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Alfa 156 Italian for ‘sport’

  • The Australian
image Alfa Romeo 156.

The Alfa 156 is as much a sports model as family car.

The Italian maker seems incapable of designing one that's mere transport, injecting a special flavour into even machines that would be built as “ordinary” cars by others.

The Alfa Romeo 156 has the convenience of four doors, not the two you'd expect from its sporting coupe shape. The back doors are so cunningly disguised that many don't even realise they are there. Look at the shut lines, then at the handles pretending to be air vents and you'll see what we mean.

Once you've opened the rear door, try the back seat for size, as it's not the biggest in the business. Indeed, the seat is probably best left for children or smallish adults. Big boofy Aussie blokes won't be happy back there.

The 156 has been on the Australian market since February 1999 in sedan format; the wagon arrived in August 2000. In October 2003 it got a major facelift that led to the traditional Alfa shield grille becoming considerably larger and sitting right down into the bumper. The tail was beefed out and a bit more brightwork added to the body.

Nevertheless, the original model still remains striking in its styling.

The 156 has sold strongly from day one and a good number are on the used-car market. Take your time to shop between them, as there seems to be quite a variation in condition from best to worst.

The boot is also on the small side for a family car. The station wagon's load area is a bit of a joke, if you regard it as being a full wagon, but makes more sense if you think of it as a coupe-wagon.

Steering that communicates everything to the driver with plenty of detail on which they can make their next decision further enhances lovely handling and gives a huge amount of road grip. Few family sedans cry out to be taken for a run on your favourite bit of road early on a Sunday morning but this Alfa just loves that sort of outing.

An ultra-hot, ultra-expensive 156 GTA joined the range in August 2002. With a 3.2-litre V6, six-speed close-ratio manual box, big body kit, extra large wheels, tyres and brakes it's a real delight to drive. Look out for torque steer, though, as it can try to take control of the wheel at times.

The GTA was expensive, didn't sell all that well and was discontinued in June 2004.

Alfa Romeo is firmly re-established in Australia. There are a reasonable number of dealers, both official dealers and independent operators. Alfa dealers tend to be concentrated in the major population centres and scarce in the bush.

Servicing and spare parts prices are about average for this class. You can do some of the routine, non-safety items yourself but the bonnet isn't the easiest under which to work.

Insurance can be expensive, so make inquiries before falling head over heels in love with this Italian masterpiece.

The 156 was replaced by the Alfa 159 in June 2006. The 159 is significantly larger and its introduction may not have the usual adverse effect on resale values that often occurs when a similar new model supersedes an old one.

Under the bonnet

Power is provided by either Alfa's four-cylinder 2.0-litre engine or its upgrade to JTS specification midway through 2002. The latter is the one to go for because not only has it even more response than the earlier unit but also uses less fuel at the same time. There's also a 2.5-litre V6. In the Italian manner, the four-cylinder is the sporting engine, the V6 the luxury cruising unit.

Many find the Selespeed automated manual transmission frustratingly slow-changing and harsh, especially in the lower gears when it's being used in the automatic setting, designated “city”. It's better to go for a conventional manual (to our way of thinking) but you may learn to tolerate the Selespeed if you're doing a lot of heavy-traffic work.

When specified with a self-shifting transmission, the Alfa 156's V6 gets a semi-sequential four-speed, fully automatic unit. When used in automatic mode it's smooth and quiet in operation.

Danger signs

These new generation Alfas are much better built than the older models. However, they can still fall into the hands of bad drivers and their very nature means they cry out to be driven hard.

Look for body repairs. Most are easily spotted by mismatched paint on adjacent panels, uneven gaps between panels, paint overspray on non-painted parts and ripples in what should be smooth metal.

Make sure the engine starts easily and idles smoothly from the moment it gets going. Naturally, the V6 will be smoother than the four. Engine performance from the 2.0-litre Twin Spark unit isn't great but if it seems below par, it could be suspect. The JTS is a significantly better unit.

A manual gearbox that isn't light in its action could be due for repair. Do some fast changes from third down to second and feel for a reluctance to shift — or for funny noises.

During the road test look for steering that wanders and feel for brakes that don't pull the car up evenly.

By all means do your own checkout to the best of your ability but always call on a professional for the final say.


Comments on this story

Displaying 3 of 9 comments

  • I have had three 156s. The latest is a 2003 GTA. Awesome car, awesome performance. But not the best for a daily drive in the city or suburbs. Low suspension and ride means bodywork bumps on everything and ride is very hard. Nevertheless, translate this into a country roads with high speed bends and you’re in ALFA heaven.

    Peter Wetzig, Secretary AROCA (Qld Div) of Brisbane Posted on 12 November 2011 8:40am
  • I picked up a pre-loved Alfa 156 JTS Selespeed in April of last year (2009) for a song, although I did wonder why, with only 24,000 kms on the clock.  I only had it for about 2 x weeks and was unable to start it due to “Motor Control System Failures” and had it towed to a dealer here in Adelaide on 3 x separate occasions to my despair, as the RAA cannot work on them either.  If you think that things couldn’t get worse, well it did.  I was then advised that the ECU “Electronic Control Unit” had been fried, because someone had jump started it at some stage costing around $5,000 to replace. If I still have your attention, the story “does” get better.  I then sought a second opinion at another repairer who spent 11 x hours checking all the wiring to the ECU at $100/hr to find out that all it was, was a faulty fuse relay to the ECU at a moderate cost of $74.95 to replace. Since it has been repaired though, I have had no more breakdowns other than the occasional warnings for minor unrelated problems.  In all, this is my first Alfa Romeo, I really do enjoy it and it is a sheer pleasure to drive and own and would not trade it for anything else!!

