Autocars original 156 road test
Perhaps they did once like Alfas.....
Alfa Romeo 156 2.0 Twin Spark 4dr
Test Date 05/11/1997
Price when new £19,728
Alfa Romeo 156
The importance of the 156 to Alfa’s fortunes is clear from the thoroughness of its design and development. Drafting in project director Bruno Cenna fresh from the Fiat Punto launch proved how determined Alfa bosses were to make the 156 a car with convincing finish and durability. But behind this Italian offensive lurks a degree of desperation: Alfa Romeo has some fine cars, but still lacks the volume-selling saloon that would make the marque truly viable. Alfa intends the new 156 to be that car, and so it must work.
The Alfa’s most obvious asset is its beautiful Walter de Silva-designed shape. Alfa discourages talk of 156 under-body commonality with other Fiat Group cars. Although it shares the 146’s wheelbase and transverse front-drive layout, it has a new double-wishbone front suspension (it could have opted for cheaper MacPherson struts) and it adopts the much-admired multilink rear set-up from the GTV and Spider. The Alfa 155’s high-geared rack and pinion steering (2.2 turns lock-to-lock) is also used; quick steering has been identified as a key Alfa trend. Alfa’s in-line four-cylinder engines are unique in having both twin spark plugs and four valves per cylinder. And the 2.0’s output of 155bhp compares favourably with the punchiest of its 2.0-litre rivals.
2.0-litre 16v Twin Spark makes a seductive engine
The 156 is swift for a 2.0-litre saloon and puts most hot hatchbacks to shame. The biggest surprise was its 0-100mph sprint time of 22 seconds dead – 6.8sec ahead of the BMW 318i and only 4.0sec behind a Porsche Boxster. The performance is all the more impressive for being delivered by an aristocratic-sounding engine which is both effortless and smooth. It thrives on revs and emits a wonderful, if subdued, wail when used hard. But it is almost noiseless when cruising the motorway. The gearchange is light and fairly quick, though it has quite a long throw. In line with its other controls, the brakes are delicate in their response. Good retardation is available from a light initial push, but the car can also generate awesome stopping power in extremis. The 156 has a feeling of relaxed, almost unimpeachable stability. In the old days, stable front-wheel drive cars suffered horrible understeer at the limit. But the 156 refuses to scrub its front tyres, and its quick steering retains a sensitivity, accuracy and control even when you’re cornering hard. Although the Alfa jigged about a little more than other 156s we’ve driven because it was running 205/55 ZR16 tyres on optional alloy wheels, it coped with some horrible surfaces – and had no significant body squeaks or rattles
The people who stare hardest at the 156 are invariably drivers of small Mercedes, BMWs and Audis. As well as existing Alfa fans, of course. Inside, the striped velour trim and the swoopy confidence of its fascia make it a warm, interesting place to be. The 156 cabin reflects Alfa’s philosophy of doing away with ‘severe’ straight lines, and hiding hardware like seat runners. Its simple layout, with attractive white-faced instruments, gives it a decisively modern aspect. It allows a snug fit for four adults (perhaps with a child in the centre rear). The 156 cabin is well fitted-out, and has a tangible feeling of solidity.In this test we saw no important difference between a BMW and this Alfa for strength and durability; if we’d said that 10 years ago, we’d have been laughed out of road testing. The engine’s only fault is a failure to deliver better economy, but some of the shortfall may be explained by driving style. Less engaging engines simply do not encourage you to drive with the verve you throw at the Alfa.
Alfa has produced a classic design; a car that will be admired for its beauty by a wider constituency than established Alfa lovers. The 156 is a car to convert people. This Twin Spark engine also has a strong claim to be the world’s finest 2.0-litre four. It is responsive yet effortless, strong yet smooth. The 156 caps Alfa’s successes with the 145/146 and the Spider/GTV; it is the beginning of Alfa’s better tomorrow. But the Italians cannot think of resting on their laurels. A new BMW 3-series is coming; this fight seems certain to escalate.
Some days you`re the statue and some days you`re the pigeon