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~ ~ Alfa Romeo have come a long way in the past few years. I can remember a time not that very long ago that they had such a bad reputation, especially in regard to body rot, that the standing joke was that if you left one out overnight in the rain, the next morning you’d have to sweep up the pile of rust with a brush and shovel. No one ever doubted the ability of the Italian manufacture to build a motor car that would shift you around the place at a very rapid rate of knots. The only question in people’s minds was if it would do so without breaking down somewhere along the way.
~ ~ But I’d heard such good reports about the latest bunch of Alfas that I was determined to get my hands on one to see for myself if they had improved as much as people said. The ideal opportunity came last year, on our annual family holiday to Tuscany in Italy. Car hire was included in the package, and for a few shillings (well, pounds actually) more I was able to upgrade to an Alfa 156 for the duration of the trip. My first nice surprise came on arrival at the airport in Bologna. I had booked a 1.6 litre model, but as one was not available, I was given instead the 2 litre Twin Spark, and at no extra charge!
~ ~ Before I’d even put the car into gear, I knew that this machine was going to prove something special. When you turn the key in the ignition, and hear for the first time the totally distinctive and unmistakable growl that comes from this car’s engine, you just know that you’re in for the drive of a lifetime.
Exterior and Interior +++++++++++++++
~ ~ But before we get to the driving characteristics and performance, let’s take a look first at the style of this vehicle. The Italians are renowned for their flair in building “sexy looking” motor cars, and that’s just the way I would choose to describe this car. I quite simply fell in love the first time I saw it sitting there in the airport car park. From the distinctive sweep of the Alfa’s bonnet, to the almost voluptuous curves of the rear body styling and light cluster, this car just oozes undisguised sex appeal. The front number plate is offset to one side, so as not to interfere with the size and shape they wanted to achieve with the almost “shield-like” radiator grille, and this adds even more to its sporty appearance. Even the rear door handles have been cleverly hidden, to make this car look more like a coupe than the saloon that it actually is. The paintwork has been given a “mirror” finish, that helps it to look good even when it’s not too clean, and this is complimented front and rear by the distinctive Alfa badge. My hire car was a bright, shiny red that looked absolutely terrific, although my own favourite colour in a car is actually black There was also a nice shiny set of sporty looking alloy wheels, and a reassuringly fat set of 16-inch tyres to go with them. I’m reliably informed that Alfa have even cured their notorious “rust problem”, by using a combination of magnesium and aluminium in the bodywork. I don’t really know what this achieves, to be totally honest, but I haven’t heard many owners moaning about rust problems these days!
~ ~ The interior is the “business” as well. The first thing I noticed was the wooden steering wheel and gearknob, that together with the figure hugging sports seats really give you the feeling you’re driving a sports car. A nice touch as well was the embroidered Alfa logos on all the seats. The instrument panel is almost “retro” in its styling, as it is both deep set and angled slightly, so that it is only visible to the driver, and not the front passenger. My wife actually moaned constantly about this, as she is a “speed freak” who would put Michael Schumaker to shame. (Off topic, but I recall one occasion when we were doing nearly 140 mph on a German autobahn in a 5 series BMW, and she was actually urging me to go FASTER. I told her to go any faster she’d have to stick her legs through the floor like Fred Flintstone, and pedal like mad!!) It has all the usual little extras that you’d expect in a car of this class, such as air conditioning, (a must in Italy in the summer) electric windows all round, pre-tensioned seat belts, front driver and passenger air bags, a height and reach adjustable steering wheel, and a driver’s seat that also adjusts for height to accommodate even the tallest of drivers. The rear seats are also very comfortable, and there’s plenty of legroom as well so that the people in the back don’t feel cramped. The boot is large and spacious, with plenty of room whatever your requirments. And a loud and effective radio/cassette gives you all the in-car entertainment you could wish for, with loads of pre-set buttons so you didn’t have to fiddle about looking for stations while you were driving.
Performance and Handling +++++++++++++++++++
~ ~ I know what you all want to know now. What does it drive like? Put quite simply, it goes like hot s**t of a shovel. The performance figures quoted by the manufacture say that this car will shift you from 0 to 60 mph in just a tad over 8 seconds, and take you to a totally illegal top speed of 134 mph. And let me tell you that this is just what the 156 tries to do at every possible opportunity. So much so, in fact, that it can prove VERY difficult to keep yourself from constantly breaking the law, as this car simply sits up and begs you to give it some “welly”! The 2 litre Twin Spark that I drove has a revised version of the old four cylinder engine from its predecessor, the Alfa 155, that develops 155bhp, but the car is available in all sorts of different versions and formats, from the basic 1.6 litre right up to the truly amazing 190bhp 2.5 litre V6. (God alone knows what the V6 is capable of!!)
~ ~ The gearbox was a joy; crisp, precise, and very responsive, and it had a sixth gear for motorway or high speed cruising. I believe there is also a semi-automatic box available similar to what are fitted on racing cars called the “Selespeed”. But that engine noise; it’s SO throaty and powerful that I can hardly find words to describe it, and has to be experienced to be believed. You feel as if you’re sitting at the wheel of a Formula One racing car, and not a family saloon.
~ ~ The road holding and handling are simply stunning, and with a good solid set of ABS brakes to stop you, you simply feel that there’s nothing you could do that this car wouldn’t take in its stride. Safety isn’t ignored either, with side impact bars to protect you in the event that some idiot does decide to give you a clatter.
~ ~ Complaints? Well, damn few to be honest. Alfa quote petrol consumption of around the 25mpg mark for town driving, rising to a respectable 40mpg on a run, but I think they’re being a bit optimistic, or else it was a old “fuddy duddy” who drove the car like his ancient Ford Anglia who did their test run for them. If you drive this car as it is meant to be driven, then it is a fairly thirsty beast. I found it a bit difficult to judge the actual petrol consumption, as I wasn’t used to the different fuel prices in Italy, but it did seem to get through an awful lot of fuel. But let’s face it, if it’s fuel consumption you’re after then you don’t buy a 156!!!
~ ~ The ride was a little on the firm side as well. You didn’t really notice it that much on a motorway or on a good road surface, but some of the Italian side roads leave a little to be desired, and it fairly rattled you around a bit at low speeds in particular. The clutch pedal was another little “crib”, as it seemed to have a huge amount of travel before engaging, but I got used to this fairly quickly, and didn’t notice it too much after a couple of days driving. I’m sure it could be adjusted to suit your own particular driving preference, if you found it a major problem.
~ ~ Here in Ireland an Alfa 156- 2 litre Twin Spark will set you back £22,400 (Irish Punts) which I honestly think is an awful lot of motor car for the money. Prices start at £18,200 for the basic 1.6 TS, and rise to a whopping £27,500 for the 2.4 JTD Sportswagon. (estate). In the UK you get a much better deal, with the base 1.6 TS costing £13,874, and the Sportswagon only £18,614. The 2 litre Twin Spark will cost you £18,375.
~ ~ I think you’ve probably guessed by this stage that this car comes close to my perfect vehicle. So much so, in fact, that it’s my intention to buy one in January, 2002. (as the family car, not as my taxi!!) Enough said.
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