New models - Alfa Romeo - 156 - GTA
First Oz drive: Hot Alfa 156 GTA
Alfa Romeo's illustrious GTA nameplate returns Down Under, courtesy of the storming new 156 GTA
19 Aug 2002
ALFA Romeo this week entered the ranks of the serious performance car by releasing the 156 GTA, the first in a series of high-performance models that will revive the Italian maker's respected Grand Touring Alleggerita nameplate.
Its handsome $89,950 price tag also makes it Alfa's most expensive model in Australia, positioned more than $10,000 upstream of the 166 luxury sedan.
The 156 GTA represents the ultimate expression of the facelifted 156 compact sedan range released in Australia last week, as well as a return to the highly regarded GTA brand name not seen here since it took production car racing by storm in the 1960s.
Understandably, Australian Alfa distributor Ateco Automotive expects to sell the 156 GTA in very low numbers, with the projected five to eight sales per month are expected to play a small but high profile role in achieving a sales volume of some 1500 156 models in 2003.
By then the 156 cause will be aided by the facelifted, JTS engine-equipped Sportwagon (due in November), while an all-new six-speed Selespeed sequential manual transmission version of the 156 GTA - which will be exclusive to 156 GTA and is likely to continue the current trend of attracting 65 per cent of customers - will join the six-speed manual during the second quarter of 2003.
Its pricing will see the first GTA line up with six-cylinder European compacts like the BMW 330i, Mercedes-Benz C320 and A4 3.0, plus turbocharged front-drivers like Volvo's S60 T5 and Saab's forthcoming 9-3 Aero, as well as the Lexus IS300 and the all-wheel drive X-Type 3.0 Sport.
However, 156 GTA offers performance that's slightly closer to that of the BMW M3, C32 AMG and Porsche 911 six-cylinder performance kings, although it falls well short of them for specific power output and therefore power-to-weight.
Powered by a new 3.2-litre incarnation of Alfa's vivacious V6, the 156 GTA is not only Alfa's new performance flagship, but matches some of the most powerful front-wheel drive cars, like Volvo's S60/V70 T5 and Saab's 9-5 Aero. Delivering a storming 184kW of peak power, it betters Mitsubishi's wild Ralliart Magna by 4kW but falls short of Volvo's range-topping 200kW S80 T6 sedan.
Thanks to the engine's larger displacement - courtesy of a longer stroke now measuring 78mm - different engine mapping and the fitment of an oil-cooler, the 156 GTA's 3.179-litre 24-valve V6 produces 184kW at 6200rpm and a handy 300Nm of torque, which represents an 18kW increase on the flagship 166 and 22kW up on the rorty 3.0-litre V6 offered in the Spider and GTV.
With a respectable kerb weight of 1410kg, the hottest 156 lives up to the GTA nameplate's original concept of offering racetrack performance with road car friendliness by claiming 0-100km/h acceleration of 6.3 seconds and a top speed of 250km/h - figures that put the stove-hot Alfa directly in the Commodore SS and Falcon XR8's ballpark.
As such, the 156 GTA revives the win-on-Sunday, drive-to-work-on-Monday philosophy that made the original Giulia Sprint GTA famous - both locally and internationally - more than three decades ago.
But there's a lot more to the 156 GTA, which has taken the European Touring Car Championship by storm since its release, than performance and tractability.
First there's the subtle but effective bodykit, which includes aerodynamic splitters at both ends said to produce 50-60 per cent more downforce than a rear wing - four styles of which remain optional equipment. There are also different and more wildly flared quarter panels at all four corners, side skirts with dummy air scoops and different, Xenon headlights.
Of course, there's improved chassis dynamics to go with the extra style and performance, including what's claimed to be the quickest steering rack on the market at just 1.7 turns lock to lock. At 11.3:1, its steering ratio is even quicker than the 156's 13.7:1 steering, which already stands out from a class average that's said to be between 15 and 16:1.
Then there's the fully reworked suspension, which includes a reinforced lower beam and a special wheel strut with different steering link location for the double wishbone front suspension.
Also developed by the Fiat Auto design and development department is the MacPherson strut rear suspension, which comprises different body mounting points and, like the front system, a larger anti-roll bar and special spring, shock absorber and bush settings.
Alfa says the changes aim to optimise grip by compensating for bodyroll through recovering wheel camber, as well as to provide greater steering precision.
To match the considerable performance is a beefier Brembo braking package, including large 305 x 28mm ventilated front brake discs with a twin-piston calliper, and 276 x 10mm solid rear discs. Of course, an Anti-lock Braking System and Auto Brake-force Distribution is standard, as is Anti-Skid Regulation, but Alfa says the GTA's heightened chassis dynamics negate the need for the standard 156's Vehicle Dynamic Control.
