Alfa Romeo 156

This weekís test vehicle is the Alfa Romeo 156, a car about as Italian as pizza, spaghetti, Mario Lanza and cappuccino. As if just to remind me where the car was designed, the test 156 also came in red hot Italian racing red, with a black and tan leather interior, which looked at first glance as if it had used half a herd of Jersey cows. The inside simply mooís.

Alfa Romeo 156

There was no getting away from it, the 156 Alfa drew looks. Half of the attraction is the shape and I believe the other half was the colour. The retro-look grille even looks good too, reminding one of the fine heritage that is Alfa Romeo, not that the young ladies who would frantically call out, "Hello sexy man!" were interested in history, but rather in the wallet large enough to buy this vehicle. Unfortunately for them, the one they were calling out to was a test vehicle on loan from Thai Prestige Auto Sales, the local distributors of Alfa Romeo, and my wallet did not have the requisite 1.83 million baht to call the Alfa mine.

Good cars have a personality, which is what takes some marques from the boring ranks of basic transportation through to being enjoyable ways to get from A to B. If for you, driving is an art form, then Alfa Romeo is one marque you should consider. Nobody can question the lineage. This is a company that has been making sporting cars for over 90 years and almost every racing driver whose name has ended in an "i" has scored impressive victories on race tracks in Europe (Ramponi, Campari, Nuvolari, Enzo Ferrari and even a Czarist called Ivanowski, for example).

The 156 does have personality. In the short time she was with me, Angie Alfa began to seduce me. What other car has a pillbox creation on top of the dash that leaves you messages? Angie told me on our first drive from Bangkok that I should slow down as I only had winter tyres fitted, looking after me like a lover would. Then one morning when I had to return home to pick up a forgotten cheque she told me the brake fluid level was low and/or the handbrake was on. Having just applied the handbrake, I ignored her, went indoors and retrieved the cheque. Jumping back in, I began driving off again, when Angie left me another note, rather scary in its understanding of me. The bright red letters spelled out "Check OK" and I was stunned. I was thinking at that moment whether I could cash the cheque that morning! Did Angie have ESP as well? Of course, the doubters amongst you would assume that the "Check OK" message related to the handbrake/fluid level - but I know Angie!

The 156s in this country have the Twin Spark 2 litre engine, which is adequate, but the corral is certainly not bursting with horses. However, the horses that are there are very willing, and the engine spins up to the 7,000 rpm red-line very quickly. Drive is through the front wheels, but there is no torque reaction to remind you which end of the vehicle is actually doing the driving.

The transmission is what Alfa Romeo call their Selespeed, coyly referring to it as having technology from Formula 1, playing on the fact that the parent body for both Alfa and Ferrari is Fiat. The allusion between Michael Schumacherís Eff Wun Fazza and Angie Alfa is merely an illusion, let me tell you. While it was not a difficult clutch-less transmission to get used to, with its paddles on the steering wheel to change gear, or the sequential joystick on the tunnel, or the "City" button for automatic style changes, I found its changes were slow and cumbersome. Even if it did produce lovely vroom-vroom noises on downshifts. However, if you are not adept with heel-toe and double declutching, then perhaps the Selespeed is for you.

Since as a driver, you spend most of your time behind the wheel, it is important that the car be tailored to suit the driver, and I found the Alfa was very good in this regard. The wheel placement, the relationship between pedals and seat, and the sighting of the instruments in the main binnacle were excellent. In fact, all the gauges were very easy to read, especially the all important tachometer, though the modern electronics will not let you over-rev the engine as it will over-ride your command and shift up at the top end of the red-line. The only really hidden item was the stalk with the cruise control, but since I personally dislike cruise control, this was no great loss from my point of view.

In some sporty cars driven recently, I have criticised the driverís chair as not having the lateral support that should be expected, if the suspension is good enough to allow you to indulge yourself on the corners. I cannot say that about the Alfa 156 - the driverís seat is firm, grippy and has great lateral support. Almost as good as a fully fledged race seat. This is probably one of the best road car seats around. Brilliant work, Alfa. Even the leather didnít get sweaty, a fact that often puts me off the cowhide chairs.

Talking about getting sweaty gets me to the air-conditioning. Yes it worked. Yes it is a split system so you can set the temperatures to oneís own liking on either side of the car, but the controls which were a mixture of rotary dials, push buttons and ideograms were fiddly and not user friendly, well at least not for this user. I also had problems with it misting up the windscreen, which brought me back to the fiddly dials and made me grumpy with my Angie. But then, she would let me snuggle back in her arms, in that beautiful seat, and the world was fine again.

And while having a whinge about controls, the radio was impossible. Fiddly, tiny push buttons that my large fingers could not cope with. Imagine a very small volume knob split into three sections, with each bit doing a different job. Bring back rotary knobs and KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).

Styling is always a subjective concept, but the majority of people who see the 156 love it immediately. The shape (and the colour) certainly reeks of class. I particularly loved the treatment for the rear doors, which look as if they have no protruding door handles, with the opening latch being hidden in the rear of the window frame. Having said that, why did the Alfa people continue with the old fashioned chrome handles on the front doors? The effect of the uncluttered flanks would have been so much better if they had done away with the exterior handles on the front doors as well. On a side view there is also a distinct similarity between the Alfa and the new Mazda RX8, or maybe itís just the back doors without handles.

There was no fussiness exhibited while driving, even first thing in the morning, the only sluggishness was mine! Getting back to the transmission, I found the "City" automatic shifts were slow and jerky, and it was much better if I did all the shifting manually myself. There is no clutch, so you donít even have to remember to declutch when stopping.

The car is certainly a sporting chariot to drive. It feels taught, it feels secure and does stick to the road. It is not as firm a ride as the BMW 330 or accelerate nearly as hard, but it does also cost appreciably less (1.8 versus 3.5 mio). The steering is precise, brakes (anti-lock braking system of course) are excellent and the package is a good one. For me the only disappointments are in the outright grunt department and I would prefer a manual, rather than the Selespeed - but then that is my preference with any sporty car.

Our down-under correspondent John Weinthal has been testing the 156 GTA, while I had the 156 in Thailand. The GTA version has the all-new 182 kW 3.2 litre V6 and will accelerate to 100 kph in just 6.3 seconds. It also comes with a 6 speed manual gearbox. However, it is almost twice the price of the Ďstandardí 156.

With the 156 coming on the market under 2 million baht means that it does not have many rivals in the Euro-car field, as most are well over the 2 million barrier. For the Alfisti, this is a car to lust after and for the sporting motorist, this has to be one of the vehicles to be looked at seriously.

Autotrivia Quiz

Last week I mentioned that in 1900, a racing version hybrid vehicle, complete with the designer at the wheel, won the Semmering hill climb. The petrol engine turned a dynamo that produced electricity to drive the two electric motors. The question was - what was the name of this car? It was the Lohner-Porsche, with the 25 year old Ferdinand Porsche the intrepid pilot.

So to this week, and since we tested an Alfa Romeo, and I also mentioned a Czarist racing driver called Ivanowski - what important cup did Ivanowski win driving an Alfa Romeo? Clue - it was 1928 and it was a six cylinder supercharged 1,500 cc.

For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to email [email protected]

Good luck!