For Rick and Nem
Alfa Romeo 156 2.4 JTD Veloce 4dr
Test Date 14/10/2003
Price when new £18,900
Alfa Romeo 156 2.4 JTD
The Alfa Romeo 156 shook up the compact exec establishment in 1997, but the JTD 2.4-litre five cylinder diesel that arrived two years later can take some pioneering credit too. Just a few years earlier the idea of a diesel Alfa coming to the UK would have been laughable. Now itís a must have for any credible sporting saloon to be packing a torquey diesel engine.
The 2.4-litre in-line five has been substantially reworked. It now features a twin-cam cylinder head with four valves per cylinder, and thereís a host of detail changes to pistons and other internal components. It employs the latest multijet technology Ė where each main fuel injection is squirted into the engine in a series of small bursts, allowing for finer control of combustion Ė direct-injection pressure has been raised to 1400 bar, and there are some tweaks to the variable-geometry turbocharger.
With this new-look 156, most of the bodywork changes are at the front. Prominent bonnet creases flow into the agressive new grille.
Focused cabin is as comfortable as it is stylish
Our test was blighted by incessant rain, hardly ideal conditions for a front-wheel-drive car with enormous torque, but despite this the 156 ripped to 60mph in 7.6 seconds. This is a mighty engine, one which puts its rivals in the shade: neither the 163bhp Audi A4 2.5TDi (8.9sec) or the BMW 320d (9.3sec) can live with that pace and their lower torque outputs mean itís a similar story for in-gear acceleration. Here the JTD really hits its stride, storming from 40-80mph in fourth in just 8.7 seconds. Not only is that substantially quicker than the diesel competition, it also beats our favourite petrol-engined junior exec Ė the BMW 330i Ė over the same test by 3.5sec.
Out on the road the JTD is fantastically flexible. Itís a supreme overtaker, usually requiring no downchange before dispatching another dawdler. That Alfa Romeo has also managed to embellish this diesel powerplant with typical Italian brio is all the more remarkable. It sings lustily, with a lovely gravelly note typical of in-line fives, yet without any trace of harshness. Unfortunately, the revamp of the 156 doesnít include any chassis modifications. Our Veloce-spec car had sports suspension, but the 156 simply doesnít have enough body control. The car feels underdamped and unable to restrict its body movements to a comfortable level. Twice the nose grounded on relatively minor compressions. Strangely, sports suspension settings are identical whether thereís a 2.4 JTD or lighter 1.6 petrol under the bonnet. The plump 55-profile tyres promise good ride comfort, but despite the soft body control the ride is poor, the car juddering over transverse ridges or potholes and fidgeting over the smallest imperfections. The steering is the usual quick Alfa rack at 2.1 turns lock to lock, but itís light, with little feel, and kicks back nastily over mid-corner bumps. Push really hard and things quickly get ragged, with pronounced understeer and lots of bump-thump from the suspension
Inside, there are few changes since last yearís interior makeover. Itís a stylish cabin that works particularly well at night, when the red dials create a superb atmosphere. Itís comfortable, too, even if the seat is a little soft for decent back support. Although the wheel is set low, partially obscuring the dials for taller drivers, itís within reasonable reach, and thereís plenty of adjustment on offer. Rear legroom is fine, but headroom is tight.
Equipment levels are decent, including a dual-zone climate control system and six airbags as standard. At £20,025 the JTD undercuts its most obvious rivals. That said you canít expect the same running costs as some. We were slightly disappointed with our touring figure of 36mpg, given Alfaís quoted combined figure of 42.8. Even at 36mpg, you could expect just under 500 miles from a tankful. Good, but some way off the BMW 320dís frugality.
The 156 JTD is a great engine in an attractive body cruelly let down by a poorly set up and ageing chassis. The in-line five may drink the black stuff but it deserves its place alongside the classic Alfa engines such as the long serving petrol V6. But in the end the 156ís shortcomings are too obvious to ignore.
Some days you`re the statue and some days you`re the pigeon