Embodying much of Alfa’s intoxicating appeal and showcasing a revolutionary development or two, the 156 will capture your affections – or break your heart. Here's how to avoid the anguish..
How much to pay
• Project £100-£750 • Good £750-£1300 • Concours £1300-£12,000 •
Running costs ★★
DIY friendly ★★★
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Anyone familiar with Alfa Romeo knows that, as with many Italian marques, the company’s aspiration is to produce vehicles that sing a ballad to your soul and lure you in with a combination of stylish good looks and oh-so-addictive handling. Alfa had achieved these goals rather comprehensively for decades, but towards the end of the millennium sales had slowed. It needed something extraordinary to arrest the decline, and in 1997 it delivered the 156 saloon.
Not only did the 156 look surprisingly seductive for a saloon, it also came with a selection of engines, luxurious trim and the promise of significantly improved rust resilience. It was a bold package, but Alfa’s bravery paid off as the motoring press went gaga for this latest offering and the 156 was declared European Car of the Year in 1998.
Consequently, over 365,000 were ordered during the first two years of production. Exceedingly smooth diesels were offered alongside the stirring petrols, and in 2000 the Sportwagon estate became the first long-wheelbase Alfa since the 33. The 156 truly made its mark – and virtually saved its manufacturer in the process.
However, all was not well beneath the 156’s attractive lines. Poor aftercare and wildly overestimated engine timing-belt durations resulted in numerous dissatisfied customers, meaning serious damage-limitation measures were called for. Niggles were also reported with the Selespeed semi-automatic, and then, of course, that old issue of rust started to attack the sills and floorpans of what was essentially a developed Fiat Tipo chassis.
Tempted to try a 156 for yourself? You’ll soon pick up on the two diverse opinions of this car. Some will warn you simply to walk away; others will enthusiastically tell you all that you’d be missing out on if you did. This Alfa divides opinion, and merits a careful and considered search when working through the classifieds. Here’s our guide…
Your AutoClassics Alfa Romeo 156 inspection checklist
When weighing up a 156 for purchase, spend as much time as you can on assessing what’s under the bonnet as well as the overall condition of all the major mechanical elements. Consider time examining the engine bay as good as money saved, for replacement Alfa parts can be costly. Certain issues, such as water pump replacement, may necessitate engine removal, which will incur significant labour costs.
Establishing the engine type should be fairly self explanatory, as this will be emblazoned in red type across the rocker cover. The petrol range incorporates 1.6L, 1.8L and 2.0L Twin Spark units, plus a 2.5L V6. The 2002-2005 GTA has a 3.2L that ironically made the car heavier – despite the ‘A’ of GTA standing for ‘Alleggerita’, which translates to lightened. Exact specification is down to personal preference, although bear in mind that the 2.5L V6 and 3.2L GTA are unlikely to be the best match for a frugal driver.
Generally speaking, Alfa engines tend to be regarded as sturdy with a respectable shelf life. Given adequate care, it’s entirely possible to achieve the same result with a 156, but only if you know where your attention is best directed. With any 156, check the level and condition of the oil on the dipstick – this is an excellent first indicator of how much care the car has likely received until now.
If buying a 2.0L Twin Spark, you’ll be rewarded with excellent performance balanced with reasonable mpg, but you must keep a keen eye on the oil level as this engine is prone to lubricant starvation. Where possible, ensure to fire up any 156 and listen for noticeable tappet noise – this may hint at poor oil maintenance.
While the motor idles, look underneath for water and oil leaks. An unpleasant rattle from the engine bay means the water pump may need replacement. If faced with overheating, the pump would benefit from attention as would the mass airflow sensor, which is an especially delicate Bosch component. Should your petrol 156 sound alarmingly like a diesel, chances are you can blame a faulty inlet cam phase variator.
If seeking the economical advantages of a diesel, you might be surprised to learn that Alfa’s 156 was the first car to incorporate the common-rail diesel system, a major innovation at the time of launch. This fed the fuel via a solenoid-controlled distribution tube rather than individual pumps – so reducing the clatter for which diesels are so often famed, as well as further increasing economy. Diesel options include either a 1.9L JTD or a 2.4L JTD, and both offered impressive performance.
