Review and road test of the Alfa Romeo 156 (1998 - 2003)
GOING FOR AN ITALIAN
BY JONATHAN CROUCH
The Alfa Romeo 156 was the car that finally upset German dominance in the compact executive saloon sector. An Alfa you could buy with real confidence new, it makes just as much sense used.
Models Covered: (4DR [1.6,1.8,2.0,2.0 SELESPEED,1.9, 2.4 JTD,2.5 V6] / SPORTWAGON [1.6,1.8,2.0,2.0 SELESPEED,2.4 JTD,2.5 V6])
The 156 could hardly have had a more auspicious start. Voted Car of the Year at its UK introduction in January 1998, it arrived on the British market as the car that was to resurrect the Milanese brand. Nor did it disappoint.
In truth, the 156 had only scooped the Car of the Year title due to the last-minute elk-induced mishaps of Mercedes' more innovative little A-class. But that didn't stop it from being a great car - and a model to seriously upset its German rivals.
Prior to the launch, Alfa enthusiasts had feared corporate compromise in pursuit of the extra sales the brand required for profitability. Would the company's products become all things to all men or remain as everything to just a few?
For the answer, they had only to turn the ignition key. Whether the engine was a 1.8 or 2.0-litre Twin Spark or silky-smooth 2.5-litre V6, the seductive technique was the same. For those with real driving blood in their veins, that muted roar worked every time.
Early in 1999, a clever Selespeed version of the 2.0-litre Twin Spark was added to the range with finger-tip steering wheel-controls for the automatic gearchange. In June, a further 2.4 JTD version arrived, powered by a performance-minded turbo diesel engine and was well received. At the same time, an innovative Q-system automatic option (allowing 'manual'-style changes) was announced for the 2.5-litre V6.
In May 2000, prices were reduced and specifications increased in a round of minor changes that included the standardisation of twin front and side airbags, ABS and air conditioning. All models were now made available in three trim levels - standard, Lusso (with leather) and Veloce (with sports suspension). An entry-level 120bhp 1.6-litre Twin Spark petrol model was added as the range's entry-level model.
July 2000 saw the addition of a new Sportwagon estate bodystyle. Big on style but relatively short on space, it was available with all engines and trim levels at a premium of around £900 over the saloon. Range designations were revised in 2001, with the Turismo becoming the entry-level car.
The much-loved 2.0-litre Twinspark engine was retired in early 2002, replaced by the 2.0-litre JTS unit, a 165bhp direct injection technofest. At the same time, the 156's interior was given a mild makeover and 250bhp GTA versions of the saloon and Sportwagon were launched. Early 2003 saw the introduction of a budget 115bhp JTD diesel, sold alongside the existing 150bhp 2.4 JTD. A facelift in mid-2003 smartened-up the front-end with a revised grille and headlights. And that, my friends, was it. The Alfa 159 hit the showrooms in February 2006 and that spelt the end for the 156.
What You Get
Speed, style and passion. Enthusiasts will think fondly back to Alfas like the 1900 or the Giulietta, the Giulia or the Alfetta. Truth to tell however, these, though great cars, were never really great travelling companions. If you weren't in the mood to enjoy them, then a personality clash was sometimes inevitable.
Luggage space is not a strongpoint in the saloon and the Sportwagon estate famously offered less room in the rear than the four-door model. The Sportwagon still makes sense, however, because its load area is more practical and to many it looks even better than the saloon. The engines are all wonderfully charismatic but you do pay for this in the form of fuel economy that's not quite on a par with rivals.
What to Look For
Though the 156's build quality and reliability record is not quite as good as that of, say, Audi, it's not far off. Watch for thrashed examples but also check for faulty electrics and water leaks which are not uncommon.
(based on a 2.0 Twin Spark) A clutch assembly is around £138. Front and rear brakepads are around £50 per set of each, a rear exhaust box about £143 (excluding catalyst), a starter motor around £190. A replacement headlamp is about £145.
On the Road
That things were different in a 156 was evident from the first moment you drove one. Gone was the strange Italianate seating position of previous models. "If you can't get comfortable in this car", observed a company spokesman, "then you need to see a doctor, not a dealer". The controls are angled towards the driver; so is the gearstick. Plus, there's a climate control system good enough to deliver everything from Malibu in March to Alaska in August.
But you'll want to know what it's like taking to the tarmac, gunning through the gears. Buy one and everyone will be asking. There's something about the look of this car which is deeply suggestive in this respect. Perhaps it's the coupe-like styling; perhaps the high waistline. Are these the hallmarks of what Alfa Romeo calls "a great sports saloon"? You'll soon see.
Select your favourite road. That one you love with the sweeping, open bends, the curving cambers and the blind brows. The 156 is soon humming along it, the response to your every movement immediate. Your brain tells your hands to turn. The car responds as if it were eavesdropping.
Rest to sixty occupies a mere 9.3 seconds in the 144bhp 1.8, 8.6s in the 155bhp 2.0 and 7.3s in the 190bhp V6. The 2.4-litre diesel may well be the pick of the range for the used buyer. It delivers 42mpg fuel economy along with an 8.4s 0-60mph time and oodles of mid-range pulling power.
Arguably the first Alfa you could buy used with real confidence. It's more fun to drive - and to own - than German rivals and looks great. A discerning used choice.
Alfa Romeo 156 (1998 - 2003) review by JONATHAN CROUCH