BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Alfa Romeo 156 was the car that finally upset German dominance in the compact executive saloon sector. An Alfa you could buy with real confidence new, it makes just as much sense used.
Models Covered: [1.6, 1.8, 1.9JTD, 2.0, 2.0 SELESPEED, 2.4 JTD, 2.5 V6])
The 156 Sportwagon came from very good stock. An elegantly extended version of the car that won the European Car of the Year award, its credentials were already well founded by the time it made UK landfall in July 2000. What was perhaps a little less expected was quite how well integrated the conversion from saloon to sporting estate would prove to be. In fact, many hold the Sportwagon to be a better proportioned car than even the handsome saloon. At the time of launch, there was a choice of 1.6, 1.8, 2.0-litre Twinspark (with a choice of Selespeed sequential transmission) and 2.5 V6 which was also offered with the Q-system automatic transmission. Diesel buyers got a 2.4-litre JTD engine. Range designations were revised in 2001, with the Turismo becoming the entry-level car. The much-loved 2.0-litre Twinspark engine was retired in early 2002, replaced by the 2.0-litre JTS unit, a 165bhp direct injection technofest. At the same time, the 156's interior was given a mild makeover and 250bhp GTA versions of the saloon and Sportwagon were launched. Early 2003 saw the introduction of a budget 115bhp JTD diesel, sold alongside the existing 150bhp 2.4 JTD. The 159 arrived in February 2006 with the Sportwagon hitting the showrooms a little later, that spelt the end for these 156 models.
What You Get
This five-door version of the classy 156 saloon is theoretically an estate, though in practice, there's less luggage room inside than your average family hatchback. Actually, there's even less space in the boot than there is in the four-door model. But that isn't the point. Buy something else if you want to transport a sofa or a grandfather clock. Buy this if you still want to enjoy getting from A to B via X and Y with a small backroad detour through Z. The other 'lifestyle' estates which the 156 Sportwagon went up against all claimed to do this but none really do. BMW's 3 Series Touring, Audi's A4 Avant and Volvo's V40 are all stylish cars but they don't really make you feel young again behind the wheel. And what's worse, though slightly more spacious, they can't carry a grandfather clock either. Not that this Alfa is entirely without practical merit. What boot space there is (360 litres) is easily accessible via an unexpectedly large hatch aperture, though unfortunately, there's a lip over which heavy items must be lifted. The rear 60:40 split rear seat folding mechanism is user-friendly though. You simply pull a strap to lift the seat bases, enabling the backs to drop down and create a completely flat loading area of 1,180 litres. In the estate compartment, the floor panel covering the spare wheel is reversible and can be flipped over to reveal a practical, if rather shallow, waterproof tray that will keep muddy dogs - or muddy boots - from soiling the smart carpets. This is an idea that was shamelessly copied from Nissan's Primera Estate and has since popped up in all manner of other vehicles. A couple of smaller drawers are built into the sides of the boot area and plusher Sportwagons can accommodate longer items via a ski hatch built into the back seat. Sadly, the self-levelling suspension system (which would be so useful on those occasions you really want to carry heavy loads) was optional.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The 156 Sportwagon has had a mixed reliability record, with several niggling electrical issues marring an otherwise decent report card. The only major issue that has affected the 156 range is the problem some cars have had with porous engine blocks. This leads to compression loss although once detected much of this work should have been carried out under warranty. Later cars (2001 on) have largely had this problem ironed out. Look for shredded front tyres, worn suspension and kerb damage to alloy wheels and inspect the load bay for signs of damage. Be suspicious of cars other than the 2.5 V6 or the big diesel fitted with tow bars.
(based on a 2.0 Twinspark Sportwagon) A clutch assembly is around £138. Front and rear brakepads are around £50 per set of each, a rear exhaust box about £143 (excluding catalyst), a starter motor around £190. A replacement headlamp is about £145.
On the Road
You'll forget that you're in the presence of what loosely purports to be an estate car as soon as you drop into the driver's seat. Reassure yourself that your Sportwagon carries less luggage than the saloon, congratulate yourself on your sound choice, twist the key and go. Gone is the strange Italianate seating position of previous models. "If you can't get comfortable in this car", observed a company spokesman at the time of its launch, "then you need to see a doctor, not a dealer". The controls are angled towards the driver; so is the gearstick. Plus, there's a climate control system good enough to deliver everything from Malibu in March to Alaska in August. Select your favourite road. That one you love with the sweeping, open bends, the curving cambers and the blind brows. The Sportwagon is soon humming along it, the response to your every movement immediate. Your brain tells your hands to turn. The car responds as if it were eavesdropping. Rest to sixty occupies a mere 9.3 seconds in the 144bhp 1.8, 8.6s in the 155bhp 2.0 and 7.3s in the 190bhp V6. The 2.4-litre diesel may well be the pick of the range for the used buyer. It delivers 42mpg fuel economy along with an 8.4s 0-60mph time and oodles of mid-range pulling power. Be careful on very severely undulating roads in the V6 car as it can ground out at the front with the extra weight it's carrying.
The 156 is the car that marked Alfa Romeo's global renaissance and the Sportwagon merely offers a different ending to this success story. If estate cars still mean frumpy antique dealers to you, the Alfa 156 Sportwagon is the perfect antidote.