As beautiful as its 155 predecessor was plain, the 156 marked a turning point in Alfa Romeo’s fortunes. We consider how best to buy one of these appreciating new-wave classics...
Alfa Romeo began something of a renaissance in 1997. After years in the doldrums with the likes of the Six, 75, 33 and the awful Arna, the company positively blew the car industry’s collective socks off when it whipped the covers off the new 156.
As visually arresting inside as it was out, the car went on to achieve worldwide sales in excess of 680,000. More importantly, it re-established Alfa Romeo as a brand to be trusted. Its 159 successor may have looked more imposing, but it lost the earlier car’s delicacy.
Power (bhp@rpm) 155bhp@6400rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 138lb ft@3500rpm
Top speed 129mph
Gearbox 5-speed manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
Walk away from any 156 that displays even minute evidence of body rot, as all models were galvanised at the factory. Crusty 156s, therefore, have almost certainly sustained heavy accident damage at some point and then been poorly repaired using cheap pattern parts.
It’s worth looking underneath, too. Veloce models, in particular, have slightly lowered suspension which brings the underside into sharp contact with the road on even moderate dips
– make sure yours isn’t scuffed and dented.
Finally, those stunning lines are thanks in no small part to gently curved doors that are completely bereft of protective strips, meaning car-park dents are commonplace. Don’t expect miracles, but repeatedly nerfed doors will prove costly to repair.
Alfa Romeo offered buyers a wide variety of engines, ranging from a 1.6-litre Twin Spark, all the way up to the glorious V6 petrol. None is be particularly troublesome if they’re serviced and maintained properly, although Twin Sparks do appear to use a little more oil than is usual.
Check the car’s history for evidence of cambelt changes. Initially, the factory recommended that this be done every 72,000 miles, but this was later revised down to every 36,000 miles. Like many other cars from the period, this job inevitably disturbs the water pump, so it’s advisable to have it changed for a stronger one with a metal impeller at the same time.
In terms of performance, the V6 is the one to have if money is no object. But the pick of the range is definitely the powerful and sonorous 2.0-litre Twin Spark. Of the lesser engined cars, the 1.6-litre is
much nicer to drive than the slightly strangled-feeling (and sounding) 1.8-litre.
The trick with buying an early 156 is to keep it simple. Manual gearboxes and clutches, while hardly bulletproof, are nevertheless impressively strong, with sympathetically-driven cars routinely managing 100,000 miles between clutch changes. Front-wheel drive chassis are similarly not prone to catastrophic failure, although the heavy-engined V6 can feel nose-heavy and understeery.
Super-cheap 2.0-litre 156s are almost always Selespeeds, whose sequential paddle-shift gearboxes were endlessly problematic when new and are prohibitively expensive to repair now. It’s a similar story with the rather less common Q System auto offered as an option on the V6, and while the super-rare Q4 four-wheel drives don’t have quite the same reputation, repair costs are pretty much guaranteed
to be very high if something goes wrong.
The 156 may have been built to a much higher standard than previous models, but they’re as prone to trim and electrical gremlins as any Italian car. To be fair, these are usually minor irritants rather than full-blown disasters, so don’t be too surprised to find that poor radio reception on very early cars improves markedly if the heated rear screen is switched on, the fusebox cover to the right of the steering wheel routinely drops open or the vent panel on top of the dashboard rattles when it’s cold. The air conditioning system often produces a less than icy blast even on its coldest setting, too. More seriously, it’s imperative that the warning lights on the dashboard go out shortly after start-up – stubbornly glowing engine management, airbag or ABS warning lights can signify big bills looming under the bonnet.
Body and mechanical condition is key to early 156s – find a good 1.6, 2.0 or V6 manual in a desirable colour(ideally on teledial alloy wheels), and you’ll bag a stylish and reliable youngtimer with strong performance and handling. Honest cars should be resistant to rust, and owner’s club and parts specialist backing is strong.