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.
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.