My 2.4 Spider is in for a new clutch at present and I have been given a courtesy car - a 2.5 V6 156.
I must admit that I have never really ‘got’ the 156. I have heard lots of people say it is a great drivers car and a beautiful piece of design, whilst people regularly rave about the 'proper' Alfa V6s. To my eyes however the 156 never looked particularly attractive, whilst the power outputs on paper of the V6 engines of that era (3.2 excepted) never looked that impressive.
Having had the car for 24 hours however I have totally fallen for it! It is bright red 156 V6 with 16" teledials and a big spoiler. In the flesh I cannot get over how well proportioned it looks - the lines are swooping and it looks aggressive and agile. Even the spoiler looks cool in an old school kind of way. I keep looking back at it when I park it imagining how the first owner must have felt some 12 years ago when he/ she had it from new. Must have been chuffed to bits seeing that on their drive back in 98 or whenever it was! Against its contemporaries I now totally 'get' why the 156 was such a success for Alfa - it just looks so exciting, yet not overly wrought.
As you get in, the doors open and close with a pleasing smoothness that feels like quality. Surprising for what is quite an old car. Inside the cabin things aren't great – lots of cheap looking black plastic which creaks once underway, low rent orange glowing dials and a cramped footwell. The driving position is a little odd too (for a human) as the steering wheel cannot be brought towards the driver and as such it is all long arms and short legs, whilst the gear-throw whilst smooth, is a bit on the long side.
Yet somehow it still feels charming somehow despite its faults, particularly when you allow for its age and try to think how it must have compared to the other cars of the late nineties. The good feeling is helped by the magnificent leather seats, with their cosseting lumbar support, still looking virtually brand new.
You turn the key and engine responds instantly, settling to a perfect idle. The handbrake action feels good as you set off, and whilst the clutch feels a little snatchy from a standing start, once on the move the power delivery and gearshift are each remarkably smooth. The torque feels almost linear and comes in from very low down, but still encourages you to seek the redline on an open road, backed by that magnificent V6 howl as the car surges happily forward. Whilst I haven’t had chance to drive it properly on a decent open road, some motorway slip roads have given opportunity to explore the power a bit. I have driven and owned some fast cars in my time, so being a bit jaded I expected to be underwhelmed, yet the 156 feels genuinely quick; certainly more so than the 190bhp quoted power output would suggest. This I guess is probably due to it being relatively light by todays standards. It certainly feels like a car that could still give a modern hot hatch a fright or two away from the lights I suspect. My Spider is one of those cars that neither encourages nor responds well to being hurried – it likes to lope along, gently riding the waves of low down torque, with the odd squirt of turbo boost to nip into a gap, or overtake a dawdler. The 156 by contrast is one of those cars that feels like it is eager to go and wants to play, seemingly egging you on to give the throttle a good squeeze and hold the gears longer than you need to. It feels like a willing companion in the same way that our old MK1 MX5 did which is a great feeling for a performance car and one that makes you enjoy driving in a way that many modern cars fail to capture.
The steering is reassuringly heavy and feels much more direct than modern Alfa’s, which are all too artificial in my opinion, leaving you a bit disconnected from the action. To be honest, the handling doesn’t feel great and the car feels a little nose heavy to me, whilst on the motorway at higher speeds it shares the same unsettling ‘floating’ feeling that my old GT had that takes a bit of getting used to. Yet the damping is good and it gives quite a smooth ride, whilst still feeling like it could be a reasonably sure footed companion on a good road if you spent some more time getting to know it.
What I find most sad is that these cars are now almost totally unwanted – combination of reputation and thirst I guess. A scan of the classifieds shows that £1,000 should be sufficient to bag a good quality one. Yet as a ‘shed’ as PH say, this must be a glorious car and obscene value for money. It kind of makes you wonder why we bother to keep spending increasing sums on newer cars, when really there is nothing wrong with the older stuff (well apart from the terrifying fuel consumption!).
Sally has already seen where this is going and firmly said a resounding ‘NO’ to the idea of getting one as a cheap second car, but is proving an enjoyable experience nonetheless and one that makes me feel like I ‘get’ Alfa ownership on a new level now.
To those of you running and enjoying V6 156s, I am totally with you all the way!