The Alfa 156 wowed with its good looks, but a poor reputation for reliability and longevity has severely hampered survival rates.

Words: Andrew Everett.

By the mid-1990s, Alfa Romeo’s roulette wheel between the jaws of defeat and victory had been spinning almost since the end of the Alfetta era. That car was replaced by the Alfa 90 imported in its most expensive 2.5 Cloverleaf form for about the same money as a BMW 528i – and it didn’t end well. By contrast, the 75 was a return to form once the Twin Spark and 3.0 versions arrived in ’87, and the following year we had the glorious 164 – probably the best saloon Alfa made until the current-day Giulia.

The wheel spun again in 1991 with the launch of the Fiat Tipo-based 155. Now, the Tipo was a really good car, so how Alfa managed to cock up the 155 is unclear. But at least they rescued it in 1995 with the wide-body version, after which it was a fair alternative to the lower powered 3-Series models. Indeed, BMW provided the benchmark that Alfa needed to beat or at least equal, and when the 156 was launched in 1997 (1998 in the UK), it looked as though they might just have cracked it.

Alfa 156

For starters, the Alfa 156 looked terrific. It had a steeply-raked profile, concealed rear door handles to give it the appearance of a coupe and a distinctive pointed nose, with a distinctive offset number plate housing. Even now it’s a good looker, although arguably better in pre-facelift form, while the Sportwagon estate version launched in 2000 is also an attractive car.

From the off the Alfa 156 appeared to be solidly built too, and even if the handling still wasn’t as good as the 3-Series, it wasn’t that far off. Details like the telephone dial alloy wheels, wood rim steering wheel and leather trim made the 156 a better showroom exhibit than the BMW, or the contemporary Audi A4.

Alfa 156

There were 16v Twin Spark fours in 1.6, 1.8 and 2-litre flavours, as well as the 2.5-litre 24-valve V6. All were lively enough, the gearshift pretty slick and overall, the car was an excellent package that looked set to transform Alfa’s presence in the UK. It was impressive enough to win the 1998 European Car of the Year award, but the old ‘defeat snatched from the jaws of victory’ thing came back to haunt us again.

Personally, I’d not long left the employ of an Alfa Romeo dealership in Cambridge where I was on the service desk. The Fiat based iron block Twin Spark engine as fitted to the 1995/6 onwards 155, GTV and Spider wasn’t a bad engine despite not being cut from the same expensive cloth as the proper all-alloy Alfa engine last seen in the 164. The lovely duplex cam chain of the old Twin Cam was replaced by a toothed rubber belt for the Fiat based unit, but belts are OK as long as they are changed on time.

Alfa 156

The interval was 36,000 miles, but Alfa GB apparently altered that to a 36,000-mile visual inspection and change point at 72,000 miles. This was to reduce service costs and make the 156 more appealing to fleet buyers, with the predictable result that hordes of 156s ended up with broken cam belts. And, if the belt broke at higher engine speeds, not only would the clobbered valves be bent, but the piston could be fractured and/or the upper bearing shell in the very narrow connecting rods slightly damaged as well. Around 1000 miles later, the engine would be knocking. Oil consumption was a major issue, and Alfa wisely deleted the oil level sensor, as you do. Again, the result was a knackered engine.

Gearboxes were OK as long as you didn’t specify the Selespeed. This was a manual box with electro-hydraulic control by Magnetti Marelli and it was a headache from day one. Where you should go however is the 2.5 V6. Unlike the GM-based one in the later 159, the 24-valve V6 is worth buying for that engine alone. It really is a marvellous thing, if a little thirsty. Then of course there’s the 156 GTA with its 3.2-litre V6. It’s a flawed genius of a car, but its charisma and rarity make it a very appealing one.

Suspension design was direct from the Audi school of excessive ball joints and complication with no discernible benefit. Whilst BMW used a MacPherson strut up front and a simple lower wishbone, the 156 front suspension design was a wondrous collection of arms and wishbones, all of which require regular replacement.

At the back, the Alfa 156 design was quite elegant with a cast alloy subframe so it didn’t suffer from rotten subframes like the 164 could.

The 156 was built at the Sud plant near Naples and after a few years it became obvious that whilst the upper body was very rust resistant, the underside certainly wasn’t. Scant undersealing became next to non-existent on the facelift cars and the result was serious rot to the outer floor to sill joints. We’ve seen 156s that are so rotten the floor could probably be kicked out from inside the car.

Not that the Alfa 156 is all bad as it isn’t. As a new car it was certainly a lovely thing and Fiat was developing a lot of new technology with it – the five-pot 2.4-litre JTD became the first common-rail passenger car diesel engine in 1997, although Alfa didn’t sell it in the UK until 1999 for fear of undermining the brand.

The later 1.9-litre four-pot JTD was available with as much as 150bhp. It was reliable too, and this engine is still with us having powered various cars from 2.0CDTi Insignias to Saabs.

Alfa 156

Find a good 156 that has been lovingly cared for and it’s worth having. The trouble is, such cars are rare. Indeed, 156s as a species are rare – they just fell off the map a few years back and even breakers have probably seen the last of them. Like all cars, neglect and flaky parts supply means the 156 is in that no man’s land; rare and nice in theory, but not enough cars left to form a ‘scene’ or make parts remanufacture viable. We suspect the 156 is destined to become another rare oddity at Alfa Day. Should you buy one? Absolutely. Just don’t expect an easy ownership ride.

Feature first appeared in Classic Car Mart.