Alfa Romeo 156

Born to rival with BMW's mighty 3 series, Alfa knows how good it had to make the 156 be. Since Alfa Romeo was taken by Fiat in the 70's, it faced year after year tough times and still failed to find its own way for survival. It tried to rely on its "good old" tradition like boxer engine, twin-spark plugs, sporty V6 and rear transaxle gearbox..... but all failed to make money. Then it tried another extreme to base its 155 on Fiat mainstream Tipo platform, again fail to attract customers. Obviously, the product planners should responsible for all these failure. They should have known that Alfa has to make good use of its historical sporty image to rival the like of BMW and Audi, instead of compete directly with those giant bread-and-butter car makers. Alfa cars should be sporty, should be distinctive, should be exciting. 

Anyway, finally it realized this and created the 156. Although somewhat it is derived from the Tipo platform, I would advise you better to see it as a completely new car. While the Tipo employed all struts / trailing arm suspensions, 156 has a new double wishbones front suspension. It is designed intentionally to provide BMW-level body control. The rear still rides on MacPherson struts, but rigider body and the application of sub-frames enhance the handling while absorb more noise and vibration.  

On road, the first thing to impress is the steering - 2.5 turns lock to lock provides ultra-quick response, and it is precise as well as communicative. 156 has the inherent understeer that appears on most front-wheel drive cars, but oversteer on throttle is also easily allowed, something a great driver's car shouldn't miss. Surprisingly, the ride is very supple compare with 155 and GTV, thus introduce noticeably body roll. However, the handling ability is not affected.  

When comes to the engine, no one will doubt Alfa. The marvellous twin-spark 16v series include 1.6 (120hp), 1.8 (144hp) and 2.0 (155hp). Alfa fans should be familiar with them, although they had been added with variable length induction manifold. Best of all is the new 24 valves 2.5 litres V6 - an engine that I used to think that GTV deserves. It is said to be updated from the sohc 2.5 which started life as early as the GTV6 coupe of 1979, now with new 24 valves head, twin cam and revised intake and exhaust. 190hp and 164lbft should please everyone. Note the peak torque appears at 5,000rpm, I guess this could be one of the sportiest sedan V6s in the world. Not only powerful, it generates beautiful noise.  

To further enhance the sporty character, Alfa also prepared a 6 speed manual for the 2.5V6, while a Ferrari-made F355 F1-like semi-auto gearbox is also developing. All these prove that Alfa is not joking. It is really serious to share the success with BMW.  

Inside the cabin, 156 provided more room than BMW 3 series (note : the previous one) and Audi A4 but less than 155. Twin sporty dials in front of the nice-looking steering wheel accompany with the central console-mounted circular gauges make the cabin looks radical and sporty. Furthermore, the best news is : Alfa finally changed its Italian-style driving position to suit everybody else's ergonomics. Now its driving position becomes a comfortable place. 

The above report was last updated in 1998. All Rights Reserved.

156 Selespeed

Parent company FIAT used to sponsor Ferrari's F1 program. During the past 20 years, the prancing horse did not won FIAT any title, no matter driver's or team championship. The first fruit is perhaps the Selespeed semi-automatic transmission, which was invented by the F1 team and converted for F355 F1 used. Now Ferrari rewarded its parent company with this technology, transferring Selespeed to Fiat's rising arm Alfa Romeo.  

This created the 156 Selespeed. Like the F355 F1's system, the Selespeed is a hydraulic actuator added to the normal manual gearbox and incorporates clever electronics. Instead of six-speed, the Alfa unit has 5 ratio like its conventional sisters. The operation is 90% the same as the Ferrari's, only shift smoother and slower. Gear shift is actuated by the two buttons located on the steering wheel (Ferrari use 2 pedals at the steering column). After pressing the button, the Magneti Marelli fuel injection and electronic throttle control will reduce the engine output, then actuate the clutch and then change gears by fast-acting hydraulic actuators. After that, clutch engages again and the engine resume power. The whole process normally takes 1 to 1.5 seconds, but it could be reduced to 0.7 sec when it is running in "Sport" mode. However, shift quality in Sport mode is not as good as normal mode.  

The computer select "Sport" mode automatically if the driver engage more than 60% of the throttle travel and shift at above 5,000rpm. Alternatively, the driver can select "City" mode which simulates a fully automatic gearbox.  

At this moment, the Selespeed gearbox is mated to the 2.0 Twin Spark model. Undoubtedly this make the class-leading 156 even more exciting. 

The above report was last updated on 17 Feb 99. All Rights Reserved.

