Three steps from heaven

If Alfa Romeo’s all new 156 had sharper handling, better build quality and a slightly more adventurous nature, it would be the best family saloon you can buy. Even as it is, says Andrew Frankel, it’s a fine car and Alfa’s best saloon for a generation

It is with more than a mildly perplexed mind that I sit here and describe to you the new Alfa Romeo 156. It may have a certain something to do with the circumstances of its launch — during which Alfa Romeo flew 1022 journalists into Lisbon on the same day, gave them approximately three hours each to evaluate five different models and flew them home again — but I don’t really think so. It’s a car which alternately encouraged me greatly and then disappointed me slightly, one I always liked but, ultimately, failed to love.

Before venturing further to explain this car and the curious effect it had upon me, you should know before anything else, that the 156 is a fine motor car and, in this book, the best largish Alfa saloon since the launch, a generation ago, of the 1.8-litre Alfetta. Visually it proves both interesting and attractive within and without and, of those engine options which stand a snowball’s chance of reaching a UK Alfa dealership, there’s not a bad one among them. These are very, very good engines. Alfa good.

Most significantly for Alfa Romeo, but so blindingly obvious to the rest of us that it hardly warrants a mention, is the fact that it is better than what it replaces in a similar measure that Claudius improved upon Caligula. So far, then, so rather good.

If there is a problem, it is this: The Alfa 156 is a rather good car; it is neither terribly brilliant nor brilliantly terrible: it is just good. This is not what we expect. Even so it would be churlish, not to say inconsistent now, to lambast Alfa for doing precisely what so many have urged for so long and I have no desire nor feel any cause to be so uncharitable.

More than anything, when you climb aboard, you are greeted with a sense of relief. As you slot into the comfortable seat and look around, the sense that something’s missing is almost tangible and, curiously, reassuring too. There’s no madness here; no window switches clinging to the headlining, no U-shaped handbrake. The instruments are clear and lie in front of you, while the ventilation system is as effective as it looks. And, for once, this Alfa fits. There’s decent seat travel and, heaven be praised, rake and reach adjustment for the steering wheel. It is an entirely sensible cabin, one that’s damn near as cohesive as, say, that of a Ford Mondeo and a deal more attractive too.

This is an important point. Too many Alfas from its recent past have done irretrievable damage to their cases before the key has even reached the ignition barrel. There are few modern cars indeed which will endear themselves to anyone if they are not possible to be aboard and comfortable at the same time. The 155, the car the 156 is charged with replacing, was not among them.

The easy grace and casual efficiency of the interior mirrors the 156’s character on the move. Regardless of whether it comes fitted with the 1.8-litre or 2-litre four-cylinder motor or the 2.5-litre V6 unit, the 156 guarantees that it will ride a mile better than any other Alfa in history, tackle corners with real conviction and stop with unquestioning authority. No one is likely to be disappointed by any of these engines and the temptation to recommend the sweet 1.8-litre variant is strong. With 144bhp, its output bests the vast majority of family saloon 2-litre engines and its crisp manners coupled with close gear ratios provide delightfully engaging company across country.

In truth, however, the 2-litre is probably the one to choose. Surprisingly, you’d spend the extra money not for the extra power (of which there’s a scant Ib/hp) but for its smoothness and refinement. The former is provided by the counter-rotating balancer shafts omitted from the specification of the otherwise similarly configured twin-cam, twin-spark, 16-valve 1.8-litre engine; the latter by the fact that its flatter torque curve affords taller gearing. The manners of the 2-litre are almost beyond reproach: like the 1.8, it uses variable valve timing and variable inlet tract lengths to promote flexibility, and the ease with which it will pull 27501b of Alfa along from idle in the upper gears is truly impressive.

I hesitate before speaking of the V6-powered 156 in such glowing terms. In truth, this has little to do with the 24-valve, quad-cam motor whose 190bhp is much more than you should expect to see from a capacity of just 2.5-litres. It sounds as sharp and attractive as any fitted to an Alfa since the demise of the 75 and injects real performance into the car, dropping the 0-60mph time from a little under 9sec for the 2-litre to not much more than 7see. To be strictly honest though, the tight ratios within the standard six-speed gearbox can probably claim a sizeable chunk of the credit too.

My concern surrounds the effect this motor has upon the 156’s chassis. When compared to the four-cylinder cars, it adds a lot of extra weight to the car just where you don’t need it and the result is handling which, while as safe as you could wish, is notably more cumbersome than that of its lighter and less powerful sisters.

That said, none of the 156 models handles as I wish an Alfa would. Alfa built its reputation on the fluency of its chassis every bit as much as the excellence of its engines, yet today the 156 handling fails to rise commensurately clear of the crowd.

