No, but evo have. Main change over the last facelift is the suspension revisions which sound a bit unconvincing, but I think it was the Lusso version they drove.
EVO September 2003
Alfa Romeo 156 2.4 JTD
The GTA continues, but the rest of the 156 range has been facelifted, and this is the hottest so far.
So what do you think? Has Giorgetto Giugiaro - arguably the world's most successful living car designer - pulled it off and facelifted the Alfa 156 without diluting the original's delicate beauty? For what it's worth, I think he's mucked it up. It's still an exceptionally handsome car in a class not noted for works of art, but to me it now looks, well, less Italian than it did. Less classically so, anyway.
I think it has something to do with the elongated, swept-back headlight accent lines and the fussier 'tear duct' vents. I know this recalls Giugiaro's acclaimed Brera concept, but for me the overall effect, while undoubtedly more aggressive, is also vaguely Japanese - pressed for a name I'll go with, er, Nissan. The tidying of the rear (essentially flush bumpers) is subtle by comparison. I suppose it depends which way you like your blessings mixed. If you agree with me about the external makeover, the good news is that the most evo-centric model in the 156 range, the low volume 3.2-litre 250bhp V6 GTA, continues as it is - warts 'n' all. But the cabin revamp, with its redesigned climate control, more visible multifunction display and upgraded trim materials is all good and would have been worth having in the swiftest model.
Alfa clearly believes the GTA didn't warrant the expense and effort of a separate update. Indeed, there seems to be a significant shift in the marketing centre of gravity for Alfa's medium-sized saloon in the UK. Unlikely as it seems, out goes the 190bhp 2.5 petrol V6, to be replaced as the brawniest mainstream 156 motor by... a new 20-valve, 2.4-litre, 175bhp, five-cylinder turbodiesel. We won't get it until November; the rest of the range has a September UK roll-out.
This is Alfa's response to the fact that 156 customers appear to like diesels. The old 2.4 JTD took 10 per cent of sales, but this jumped to 30 per cent with the launch of the 115bhp 1.9 JTD two months ago. Hence the diesels 'r' us offensive.
Before you turn the page, consider this. The second-generation common-rail 2.4-litre Multijet unit backs up its 175bhp at 4000rpm with a thumping 284lb ft of torque at just 2000rpm, improvements of 25bhp and 59lb ft on the old 2.4. Performance against the clock shouldn't really be an issue. Alfa claims a 0-62mph time of 8.3sec and a top speed of 140mph - snappy by any standards and all the more attractive teamed with a 42.8mpg combined cycle consumption. But sporty in the pulse-quickening sense?
Not exactly. If anything, as the 156 matures it's becoming softer and more pampering. In addition to the cosmetic and engine changes, Alfa's had another look at the 156's suspension, reducing friction and softening the damping to improve ride comfort. Quite how this will translate on the roller-coaster roads of Wales or Yorkshire that have previously proved the undoing of the Alfa's vertical suspension control is a question for the future, but on the mostly smooth blacktop in the countryside around Turin, the 2.4 JTD 20V is, indeed, a model of suppleness and refinement.
Not to mention tenacity. The nose-heavy balance you might anticipate with a large diesel lump up-front simply doesn't materialise. The new 156 turns in keenly, hangs on heroically and handles neutrally. There seems to be a little more body-roll than before but there's no lost motion in the steering, which is accurate and feelful. And so well balanced is the chassis that it can be cornered very quickly with remarkably little drama and hardly any tyre squeal - a sure sign that the suspension is sharing the workload evenly, corner to corner. It all feels very safe and fluent, if not hugely involving.
The agenda for effortless refinement, though, is clearly set by the new Multijet engine, which immediately joins the ranks of the oil-burning elite for the way it combines frankly stunning flexibility with genuinely low noise and vibration levels and a funky five-pot warble. It's a great engine, period. The gearchange is good, too, and there's a new aura of quality about the cabin.
In fact, it's the most rounded and broadly able 156 yet. Not a sports saloon, not an evo natural, but very likeable all the same.