Car reviews - Alfa Romeo - 156 - Twin Spark sedan
Alfa Romeo models
Handling, ride, personality
Room for improvement
Rough part-throttle performance, less than smooth clutch action
2 Feb 2001
By TIM BRITTEN
EUROPEAN prestige importers are nervous about the Alfa Romeo 156 - and so they should be.
The Italian sports sedan arrives not only with the goodwill of many existing or past Alfa owners anxious to re-acquaint with the brand, but also with loads of charisma and charm supported by glowing reports from the European motoring press.
This credibility factor is important. Many potential Alfa buyers are enthusiasts keen to know what the press has to say.
And the positive vibes are not misleading. The 156 is a standout car in the tough entry level prestige market populated by BMW's 3 Series, Audi's A4, Saab's 9-3 and, just recently, the Lexus IS200.
The new Alfa is a mix of tradition and high-tech, although in many ways the traditional aspects get the prominence they deserve.
These more tactile areas include the 156's interior ambience, the way it sounds and, most importantly, the way it drives. Alfa has given us some outstandingly fine-handling front-drive cars in the past with the 156, they have reset the benchmark.
The 156 is, simply, astonishingly agile and communicative for what is basically a family sedan.
The chassis is basically Fiat-derived and tuned for responses suited to Alfa expectations. The front end is basically a twin wishbone arrangement and at the rear MacPherson struts connect with transverse arms and an aluminium cross beam to help keep the back end tracking faithfully.
The rack and pinion steering moves lightly through the driver's fingers but never leaves any doubt about what the car is doing. It turns in with a degree of eagerness and precision that says more about the finesse with which the elements of steering, suspension and tyres work together than how much power-assist has been applied.
The 156 has a sense of balance rare in a front-drive car and the evils of understeer are kept well in abeyance.
The ride quality is excellent, much better than would normally be expected in a car that goes about its business so eagerly.
About the only gripe concerning the steering is the turning circle is wider than expected.
And then we come to the engine.
The 156 uses the twin spark plug, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder seen in the Spider and GTV coupe models. A Fiat design, it belongs to a series of modular engines built in a new factory near Avellino, Italy.
Alfa is responsible for the alloy cylinder head with twin overhead camshafts, variable valve timing, 16 valves and separate ignition coils for each cylinder.
It produces a quite healthy 114kW at 6200rpm with 186Nm of torque at a highish 4000rpm.
This is a case where the figures do tell the full story. The 156 serves up a decent feast of power but it is delivered a little late in the proceedings.
The 156 needs a few revs before starting to show its mettle, which means 156 drivers may occasionally find themselves with a boot full of accelerator but no appreciable response from the engine.
Where is that wonderfully flexible, torquey feel that characterised Alfas of the past?Of course, this is less a criticism than a registration of slight disappointment. What is really disappointing is the too muted - for Alfa types anyway - engine note. There is an interesting burble buried away somewhere in there but it would have been nice to hear it permeating the cabin a little more.
The manual gearshift with its long throw, wooden-topped lever, feels very Alfa but was marred slightly in our test car by a less than progressive clutch that made smooth shifts a matter of concentration. The engine was less than smooth at low rpm on a trailing throttle, meaning it was hard to move along slowly in traffic in, say, second gear.
Accommodation in the 156 is notable for the comfortable driving position with only a little vestigial long-arm Alfa awkwardness and reasonable back seat room.
The traditional Alfa cowled gauges are a pleasure to behold although the information is sometimes obscured by the thickly wood-rimmed, fully-adjustable steering wheel.
Grudges include the hidden external rear door handles that end up creating a sea of smudges around the back side windows as passengers fumble around looking for the handle and the thick C-pillars which make vision while reversing a problem.
The air-conditioning vents release too meagre a flow of air for Australian summers and the boot is far from user-friendly, with a small capacity and a small loading aperture. The lack of a folding rear seat accentuates the Alfa's shortfall in luggage carrying.
The fiddly fumble-and-push radio controls defy the basic rules of logic and safety, and the attractive red-on-silver instrument faces let the side down by being difficult to read at dusk when the lights are on.
But the overall feeling after a few days in the 156 is one of delight and an eagerness to repeat the experience over and over again. Despite, maybe in some ways because of, the minor shortcomings, the Alfa is a distinctive, seductive car in a segment where those elements are of prime importance.
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