There are a lot of things Alfa Romeo makes light work of getting wrong. As a brand, it’s flawed thanks to seemingly never-ending reports of things going wrong, falling off or breaking. And while some cars have an unfairly negative reputation, there is no escaping the fact that Alfas of old were almost reliably unreliable. The build quality was off, the longevity was… not long, the electrics were usually a ticking time bomb (as we know from experience having owned a brand-new 147 back in the day). Anyone with even a modicum of common sense would skip over an Alfa Romeo and buy something else. But, even with common sense aplenty, we don’t. Instead, we look at the offerings of Alfa and fall in love. Alfa Romeo builds and has always built utterly, captivatingly beautiful cars. A case in point would be the 156 of the late 1990s.
The 156 was introduced in 1997 at the Frankfurt Motor Show. It blew the crowd away. You have to remember that this is a time when we had the E46 BMW, the W202 Mercedes-Benz and the B5 Audi. All were decent enough, but none of them captured the imagination. None of them stirred our automotive soul. The 156 did. It was a flowing, elegant, yet sharp and chiselled machine. The 155 before it was handsome, but the 156 was something else. It was classy and sophisticated, it was design perfection.
Of course, all those German cars had halo performance models. M3, C32 and S4 were all there to satiate the desires of the speed freak. But what about the Alfa Romeo 156? Well, happily, there was a halo car and one that brought back the GTA name after a 26 year hiatus. The Alfa Romeo 156 GTA was a car we had to wait for, as it wasn’t unveiled until 2001 and we couldn’t buy it until 2002. We salivated at the prospect of a hot Alfa, and we damn near fainted when we read the spec sheet. Alfa promised a 3.2 ‘busso’ V6, 250bhp, leather everywhere, a meaty bodykit, bespoke alloys, customs suspension and more. And we were promised an estate, or Sportwagon version.
For those of you not well versed in the way of Alfa Romeo, we should explain why this car was so exciting. Quite simply, it was because of the noise. There is nothing that makes the ears dance with joy so much as the Busso V6. We don’t know if it was a happy accident, or if it was a deliberate design feature by Alfa (though we lean towards the latter), but whatever the reason, the fact remains it is one of the best-sounding engines to ever have the honour of burning petrol. And it wasn’t just noise, it was also a hotbed for power thanks to 250bhp and 300Nm. It was, and still is a proper performance engine.
Sadly though, and in typical Alfa Romeo fashion, the power, the sound and the looks weren’t enough to overcome the issues, and when stacked next to the Germanic rivals, that simply wouldn’t do, especially not for an asking price of nearly £30,000, or fifty grand in today’s money.
The 156, in any specification, was plagued with issues. The build quality wasn’t that great, the interiors were terrible, tinny and cheap and on the road, the handling was more than a little off. A curious suspension setup, in which the car didn’t have enough rebound or damping, meant that even a 1.8 would bottom out on undulating sections of road. With the 3.2 V6 up front, which was 55kg heavier, this issue was only amplified. Plus, there was the added concern of torque steer, though to prevent this the factory-fit differential would explode.
It was a terrible shame, as the 156 GTA had so much going for it. The interior was better than the standard cars, it felt sturdier too, thanks to being hand-built. It looked incredible with the bespoke alloys and menacing body kit, and the Sportwagon version was perfect for the family that wanted to go fast. And of course, the noise. Oh the noise. But alas, the positives didn’t outweigh the negatives. The motoring press, that had been rightly excited, were saddened to have to report the GTA was a bit of a blunt tool. Too crashy, too harsh and too unpleasant to drive. So of course, we bought the German cars instead.
That’s where the story should end, but it doesn’t. The 156 GTA’s story didn’t end there. You see, when you look at an Alfa Romeo you’re also looking at a car with a deeply passionate following, and in the case of the GTA, the following was determined to right the wrongs and turn the car into the performance saloon it should have been.
Owners and specialists set about refining the GTA. The first point of call was of course some better suspension, specifically at the front. It was found that shorter springs, uprated dampers and stiffer anti-roll bars all worked to rid the GTA of its woes. It was still a handful, but in a fun way. Not in a ‘the car has just hit the floor again’ way. To sort the torque steer, the same research led owners to fit a Q2 differential, which was less prone to shattering like glass. It also reportedly improved turn-in response, which was nice.
Only an Alfa Romeo could be a car that the owners had to put right. But more than that, they put it right and still loved it. Nobody would do this for a Mondeo. But an Alfa GTA? Of course. We pat Alfa Romeo on the back, say ‘well done’ and then we finish it off for them. We, the owners, perfect it. It’s bonkers, but it’s indicative of a brand so fuelled by the passion of its owners. The GTA was a flawed work of art, but one that has now been rid of its wrongs. Buy one that has been tweaked, that has been perfected, and you’ll be very, very happy indeed. But then, that’s what happens when you buy an Alfa Romeo.