TURIN - Alfa Romeo could easily have grafted a boxy rear end onto its 156 sedan to make it into a station wagon. But there were no design compromises with the new 156 Sportwagon. As its name implies, it carries on with the coupe-like theme that has made the sedan version such a styling success.
The Sportwagon was developed under the guidance of Alfa's former styling boss Walter de' Silva, now head of design at Seat. Alfa's styling center began work on the Sportwagon shortly after the launch of the 156 sedan in September 1997.
Because the Sportwagon was developed after the sedan, the rear of the car required a great deal of re-engineering. This included the introduction of an additional u-shaped cross-member to connect the rear suspension struts.
One of the first strategic decisions was to design specific rear doors for the Sportwagon. The sedan's rear doors were not considered suitable for a flowing rear quarter. However, like the sedan, the Sportwagon's rear door handles are hidden in the window frames. In fact, at 4430mm long, the Sportwagon is the same size as the sedan.
Alfa claims the Sportwagon has lost just over 10 percent of the sedan's torsional rigidity. Typically, a wagon derivative loses 25 percent torsional rigidity.
The Sportwagon weighs just 50kg more than the sedan, while its longer roof offers a better drag coefficient - 0.30Cd instead of 0.31Cd. Drag means the resistance of a body to airflow.
The Sportwagon is by no means a traditional load-carrier. It has a basic cargo capacity of 360 liters - which is actually less than the sedan's 378 liters. But Alfa says the Sportwagon's layout maximizes use of available luggage space. With the rear seats folded down, its cargo capacity rises to 1,180 liters.
For ease of access, the tailgate reaches into the roof and is hinged about halfway along the rear side window. A self-leveling suspension system has been added to the Sportwagon to help it cope with heavy loads.
Fiat Auto invested over L100 billion (A51.65 million) in the Sportwagon's research and development and tooling. It is being produced alongside the 156 sedan in the Pomigliano d'Arco plant, near Naples, south Italy.
It was originally planned to tool 50 percent of the capacity of the 156 line for the Sportwagon. After the launch peak, Sportwagons were expected to stabilize at 20-30 percent of the plant's output. But following positive reaction to the Sportwagon's debut at last month's Geneva auto show, it has now been decided to increase capacity to 70 percent, with the new car stabilizing at about 50 percent of the total output.
About 30,000 Sportwagons will be built this year, rising to 60,000 in 2001. The 156 line has a daily capacity of 550 units on two shifts, or 120,000 units a year. But that could reach 700 units a day, or more than 150,000 units a year, with the introduction of a night shift.
In 30 months of production, 252,000 156 sedans have so far been built.
The 156 Sportwagon arrives at a very positive moment in Alfa Romeo's history. The company increased sales by 3.1 percent in 1999 to 201,600 units. Alfa sold 53,000 units in the first two months of 2000. It is planning to sell 235,000 units in the entire year, and 280,000 units in 2002.