Wrapped in 225/45-section Michelin tyres developed exclusively for the 156 GTA are unique 17-inch alloys, while the facelifted 156 interior features a number of unique GTA touches, such as deeply bolstered sports leather seats with trademark horizontal fluting, adjustable thigh support, power recline, driver's height adjustment, heating and lumbar support. Wrapped in black leather, they're optionally available in a further three colours, including red.
GTA also boasts drilled aluminium pedals, a leather gearknob and gaiter, multi-function sports steering wheel, a titanium-look centre console, unique instruments, Xenon headlights with washers, fog lights, rain sensing wipers, unique roof headlining and GTA-embroidered floor mats.
All this on top of the impressive standard 156 equipment list, which includes remote central locking, power windows and (heated) mirrors, cruise control, Blaupunkt digital CD player with six Bose speakers, dual-zone automatic climate control, trip computer, a rear armrest with through-loading function, height and reach adjustable steering wheel.
On the passive safety front, 156 GTA offers twin front and side airbags, plus full side curtain airbags and front seat pretensioners. Only two factory options are available - a $2000 sunroof and $950 for metallic paint - along with a host of dealer-fitted accessories.
"The Alfa Romeo 156 GTA is much more than a new performance flagship for Alfa Romeo," Said Kevin Wall, general manager for Alfa in Australia. "It provides Australian enthusiasts with a car that offers a staggering breadth of ability.
"It has the performance, handling and road holding to take the battle to out and out stripped performance cars, yet at the same time it has refinement, sophistication and style to also provide a strong new competitor at the luxury end of the scale.
"And, at the same time, it does so with a unique Alfa Romeo spirit, that is clear in the way the GTA looks, the way it performs and even, with the glorious throaty burble of the new engine, the way it sounds," said Mr Wall.
DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:IT'S obvious from the subtle but formidable bodykit that the 156 GTA means business. And sitting in the super supportive, fully adjustable sports seats only serves to reinforce the impression of class and performance.
The facelifted 156 sedan offers a vastly improved interior, but the GTA version builds on this with an exclusive 300km/h speedo and 8000rpm tacho, plus the addition of an engine oil temperature gauge in the new InfoCentre central information display.
Meantime, well placed drilled alloy pedals, the titanium-look dash fascia and a unique woven mesh headlining add to the feeling of high quality and performance.
And the latter is offered in spades. A firecracker right from the ominously throaty idle to its 7000rpm cut-out, the new 3.2-litre GTA V6 is a rip-snorter both for trickling around town and when fully liberated on the open road.
Not only does it deliver a menacing, raspy induction note reminiscent of Alfas of yesteryear, but there's enough torque right across the rev range to make useful, crisp and clean acceleration from less than 2000rpm even in sixth gear.
Spot-on gearing in the close-ratio six-speed manual and a respectable kerb weight help the cause here, with the GTA's launch in the Northern Territory providing the perfect opportunity to sample the fastest Alfa's considerable acceleration and 250km/h top speed on derestricted roads.
Running on the recommended premium unleaded fuel (Alfa says the GTA will run on standard unleaded fuel with a 10-12 per cent performance loss), the 156 blasted crisply through the first four gears with a chirp of the tyres between first and second, and even second and third.
Torque steer was never the problem we envisaged thanks to the highly sophisticated and very unobtrusive ASR traction control, which operates up to a speed of around 60km/h but only if there's a differential in front wheel rotation.
In other words, it will allow both front tyres to spin simultaneously but not independently, meaning it works like a LSD, ironing out inside front wheelspin in tight corners. Of course, with ASR switched off the GTA can be an unwieldy device.
An abundance of acceleration is available in the top two gears as well, with 120km/h equating to just under 3000rpm in top gear, at which point there's still a wave of solid torque on offer. In fact, it doesn't subside until around 240km/h or around 6000rpm, when wind resistance dulls acceleration.
But it didn't stop some journalists seeing an indicated 255km/h (at around 6300rpm - or 500rpm below the point of peak power) on some of the Territory's longer straights. So there's no question the 156 GTA is a genuine 250km/h car, and it gets there with surprising ease.
Steering is the 156 GTA's other big surprise, its super-quick and direct ratio taking some getting used to and requiring constant attention at high speed. Stability was never a problem at the legal limit, but beyond that it was easy to over-correct or be too aggressive with steering wheel inputs.
Eager to follow road cambers at any speed, the firm but compliant and very Alfa-like suspension was never thrown off line but did allow the low front chin to scrape over the worst of many deep causeways on the old Stuart Highway into Pine Creek.
Aside from a small degree of steering rack rattle and a lack of air-conditioning effectiveness when the going got hot, the 156 GTA performed flawlessly and with accomplished ability in far from ideal conditions.
From its minimalist but stylish bodykit to its sumptuous leather interior, well honed handling and solid chassis, the 156 GTA exudes quality. And its performance credentials are not to be dismissed lightly.
Now all we need is the 147 GTA, which will weigh slightly less but pack identical firepower from the same stove-hot V6, making it Alfa's new performance leader sometime next year.
The Road to Recovery podcast series
All new models
Motor industry news