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.
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
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
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.