156 JTS

I remember 15 years ago 2 litres of displacement was enough to make a seriously fast sedan. Today, it can merely be seen as bread-and-butter, blame to the fact that emission regulations ruled out the possibility of power hike while safety regulations made new cars heavier. Of course, if you pursue ultimate horsepower regardless of torque, refinement and cost, you can still make engines like Honda K20C i-VTEC. However, for a mass-production engine, no one finds adequate solution to raise output while meeting stricter emission limits. Some opt for supercharging (e.g. Mercedes) or turbocharging (e.g. the Swedish and VW), but additional cost means they can never substitute naturally aspirated engines. Now, a breakthrough is finally made. Fiat’s engineers bring us a new technology called JTS (Jet Thrust Stoichiometric), first introduced to Alfa Romeo 156 JTS. 

The JTS engine is built on (and replaces) the outgoing Twin-Spark engine, displacing the same 1970c.c. It even shares the same 2-stage variable cam phasing, 2-stage intake manifolds and a pair of balancer shafts. However, while the old engine pumped out 150hp, the JTS produces 165hp at 6400rpm. Yes, you might say this can be easily done by tuning intake and exhaust breathing, but the JTS also shines in torque output - a thing less likely to be improved by tuning. From 133lbft, the new engine gains a decisive 19 lbft to make 152 lbft, and that arrives at a healthy 3250rpm. In other words, this is currently the most powerful 2-litre NA engine in the mass production world. 

How does it achieve that ? JTS enhances power by employing direct fuel injection. As fuel spray injected helps cooling combustion chamber, knock resistance is lifted thus the engine can run at a high 11.3:1 compression ratio, compare with the old Twin-Spark’s 10.0:1. This account for the extra power and torque. 

So why not other direct-injection designs (e.g. Mitsubishi GDI) produce the same power ? because they concentrate on lifting fuel economy rather than power. To achieve lean burn without misfire, GDI uses near vertical intake ports and specially shaped pistons to concentrate more fuel towards the spark plugs, both are not optimized for power. In contrast, JTS employs normal pistons and properly angled intake and exhaust ports to enable cross flow breathing, therefore it generates more power. The downside is that it cannot run at lean burn mode once the engine rev above 1500rpm. Therefore economy gain is modest. 

On road, the JTS engine feels as sweet as the old Twin Spark - free-revving, smooth and willing. Also makes wonderful noise at high rev. The biggest difference is that it feels more torquey at low to mid-rev.  It can sprint from 0 to 60mph in 7.8 seconds, a league above the class average of 9 seconds. Undeniably, the relatively modest kerb weight of 1285kg (up 25kg from Twin Spark) also help. Flat out, it can reach 137mph. 

Apart from engine, the new 156 also receives a new interior (147-like steering wheel, high-quality plastic dashboard and equipment upgrade such as CONNECT and VDC stability control, see the report of 156GTA). Handling remains unchanged, but it is still the most entertaining car in the class. 

The above report was last updated on 18 Mar 2002. All Rights Reserved.

156 GTA

Strangely, automotive theories seem do not apply to Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Putting 250 horsepower over the front wheels, having more weight at the nose than the existing 156 2.5 V6, theories tell us it must have serious handling problems. No, the engineers at Alfa Romeo worked out a miracle here: this is the front-wheel-drive version of BMW M3 ! in some areas, especially driver involvement and emotional character, it even surpasses the more expensive Munich rival.  

The GTA accelerates from rest to 60mph in a mere 6.0 seconds - still some way behind the M3 though. The M3’s high-revving straight-six is undoubtedly untouchable, but Alfa’s 60° V6 is also world-famous for its lovely sound and willingness. This is not a development from the 2.5 unit in the regular 156. Instead, it is a hotter version of the 3-litre unit powering GTV and 166. Stroked from 72.6 to 78mm brought engine capacity up to 3179 c.c., then raised compression ratio to 10.5:1, fine-tuned intake and exhaust manifolds, the result is 250 horsepower at 6200rpm and a healthy 221 lbft of torque at 4800 rpm. 

Numbers do no justice to this V6. You have to lift the bonnet to enjoy its visual beauty. Just like its grandfather appeared some 23 years ago in GTV6, the latest iteration of Alfa V6 looks as wonderful as it sounds. There is no plastic covers like many modern engines, leaving the alloy cam covers, intake plenum and the beautifully-chromed intake manifolds exposed. Red signatures "Alfa Romeo" and "GTA 3.2 V6" on the metal surfaces complete this delicious visual feast. Alfa Romeo really knows how to lift your emotion. 

Open the door, your emotion is further lifted by the beautiful cabin. The original 156 already had stylish dashboard with sporty twin-dial instrument. Now, like other 156s, the GTA has got the beautiful 3-spoke steering wheel and nicely textured soft-touched plastic surface finishing from the 147. In short, it combines visual appeal with quality feel. Having such a strong basis, GTA just need to add a few alloy decorations and a pair of leather bucket seats. The latter looks terrific, something like coming out of Ferrari’s parts bin. 

