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No prize for coming first

The 159 came here in 2006 sans not only the automatic transmission option — crucial these days if you’re serious about attracting more than a few hundred punters (such as myself) — but also the refinement, efficiency, performance and various other things hoped for by those of us who, against all reason, hold Alfa Romeo in some regard.

Some embellishments and functional enhancements between first appearance and mid-life revision are par for the course, of course. Yet it’s the glaring improvement between model year 2008 and this one that’s so striking, so much so that if this were the work of Volkswagen they’d tell you it belonged to a new generation.

Put it this way, there’s far more substantive improvement between this year’s 159 (Ti editions and conventional ones alike) than has been claimed between the Mark V and Mark VI Golfs — not so much in terms of bits and pieces added on in, but for how the thing goes.

I drove the top-line diesel 159 this week over precisely the same bits of bitumen as every previous 159 to date. The five-cylinder turbo diesel is still far, far too gruff and loud for anything priced around $61K, but despite this and the same knee-weakening Giugiaro design and driver-centric cabin as before, you have a tough time believing it’s the same car.

Skinny Ti edition 19s notwithstanding, it rides the same bumps on which the last Ti in this garage just about scraped its chin off. Moreover, despite being dropped and stiffened it suffers altogether fewer instances of skittering and general ill-discipline.

All this without comprising the connectivity one feels with the road or that excellent turn in. And all that while channeling 400Nm through the front wheels.

Only 10 years ago, grown men were simpering in relief at having survived Saab’s manically torque-steering 9-3 Viggen with its 350Nm going through the pointy end. Yet the Alfa’s front-wheel nature comes to the fore mainly in terms of a bus-like turning circle.

The truly extraordinary leap forward, however, is Aisin’s six-speed automatic tranny. So maladroit was their previous effort it worked with the car about as harmoniously as a transplanted organ that the body is rejecting. Well, they’ve fixed it to the extent that it bears comparison with the benchmark ZF of BMW’s rival 320D.

There’s another car about which you might be entitled to feel sour if you’re among the first-up buyers. The BMW E90 – the fifth incarnation of the 3-Series — started life here with the previous generation’s 2.0-litre turbo diesel only to get the new, more efficient and faster engine in 2008, with further marginal improvements in output and efficiency for the 2009 range.

Says something doesn’t it?

All things really do come to he who waits.