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Car reviews - Alfa Romeo - 156 - Sportwagon 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Cracking Twin Spark engine, looks, character
Room for improvement
Baulky gearchange, modest luggage capacity

2 May 2001

THE Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon is a clear signal the Italian car-maker is thinking outside the square it has lived in.

Best known for its nippy Alfasuds and successive generations of voluptuous GTV coupes, Alfa Romeo is not perceived as a manufacturer of utilitarian vehicles.

But it obviously aims to hedge its bets with the 156 Sportwagon - a vehicle claimed to offer the best of both worlds.

Using the same platform as the accomplished 156 sedan, the Sportwagon manages to more or less retain the elegant proportions of its sibling despite the addition of a fifth door.

Its length, width and wheelbase are identical to those of the sedan, but it stands 5mm taller at 1420mm.

Curiously, the wagon actually offers less luggage capacity than the sedan - 360 litres, compared with 378 litres for the latter.

This begs the question why anyone would opt for the wagon when the sedan offers more luggage space.

The only apparent redeeming attribute appears to be that luggage capacity swells to 1180 litres when the rear seats are folded down.

Don't expect to shoehorn in too much more than a golf bag and buggy with the rear seats upright.

Apart from its extra door, the Sportwagon is more or less identical to its sedan sibling.

On paper, the only penalty is a kerb weight of 1300kg - 50kg more than the sedan.

This means performance is not quite as brisk, although Alfa Romeo says it can accelerate from standstill to 100km/h in 8.8 seconds on its way to a top speed of 216km/h.

Under its bonnet lurks the same 2.0-litre Twin Spark engine as the sedan. This unit cranks out 114kW at 6400rpm and 187Nm at 3500rpm.

Alfa Romeo has forged an enviable reputation as a maker of fine engines and the Twin Spark is no exception - even though the block and most of the internals are sourced from Fiat.

It positively sings in the upper half of its rev band - but the trade-off is slightly sluggish response below about 3000rpm.

This means appropriate gear selection is critical if you want to keep up with the cut and thrust of traffic.

Unfortunately, our test car had a baulky gearchange and a less than ideal clutch take-up, which made swapping cogs a chore rather than a pleasure.

This was somewhat surprising as the 156 sedan we drove last year had a crisp gearchange and progressive clutch.

Poor gearchange notwithstanding, the driveline is a smooth and refined unit.

Wind and tyre noise are well suppressed, allowing enthusiastic drivers to revel in the zingy exhaust note under hard acceleration.

Like the sedan, suspension is by double wishbones at the front and MacPherson struts at the rear. It rides on attractive 15-inch alloy wheels shod with 205/60R15 tyres.

But while the sedan's cornering capabilities proved outstanding, the Sportwagon was prone to disappointing levels of body roll and displayed a tendency to nose-dive under braking.

And where the sedan responded with alacrity to steering inputs, the Sportwagon tended to run wide of the intended line - necessitating an adjustment in driving style.

The rack and pinion steering is sharp enough but the suspension settings feel a tad soft.

Its handling is good by wagon standards, but Alfa's claim that it is a match for the sedan stretches credibility.

Ride quality is beyond reproach, the Sportwagon gliding over most undulations without undue fuss.

The four-wheel disc brakes provide adequate stopping power but - as is the case with the sedan - they are not very progressive, tending to grab rather abruptly.

Consequently, you may initially find yourself bringing the car to a grinding halt when a gentle stop was all you had in mind.

The Sportwagon's idiosyncrasies go to show that while the Italian marque has ironed a lot of the quirks out of its cars, there are still a few aspects that need attention.

Visually, the Sportwagon has a lot more style than any rival wagon priced under $50,000.

Viewed from the front, it looks identical to its sedan brother, sporting the same voluptuous curves and retro-inspired triangular grille.

Like the sedan, the rear passenger door handles are cleverly concealed in the window frames, creating the impression it is a two-door wagon in the mould of the Volvo P1800 coupe of the 1960s and 1970s.

There are more retro touches inside, including Alfa's trademark twin round dials facing the driver.

The standard of fit and finish is a far cry from Alfas of yore, albeit not quite in the same league as the likes of Audi and BMW.

The test car provided was decked out in the optional hand-stitched Momo leather upholstery, which endowed the interior with a genuinely luxurious ambience.

In true Alfa style, the driving position takes some getting used to but - once acclimatised - it is not too bad.

Taller drivers may find headroom at a premium but anyone below six feet (183cm) should have no problems.

Rear-seat room is reasonable but, again, taller occupants may find head and knee room is compromised.

Overall, the 156 Sportwagon is a reasonably competent package, but the question must be asked why anyone would buy it in lieu of its sedan sibling.

The sedan is quicker, handles better and exceeds the wagon's luggage capacity (unless the rear seat is folded down in the latter).

And, as good looking as the Sportwagon is, it cannot rival the sedan's beautiful proportions. Let's not forget the sedan is also significantly cheaper.

Probably one of the few aspects where the Sportwagon scores over the sedan is in its undoubted uniqueness.

There is no shortage of 156 sedans on our roads, but the Sportwagon is still as rare as the proverbial hen's fangs.

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