned.

Just think about all those cars over the years that have offered a 9000 Turbo-esque premise but never really taken off (no jet fighter puns intended). The Lexus IS-F, MG ZT260, Mazda6 MPS, Volvo S60R, Chrysler 300C, Volkswagen Passat W8, for instance. For all their leather seats, ample equipment levels and muted growls from their exhausts none have ever really managed to convincingly win over the anything-but-a-blummin’-BMW brigade. In fact you could argue that Saab itself never nailed it either, given the Swedes ran out of cash five years ago.

But that isn’t going to stop Kia giving it their best shot anyway. Their new BMW-baiter arrives here in January and it’s already onto a winner because it has a cool name; it might not be posh and German, but you can at least tell your mates that you drive a Stinger. Which it makes it sound like an American muscle car.

It also picks up the Saab’s old trick of using turbos to rustle up the sort of mid-range thump that comes in handy on a motorway’s outside lane; in the range-topping 3.3-litre V6 there are two of them, and they send 365bhp to the rear wheels. The upshot is that you’ll end up surging to 60mph in 4.7 seconds and onto a top speed of 168mph. Yes, I know that’s academic when you can only legally do 70mph, but when you bear in mind that sports saloon ownership is basically a better funded version of Top Trumps for grown-ups the big Kia comes across quite well.

For the same sort of money as a BMW 340i you can have a four-door saloon that’s bigger, better equipped, quicker and more powerful – and it’s styled by the same bloke who did the original Audi TT, just for good measure.

So it’s a no-brainer that your next sports saloon’s going to be a Kia Stinger, then? Nope, didn’t think it was. The BMW brochure’s just over there, seeing as you’re asking…

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Alfa Romeo hasn’t beaten BMW with the Giulia, but it has won my heart

The Giulia is the first rear-wheel-drive Alfa Romeo saloon in 25 years

THAT distant noise you can hear is the sound of Alfa Romeo’s Giulia depreciating in value. Or perhaps it’s the sound of interior trim creaking uncomfortably during repeated use.

Or – and I reckon this is a tad more accurate – it’s the gentle groan of people who’ve grown up with Alfas of the past expecting the new arrival to be just as fragile. I can see where they’re coming from; I drove a 1990s GTV6 last year and spent the entire outing wondering what would’ve happened had Milan put as much effort into its interior as it did its V6s. But I didn’t care how squeaky the trim was, because the three litres of chrome-garnished opera up front sounded utterly enchanting.

Whereas the engine in the Giulia I tried didn’t. I’m aware that you can order Italy’s latest 3-Series basher with a twin-turbo, 503bhp monster of a V6 but the version most people are likely to be punting up an outside lane near you is the 2.2-litre turbodiesel, which below 3000rpm isn’t quite as refined as its Audi or BMW equivalents. But put your foot down and the clatter’s quickly replaced by impressive mid-range shove. In 188bhp form it’s an impressively brisk, if not lightning quick, motorway companion.

It’s also the first Alfa saloon in a quarter of a century to send its oomph to the rear wheels – the right wheels, if you want to enjoy driving a big saloon – and the end result’s a car that really lets you revel in its delicately set-up steering and suspension on the right road. It does an accomplished job of devouring A-roads, but the 3-Series is a tiny bit better.

Which is where the Giulia does a fine job of messing up my own verdict – because the BMW is a tiny bit better not just at cornering, but at virtually everything. The Alfa has B-pillars so vast that they make checking your blind spots very hard work, anyone hopping into the rear seats inevitably smacks their scalp on the low roofline, and the German offering is more likely to hold onto its value.

But I’ve never walked away from a 3-Series and given it a lingering second glance, which you do with the Giulia because it is an achingly pretty car. Just like the old 156 and 159 were.

The BMW’s clearly the better car in the same way that Birmingham’s a perfectly sensible place to live. But given the choice I’d have a cottage in the Lake District any day – and a Giulia parked outside, naturally.