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Alfa Romeo rides SUV bandwagon

Alfa Romeo

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Remember when four-wheel drives used to be driven by soldiers, farmers, explorers and the odd eccentric? The car business was a lot simpler then – Ford and GM built family cars, the Germans built luxury cars, the Japanese built cheap cars, and the Italians built sports cars.

Now we have budget-priced Benzes and Japanese limousines, and Ford and GM are wondering where the mass market went. And everyone – even Porsche – is building off-roaders that will never tackle anything more challenging than the car park at Tescos. Well, almost everyone.

A few brands have so far resisted the lure of the SUV, still one of the world's fastest-growing market segments. Fiat has produced all-wheel drive road cars, and even mild crossovers - remember the Panda 4x4 and the Alfa 33 Sportwagon? But never a proper SUV.

Until now. Alfa Romeo boss Paolo Masai has confirmed a big slice of the £490m earmarked for the development of cars will be devoted to 4wd vehicles, including crossover and SUV models.

A jacked-up Alfa 156 Sportwagon with an Audi Allroad-style bodykit will be first out of the blocks. Powered by a 175bhp 2.4-litre turbo-diesel, it's due to appear next April. The five-door 147 hatch will be given similar treatment, and is expected to go on sale in September.

Alfa's new Premium platform, co-developed with GM and destined to underpin the next generation 156 and 146 models in 2005 and 2006, is being engineered to accept both front-wheel drive and four-wheel drive powertrains. This platform will then be used to spin off a proper SUV with similar styling to the Kamal concept first seen at the Geneva Show.

In addition to extended ground clearance and a high seating position, this Alfa SUV will feature a variable torque-split driveline, and will be powered by all-new six and V8 petrol engines and a V6 turbodiesel. Expect to see it 2006.

That leaves PSA as the only mainstream carmaker without an SUV. New Peugeot CEO Frederic Saint-Geours admits it's a hole that should be filled, but he insists PSA doesn't have the resources to develop its own four-wheel drive.

Alfa Romeo 1750TBi Lusso

The Germans. It’s a phrase that appears in consumer roadtests on the 159 regularly, with the BMW named most often.

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