    Gary H of Adelaide Posted on 06 May 2010 11:04pm
  • I own a 2003 156 selespeed JTS.  I also own a Merc. I have owned s Peugeot’ 307CC, Volvo 740, other Alfas,  2002 Toyota Corolla, Mitsubishi, Honda etc.
    I really like my Alfa 156.  It has no major problems.  The horn does not work and it needed new front link arms in the suspension because they became rattly.
    Everything else works perfeclty - All the electrics including the sunroof, no oil leeks and no strange rattles or smells.
    Its a great car and feels totally reliable.  It still looks great and I can honestly say that it still runs like new.  Even the selespeed works perfectly. The car has 103000 kms.
    I have noticed that there are people who love to bag the Alfa marque.  Of course, its not a ‘Toyota’ but to mention that the build quality is Dreadful on these newer Alfa’s is just plain ridiculous.
    Even the German cars have problems and devalue badly.  My 2000 a160 Merc is a great car as well but its not perfect and requires careful attention to keep it running correctly. It was $45 thousand new and now only $13 thou.
    My friend collects BMW M3’s and they are fantastic cars but they are often at the mechanics and have had a variety of electrical problems - convertible roof not working, heaters not working etc.
    Buy an Alfa and get it inspected by somebody who knows about it and not just some stupid advice from a biased person.  If the 156 is such a bad car then why did it win so many awards - European car of the year etc and sold over 650,000 around the world?  Some parts can be very expensive so make sure you buy wisely - they are great fun and enjoyable to own.

    dean of nsw Posted on 07 October 2008 1:00pm
  • Bought 2005 Manual Sedan second hand… love it, its beyond cool!  156 very good value especially second hand for 30k you get a near new Alfa?!! Funny that the comment about Alfa catching fire my mate’s brand new BMW 320 caught fire in his garage car wasn’t even running.  It wasn’t even news to the dealers, aparently it happened to a few cars already!  If you want build quality go Japanese.

    Warren B of Melbourne Posted on 11 April 2008 6:20pm
  • Just picked up an Alfa 156 02 jts and i liked it very much particularly that selespeed.. i can hear some funny noise rattling in the manifold or the exhaust system when hot but if its cold it is ok . the starter motor plays up a bit when cold but when hot is okhmm can anyone help me please for sdme advice or what this could be a big headache for me. its got 56k in it so i asume it would still be ok

    Patrick of Sydney Posted on 10 March 2008 1:25pm
  • The only issues with Alfa Romeo is build quality.
    Build Quality is DREADFUL.
    Other than that, its a beautiful car, full stop.

    Tom Rivera of Brisbane Posted on 13 February 2008 11:39pm
  • HI im thinking of buying a alfa 147 5 door hatch twin spark 5 speed non selspeed 2007 model just want to know about faults that they might have.

    ronn humbert Posted on 12 February 2008 8:00pm
  • Oh here we go again about Alfa quality.

    I have had a 2000 156 Selespeed from new and is just about to tick over 130,000 kms.  Has it been prefect ?? – well not quite, towed away twice in 8 years.  The quality I’d say is on par or better to any comparable car in its class – goodness the stories I have heard about VW and Audi !!!!!  Yes – it is getting on a bit however I cannot find another car to tempt me away from it. 

    A couple of other points.  The selespeed is a blast and the bad press it gets stems from the fact most people find it a difficult to quickly master, but once you get knack (like any manual gearbox) it is quite a joy to use – just do not think it as an Autobox !!!!!!!

    Even after all this time the 156 still feels tight and the motor feels better than ever.  It does not use any oil and at the 6 monthly change the oil that comes out still looks fresh. 

    Really the 156 must be the most gorgeous car in its class.  Sometimes when I park it I still look over my shoulder just sneak in a perve. 

    Any tips ? – well insurance can be a little exxy as can be the service costs.  Oh find yourself an Alfa expert mechanic, not necessarily an Alfa dealer.  They are a few around who really know the car AND can find you genuine parts at prices far cheaper than the dealers.  If you are considering buying one get it checked out by an expert.   

    Finally you buy an Alfa from your heart, if you are going to listen to your head – well get a Corolla

    Joseph Altavilla of sydney Posted on 22 January 2008 12:51pm
  • Ah wonderful, Alfa Romeo.
    I would never buy one, because the build quality is DREADFUL.
    And some of the designs are rather idiotic…....
    The old Spider, 2000 model I believe? A friend of mine had his replaced by the insurance company after his caught on fire in the garage. It seems the hand brake was right next to an important electrical cable and was rubbing on it for years till it caught fire.

    But thats not why you buy an Alfa is it?
    You buy an Alfa because its a STATEMENT, because its BEAUTIFUL and because its a whole load of fun!
    And the 156 is to me, an UTTERLY beautiful car!

    Tomas Rivera of Brisbane Posted on 21 January 2008 10:47pm
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