BY ANDY ENRIGHT
With the 156 GTA, Alfa Romeo propelled themselves back into the premier league of sports car manufacturers. Here was a car offered as a saloon or a sleek Sportwagon estate, that was savagely quick and which boasted one of the greatest engines ever built. Of course, it didn't hurt that it was so beautiful it made your head swim either. Used examples occasionally make their way onto the market at rather attractive prices. So many modern cars are emasculated, dumbed down, politically correct palehearts. Here's a notable exception.
Models Covered: (4DR [3.2 SALOON AND 5DR SPORTWAGON])
Alfa Romeo's competition Giulia Sprint GTA blazed a trail of success across the racetracks of Europe in the '60s and '70s, taking three consecutive wins in the European Touring Car Championship in 1966, 1967 and 1968 - and it deservedly occupies a proud position in the annals of international motorsport. Thirty-seven years later the company introduced two high performance road cars that combined an enviable motor racing pedigree with the sort of contemporary appeal that won the Alfa 156 the European Car of The Year title. The 156 GTA and 156 Sportwagon GTA went on sale in the UK in May 2002 and proved very popular with the sort of enthusiast who'd grown disillusioned with a parade of quick, soulless German alternatives. The 156 range was given a facelift in autumn 2003 but the GTA models carried on unchanged. The 159 arrived in February 2006 and that spelt the end for all the 156 models, GTA included.
What You Get
No garish spoilers or side skirts, though slim skirts do feature and the front chin spoiler is deeper than on standard 156 models. Essentially however, the aggressive look is achieved simply through more aerodynamic redesigned front and rear bumpers and a lower stance with wider 225/45 ZR Michelins on 17" alloys. Circular front foglamps set like jewels into the new front spoiler, wider wheelarches, xenon headlamps, twin chromed exhaust pipes and red brake callipers bearing the Alfa Romeo script complete the visual package. Inside, the GTA benefits from dual-zone climate control so that driver and front passenger can set their own temperatures. There's also an impressive Bose eight-speaker stereo system - and the clever CONNECT 'telematics' system was an option - offering satellite navigation, internet use and access to the emergency services. There are six airbags as standard, plus the Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) stability system, brake assist and Isofix child seat mountings. None of this, however, is really enough to make the GTA feel particularly special, so you also get special leather seats and carefully pleated door inserts, as well as bespoke alloy pedals and different speedo and rev counter graphics. No change to the steering wheel position though, so despite four-way adjustment, many will still find it just too far away.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Though the 156's build quality and reliability record is not quite as good as that of, say, Audi, it's not too bad. Inspect the tyres as despite the traction control systems, the 156GTA is very hard on its front rubberwear. It's also worth inspecting for crash damage and getting beneath the car to inspect the underbody. The 156 GTA is quite susceptible to running out of suspension travel in sharp dips in the road and this can damage the front spoiler quite severely. The engine is a tough beast but it can develop quite an appetite for oil. The interior is well finished but some of the plastics used in the dashboard construction have been prone to the odd squeak and rattle.
A clutch assembly is around £175. Front and rear brakepads are around £50 per set of each, a rear exhaust box about £175 (excluding catalyst), a starter motor around £190. A replacement headlamp is about £145.
On the Road
Trying to get 247 braked horses through just two front-driven wheels is never an easy task but in this case, the engineers at Alfa's Balocca test track appear to have done an outstanding job. There's no one thing that makes it all work: just a careful combination of detail differences. Specially designed front suspension struts for example, as well as revised attachments for the rear suspension which created a wider track. The steering is more responsive than on standard models too - and, fortunately, the brakes were beefed up. Although it feels fantastic on smoother surfaces, the GTA can nevertheless feel a little nose heavy on typically poor British B-roads. A longer stroke (increased from 72.6 to 78mm) takes the venerable 3.0-litre V6's capacity up to 3179cc and this, along with changes to the exhaust and intake ports, accounts for the increase in power (and torque - to 221lb ft) over the standard 156 V6 models. Mind you, it's necessary to work the engine hard to get it, the maximum torque figure not achievable until you get to 4,800rpm. Still, you'll enjoy doing that: this engine is wonderful to listen to. Sixty is just 6.3s away from rest in the 156, on the way to 155mph. The automatic 'Selespeed' option is worth considering too, with its F1-style steering wheel paddles and involving design: if I had a largish percentage of urban driving to do, I wouldn't hesitate. Whichever transmission you choose, this car is one of those which just begs to be driven. Maybe it's the wonderful steering, that glorious engine wail, the prodigious grip or the well-controlled body roll. Whatever it is, the whole thing adds up to an intoxicating mix - nor must you put up with a harsh, unpleasant ride as a penance for it. Alfa took too long to come up with a sporting flagship really capable of doing the 156 justice. In the GTA it produced just the thing.
Aristippus was a follower of Socrates, who taught that the ultimate goal of all our actions is pleasure, and that we should not defer pleasures that are ready at hand for the sake of future pleasures. He was willing to break the social conventions of his day and engage in behaviour that was considered undignified or shocking for the sake of obtaining pleasurable experiences. With lusty performance, impossibly sensuous styling and an engine note to die for, the GTA is a car for the true aesthete. One suspects Aristippus would approve.