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First Oz drive: Alfa 156 leads family look

Fronting up: : There's a more homogenous look to the front end of Alfa's revised Spider (left) and 156.

Alfa Romeo updates the looks of its sporty 156, Spider and GTV models

15 Oct 2003

ABANDONING the design ethos that created striking differences between its models, Alfa Romeo has stepped into line with other European marques and instilled a more homogenous look to the front end of its revised 156 sedan and Spider and GTV sports cars.

On sale from October 15, the new models each have a 147-like interpretation of the hallowed shield grille, using crossbars and sitting much closer to the road.

There are some subtle differences in execution and two Italian design houses were involved (Italdesign with 156 and Pininfarina with Spider/GTV), but the obvious intention is to establish some German-like cohesiveness in the stable as Alfa Romeo embarks on an international effort to better compete with rivals such as BMW and Audi.

"The shields are a hell of a lot more different from the (BMW) nostrils and a black grille with four rings in it," Alfa Romeo Australia spokesman Edward Rowe said.

"And this is the just the first stage (of the next wave). We’re just looking at three restyling jobs rather than all-new cars."Still priced from $49,950, the 156 comes in for a substantial overhaul that is intended, as Alfa Romeo both here and abroad admits, to make it look more aggressive, in a similar manner to those from rival car manufacturers.

Apart from the grille, the sedan now has sharper-angled headlights, a narrower lower bumper and more prominent creases in the bonnet. The tail-lights have also been reworked.

Inside, the centre dash stack can now be ordered in colour combinations, the multi-function screen is reworked and the stereo is an integrated unit with steering-mounted controls.

Mechanical changes amount to a vacuum-cast aluminium rear cross-member (said to be lighter and stronger) and more compliant suspension mounts that aim to provide better isolation from road irregularities.

Other than that, the 156 sedan line-up continues unchanged with model variants determined according to engine and transmission specification. That is, the 121kW 2.0-litre JTS engine mated to either a five-speed manual or Selespeed sequential manual, and the 141kW 2.5-litre V6 paired with a six-speed manual or four-speed auto with the Q-shift pseudo-manual gate. The V6 models start from $57,500.

Standard features include Momo leather sports seats, dual zone climate control, cruise control, trip computer, auto-sensing wipers, six-speaker CD stereo, six airbags, ABS brakes with EBD and brake assist, Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC), front and rear foglamps and 16-inch alloy wheels.

The Sportwagon continues in JTS guise while the high-performance GTA version will be discontinued in Australia. The next time we see it will be with the all-new 157, which arrives in 2006.

Meantime, the headline changes brought with the Spider convertible and GTV coupe – again, besides that prominent 147-like grille – are the introduction of the 2.0-litre JTS engine and the 3.2-litre V6 which was first seen on the 156/147 GTA models. JTS replaces the 114kW 2.0-litre Twin Spark and the 3.2 – detuned to 176kW to remain below the GTA brand – puts the old 162kW 3.0-litre engine out to pasture.

Mated with a six-speed manual gearbox and producing 176kW at 6200rpm and 289Nm at 4800rpm, the 3.2 is speed limited to 255km/h and is claimed to propel the GTV from rest to 100km/h in 6.7 seconds. The Spider version comes in 0.1 second later.

Other alterations to the sports cars include new exterior colours, wheel patterns and interior trim. Minor revisions are made to the centre console, the radio is now integrated, the seating positions are lower, the instrument panel has red backlighting and work on the Spider’s hood is claimed to have made it quicker and easier to operate, quieter and more insulating when in place.

Automatic climate control air-conditioning is now included in the package, while models with the 3.2-litre engine have had the front strut/rear multi-link suspension retuned.

Prices have increased around $2500 per model variant, with both coupe and cabriolet starting from $55,000 in JTS form. A Spider JTS Lusso is available, adding Momo leather ($2500 on the base models) and an electric hood for a $5000 premium. The 3.2 models start from $73,500.

Australian importer Ateco Automotive expects to sell 10 sports cars per month, most of which will be Spiders, and 80 156s – 80 per cent being Selespeed, 15 per cent JTS and the remainder V6.

156 2.0 JTS manual – $49,950
156 2.0 JTS Selespeed – $52,950
156 2.5 V6 24V manual – $57,500
156 2.5 V6 24V V6 Q-System auto – $59,950
156 Sportwagon JTS manual – $53,500
156 Sportwagon Selespeed – $56,500GTV 2.0 JTS manual – $55,000
GTV 3.2 V6 24V manual – $73,500Spider 2.0 JTS manual – $55,000
Spider 2.0 JTS Lusso manual – $59,990
Spider 3.2 V6 24V manual – $75,500


DON’T get the wrong idea about the looks. These cars still look great from all angles, look nothing like their German rivals and will still turn heads.

But line up the Spider and 156 alongside a 147, as we did, and the similarities are written all over their face. Before now, these were cars still recognisable from afar as Alfas – and each was all the more interesting for its unique interpretation of the shield grille.

Now the differences are far too subtle and there could be a trend toward Teutonic cohesion emerging here. And that is what we fear most.

In other respects, things we love – and hate – about modern Alfas are plain to see.

The 156 remains an involving car to drive. While not as endearing as the JTS, or the 3.2 found on the GTA, the 2.5-litre engine is still agreeable – that is, smooth, strong, flexible and loads of fun.

The Q-shift pseudo-manual and an aggressive sports mode on the four-speed auto assist in keeping things on the boil, however the tall gearing does it no favours and keener drivers will be better off with the manual transmission.

As ever, the handling is first-rate for a front-driver. Poised, balanced, agile. The steering is talkative and precise – although still prone to savage kickback when encountering mid-corner bumps – and the brakes, while lacking progression through the pedal, are barrel-chested.

The Spider is a different animal to drive. Accomplished handling and steering kickback are there, however the convertible is a little plusher in the ride, all too eager to shudder across rough roads and lacks important facilities for the driver such as seat height adjustment and a glass rear window with demister.

In some areas the cabin looks dated, the steering wheel is awkward to adjust, the Momo leather seats are too hard, a trip computer and cruise control should be included, space in the passenger footwell is lacking and build quality is still a major bugbear. For example, two models we sampled required a great deal of effort to secure the hood on, several plastic windows had dimples and the electric motor for the hood on one car we drove had malfunctioned.

An Alfa Romeo technical expert fixed the latter problem with what he called the "Fonzie touch" – belting the bulkhead with his fist. Thumbs up? We don’t think so.

Not quite a redeeming feature, though at least a welcome distraction, is the 2.0-litre JTS engine. Although we have fond memories of the smooth Twin Spark, the JTS provides a little more thrust and, in particular, more pulling power from down low in the rev range.

It still needs 3000rpm to start delivering but the engine is now more flexible and makes a good combination with the positive (if a little long-throwing) five-speed manual gearshift.

We are quite prepared to let the Alfa aficionados decide whether the shield grille should be similar across all its cars. But taking it up to the Germans, as Alfa Romeo now intends like never before, still requires much more work across the board.

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