In fact, this says much more about improvements elsewhere than any material deficiencies within the Alfa, but when any old Peugeot 406 can cover the ground with the sort of aplomb that would have required a Porsche to replicate not much more than a decade ago, being briskly competent, safe and composed is not enough for a car wearing an Alfa Romeo badge. The 156 is a car which will grip hard, turn-in faithfully and cope capably with camber changes and mid-corner bumps while its steering is quick and well weighted.

But it is not inspirational, and it is no good at all pointing out that neither is any other in the class. This, after all, is the company that provided the Alfasud as an alternative to a Ford Escort, a GTV as an answer to the Capri. Ask me to put my hand on my heart and swear the 156 would out-handle a Mondeo and I could not. Unfair as it might seem, I want more from an Alfa Romeo.

Otherwise, Alfa-Romeo has judged the 156 well. There’s enough room inside to provide a reason not to buy an Audi A4, BMW 3-series or Mercedes C-class but not enough to deter its customers from spending even more when the replacement for the 164, the 166, become available in a year’s time. Spend much time on a motorway and you will soon appreciate the 156’s refinement which marks yet another new height of achievement for Alfa Romeo in an area not hitherto known as a marque speciality.

As far as the dreaded and as yet unmentioned build quality is concerned, 1 think I will reserve judgement kir a while until I can have a longer look at the car in the UK. During the launch, I drove five 156s; one creaked, one squeaked and three made no untoward noises. Colleagues seemed to have similar experiences. For myself I don’t doubt the 156 is the best-built Alfa Romeo the world has ever seen; and I don’t doubt either that there’s a way to go yet before anyone making cars in southern Germany is likely to lose sleep over it.

Having driven the 156, almost all of me rejoices for Alfa Romeo. I believe that this company, like Jaguar, needed only to provide its lost customers with a credible reason to come on board again to have them queuing up at the quay. The 156, like the XK8, looks likely to provide that reason. All those who have romantically toyed with the idea of an Alfa before waking up and writing the cheque in BMW’s favour can now indulge their dreams safe in the knowledge that, at last the reality of a midsized Alfa Romeo saloon involves considerable pleasure and a negligible amount of pain. The car is attractive and effective in a way that no all-new Alfa saloon has been for years.

Perversely, perhaps the greatest compliments I can pay the 156 lie within my criticisms of the build quality, where I acknowledge it’s the best-built Alfa ever; and its handling, where the simple truth is it’s up with the best in the class.

For me, it did lack a certain something: a streak of maverick genius in amongst all that praiseworthy excellence to mark it out from the crowd. But perhaps that’s expecting too much right now. What Alfa Romeo needs to do right now is establish itself as a marque which people can do more than dream about. It needs product with real world values and real world appeal. So long as that product can also go hard and look distinctive, then its short-term future is assured. In the 156 it has a car which has been judged to do this job to perfection and I can do no more than wish it well.

In time, however, I hope Alfa does more than merely produce attractive, effective but largely conventional cars. I always saw Alfa Romeo as a leader both in style and substance, and if Fiat’s clearly noble and hopefully lofty aspirations for the marque are to continue to be realised, that, before long, is what it must once more become.

Why Alfa Romeo could dominate the BTCC again

In 1994, the Alfa serpent came, saw the British Touring Car Championship and took its participants to the cleaners. New to the British scene the marque may have been, but the BTCC title fell to Alfa Romeo’s 155 Super Touring racer and its driver, the former Grand Prix star Gabriele Tarquini, as surely as leaves fall to earth. He marched to the title with eight victories, bringing his own brand of Italian panache to the burgeoning series.

In league with his determinedly Latin team manager, Nini Russo, Tarquini used the might of the Fiat machine to bankroll major development throughout the season. In the run up to 1994, the 155 had made many appearances on test tracks around Europe but when racing proper got under way the Alfa proudly strutted forth bedecked with an extravagant rear wing and front air dom. The other teams protested, but their bluff had been called. Although the aerodynamic devices were later modified, the 155 proved to have the beating of its rivals.

The two-litre, 280bhp, front-wheel drive cars returned in 1995, but by then champion Tarquini had token his leave of the British series and his replacement, fellow F1 veteran Derek Warwick, struggled to fill the Italian’s Guccis in the face of universally stiffer opposition. Alfa Romeo withdrew at the end of its second season in Britain, ostensibly to concentrate on its vastly more complicated, and expensive, International Touring Car campaign. But the demise of the ITC in 1996 meant Alfa’s touring car presence was effectively marginalised and the launch of the new 156 presented an opportunity to make a big splash on the Super Touring stage once more.

The purposeful 156 has already stretched its legs in race trim and Alfa’s sports chiefs are reported to be delighted by its speed out of the box. Insiders insist that the car won’t be seen racing in Britain until 1999, with one season in Italy next year to iron out any problems, but don’t be surprised to see a one-off appearance in the BTCC during 1998. MF