It’s essential to examine a potential purchase’s service history. Clarify exactly when the last cambelt change took place and how many miles have been added since, as premature timing-belt failures have been a source of woe to many a 156 owner. The original 72,000-mile recommendation has now been updated to 36,000 miles. We can’t stress enough the importance of sticking to this schedule, as a snapped belt can cause serious engine damage and result in £1000s-worth of repairs.
Finally, when it comes to regular Twin Spark servicing, remember to allow for the cost of eight spark plugs rather than the more conventional four.
The 156 offered four gearbox options, spoiling buyers for choice. Manual-orientated consumers had a seductively slick five- or six-speeder to choose from, while a Selespeed semi-auto had steering wheel-mounted push buttons. Meanwhile, the 2.5-litre V6’s auto Q-system also allowed manual-style changes if desired.
Of all the configurations, it’s the Selespeed that you should most carefully assess. First introduced in 1999 on the 2.0 Twin Spark, it’s a computer-controlled alternative to more conventional torque-converter autos. Contemporary media reviews reported improved performance and economy, and these credentials should appeal just as much today – but be warned that this innovation is not to everyone’s taste.
You can choose ratios for yourself using the Selespeed push buttons – and keen drivers will love the charismatic throttle blip on downchanges. However, many owners have reported reliability issues, or that changes were anything but subtle.
The only way to establish whether you can tolerate the transmission’s feel, and if indeed there are any niggles in the system, is to make good use of it on your test drive. Addressing Selespeed issues will likely cost enough time and money to counterbalance the advantages it had to offer, so you must detect any problems prior to purchase. Feeling hesitant but still on the hunt for automatic assistance? Opt for the Q-system auto, which also incorporates manual shift.
Suspension and brakes
The 156’s confident and involving handling is down to double wishbones at the front and McPherson struts at the rear. These result in excellent grip, precision steering and more than a stereotypical ‘Italian’ ride.
If you can hear the upper wishbone creak from behind the dashboard, it may have developed play at either end. Also check the rear arm bushes in the back suspension for wear. Most 156s will have been driven in a spirited fashion, incurring some signs of use in the process. This shouldn’t put you off a promising purchase, as suspension components are usually easy to obtain and relatively inexpensive, but it is worth noting the general condition of these parts before driving home.
While your focus is on the suspension, quickly check the tyres, too. Suspiciously worn tread – particularly uneven wear – could indicate a misaligned set-up.
When road testing the 156, try to find a suitable location that will enable you to gently weave the car from one direction to another several times in succession. This will help establish whether the car has the expected predictable handling.
While on the move, listen out for any unusual knocks or noises coming from below that may indicate worn suspension bushes. This is mostly likely to occur in the V6 editions, as the increased weight of this engine puts more stress on the suspension than other 156 specifications.
Regardless of exact power output, you’ll need good brakes to counteract the 156’s ample acceleration. This comes in the form of all-round discs combined with Bosch 5.3 ABS. If the car pulls more to one side than the other, check the opposite side for braking issues. A juddering sensation through either the steering wheel or pedal suggests worn brakes that are in urgent need of renewal.
Upon launch, the 156 immediately challenged assumptions as to how stylish a saloon could be, and flew in the face of the traditional ‘three-box’ layout.
While the Alfa possessed the same engine, passenger and cargo compartments as more conventional models, its shapely form by renowned designer Walter de Silva masked its true configuration with strategically positioned creases. These gave a sleek and pointed profile behind the famous grille, and an appearance that diverged sharply away from rivals’.
The 156’s concealed rear handles suggested there were merely two doors rather than four. Further back, the abruptly cut rear deck hinted at barely any load space, until one raised the boot lid via the catch neatly hidden beneath the Alfa badge.
An offset front number plate housing and bold telephone-dial alloys completed the daring look. All combined to give the 156 a visual flair that set it apart and encouraged driving enthusiasts to buy Italian once more.
When assessing a 156’s bodywork, it’s essential to get beyond the smart lines that likely drew your attention to the car in the first place. Unlike many preceding Alfas, the upper bodywork tends to hold up well against the passage of time. Other than satisfying yourself that the recessed rear door handles remain functional and the paintwork is to a standard that matches the asking price, you ought to have little to be overly concerned about.
Far more crucial is a thorough inspection of the underside, paying particular attention to the sills and floorpan, as these are particularly prone to rust. Take heart that by the time the 156 was launched, Alfa had learned many hard lessons from its battles with corrosion in earlier cars. It consequently galvanised the 156 to extend the model’s lifespan. However, two decades on, taking time to carefully check the underside of a potential purchase remains a wise move.
Finally, should you be seeking even more practicality than the 156 saloon can offer, the Sportwagon is the handsome estate offering. Upon viewing, you’ll likely hear the much-quoted fact that the Sportwagon offers less physical space inside than the saloon - yet, pop the seats down and you can easily find some extra girth for awkward objects.
No matter what age and specification of 156 you opt for, the interior will likely wow all occupants with its evocative and tasteful design. The curvaceous dashboard elegantly houses the speedometer and rev counter within prominent twin binnacles behind the steering wheel, while the centre console neatly angles all additional gauges towards the driver in a style reminiscent of 1960s GTV and Giulia GT models.
Endowed with generous cabin space and a fully adjustable driving position, the 156 comes with no obligation to force oneself into a typically Italian driving position. This helped it satisfy the cravings of the auto market for comfort and style combined in one package. Although not as resilient as many German rivals, the interior embodied Alfa’s sporting credentials within an environment that was specifically constructed to delight the senses.
If luxurious fittings are present within the 156 you’re assessing, chances are your eye will first be drawn to a luxurious wooden steering wheel and gearknob, leather or velour trim, and potential carbon-effect detailing around the centre-console gauges. If these elements are fitted, your 156 is likely either Lusso or Veloce spec, which is an upgrade on the basic Turismo. Recaro sports or leather Momo seats indicate Sport spec.
Depending on how generous your specification is, you may also spot climate control, headlamp washers and a CD player. As with any vehicle purchase, your main consideration here should be whether the asking price matches your expectations when it comes to the interior features on offer.
Take time to note the general condition of any wooden features, the upholstery and all dashboard plastics, as these will not only affect the value of your potential purchase, but can also give a fairly reliable indication of the level of care the 156 has received from previous owners.
The main issue 156 interiors face is the electronics becoming increasingly fragile with age, so check everything in the cabin works. Turn the ignition key and you will observe three warning lights for the airbags, ABS and engine management. As the motor fires, the car checks these systems and, if all is well, the lights will go back out again a few seconds later. Should one symbol remain lit, you may have issues beyond the interior to address.
Move onto selecting the various electronic controls including the climate control, electric mirrors and windows, radio and/or CD player, windscreen wipers and washers, lights and indicators. If fitted, try the sunroof, too. Slow movement of any of the windows or sunroof may suggest worn motors rather than faulty electronics, and these can be replaced with relative ease.
A fuse box cover that’s partial to falling off may indicate an early edition of the 156. This can be modified, as in the later cars, with a screw fitment. Finally, ensure that the releases for the bonnet, boot and petrol flap work.
- 1997: Alfa launches the 156, succeeding the 155.
- 1998: 156 wins European Car of the Year award for Alfa Romeo.
- 1999: 156 claims Italian Superturismo Championship Constructors Cup for second year running.
- 2000: Alfa launches 156 Sportwagon, first long-wheelbase estate since 33.
- 2002: 156 range is expanded with GTA, with 3.2L engine delivering 250hp.
- 2007: Alfa replaces 156 with 159.
Should an Alfa 156 have recently gained your attention, and all you can now think of is how to own one as quickly as possible, you can be forgiven. You’re not the first and you certainly won’t be the last to fall for this good-looking saloon and its sensuous exhaust note.
Appreciation for a commendable motor is only to be encouraged, but when seeking a 156 it pays to tread carefully. Despite its handsome looks, the Alfa has been criticised almost as much as it has been applauded. Quite simply, you either can live with a 156 or you can’t.
Diverging opinions as to whether or not the 156 is a deserving motor has resulted in vastly differing prices across the classic market. Not only this, but a generous selection of engine spec, trim options and variation in overall condition make finding the right car at the right price a business that requires some forethought.
It is easy to find a 156, but far trickier to find a 156 that won’t sting you with either its price or hidden reliability issues. However, if you match your expectations of the model with a strong example, you can look forward to compliments from those who appreciate a good-looking vehicle, a stirring soundtrack and superb driving characteristics.
We recommend making the purchase of a 156 a slow but rewarding affair – much in the way the Italians themselves prepare and mature their fine wines.
Looking to buy an Alfa Romeo 156?
Lead image courtesy of Gillian Carmoodie