Fire the engine, the cabin is immediately enhanced with another dimension apart from x, y, z and time, that is, sound. Now we know why Alfa Romeo need not to seal its engine with plastic cover: with such a charismatic engine note, who will ask for sound insulation ? at town speed, the large V6 is already very tractable, but its true color will only be revealed after 3000rpm, when its roar become increasingly urgent as rev rise. There is no M3-like explosive power delivery, but power and torque increase linearly and it will rev cleanly towards redline. Because of such a good manner, drivers will be encouraged to squeeze power out of high rev. Working with a slick 6-speed gearbox this is a great pleasure. (Selespeed is optional. Although smoothness and responsiveness have been improved, it is still no match for a real manual) 

However, all the above good points are just predictable for an Alfa. The biggest challenge lies on the chassis. We have seen some front-drive cars offering excellent handling, but lifting the game to the 250hp territory is the first time. The 156 has a good basis to begin with - a double-wishbone front suspension, but the Italian engineers still need to rethink the whole setup rather than just stiffening shocks and springs. They relocated the mounting points of suspension links to improve geometry, hence optimizing the contact between tyres and road under high cornering force. Lower links of the front suspensions were reinforced to cope with increased power. As stiffer springs are used, ride height can be lowered by 13mm to improve stability. Anti-roll bars were thickened. ASR traction control is thoroughly reprogrammed not to intervene earlier than keen drivers want. VDC stability control is introduced. As for brakes, Brembo calipers clamp larger discs (305mm diameter front and 276mm rear).  

The standard 156 is always a beautiful car, but the GTA looks even sportier, sexier and meaner. Deep chin spoiler, two big air intakes with mesh grilles, lowered ride height and flared wheel-arches that are filled with 17-inch 225/45Z tyres give you an impression that it glues on the road.  

It does. The taut suspensions always keep the big rubbers gripping on road surfaces. Storm into bends and it won’t run wide like other front-drive cars. The front wheels just grip and go wherever you point. There is no torque steer at all, nor any torque-induced corruption to steering feel. The latter is actually keener than a M3. The response and precision of the 1.75-turn-lock-to-lock is amazing. It makes driving the GTA a basic instinct rather than a calculated behaviour. Put it this way: the suspension modifications succeed in converting this front-driver into a fearsome road-eater.  

The GTA is extremely entertaining to drive. It encourages its driver to attack twisty roads just for fun. Unlike many modern performance cars, it is throttle-steerable. Lift off throttle mid-corner, it will display a manageable oversteer to tighten its line. This make it feeling nimbler than any German sports sedans, M3 included. How did Alfa do that ? I observe that the rear tyres of Alfa is 30mm narrower than the BMW, the whole car is 160kg lighter and wheelbase is 135mm shorter. 

In fact, the GTA drives more like hot hatches or Lancer Evo than BMW M3. The M3 pursues much higher performance level and cornering limit. The GTA works hard to thrill its drivers. It is also the more emotional one, just like any Alfa Romeo.  

Does it have any flaws ? yes, the precise suspensions make ride rock-hard. It hates to ride over broken surfaces where M3 will overcome without much discomfort. Not as hard as Evo VII though, but I suspect its ride quality will tie with another GTA - the Lancer Evo VII GT-A. The Alfa Romeo is similar to Lancer GT-A in many ways, such as price, size, performance and the nimble way they drive. Although it does not have 4WD traction, its V6 engine, styling and quality packaging make it far more desirable. 
However, most people will still see the 156 GTA as a cheaper alternative to M3. Alfa Romeo is going to build 5,000 cars only at a price 25% lower than the BMW. This is definitely a good news to enthusiasts who cannot afford M3. 

The above report was last updated on 17 Feb 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Tipo's derivatives

Fiat’s platform sharing strategy reached its peak during the Tipo era. Fiat Tipo was launched in 1988 as Fiat’s Golf-beater. Its simple front MacPherson struts / rear trailing arms platform was soon found sharing with a dozen models in the group. Here is the complete listing (loaded from my memory) - Fiat Tipo, Fiat Tempra, Lancia Dedra, Lancia Delta, Alfa 155, Alfa 145/146, Fiat Brava/Bravo/Marea, Fiat Coupe, Fiat Punto, Alfa GTV/Spider, Alfa 156 and Lancia Lybra. 

The earliest derivatives did not changed much the hard points position, hence essential dimensions. These include today’s 145/146, Delta and Brava/Bravo/Marea. They differ from each other by packaging, styling and suspension tuning. Fiat and Lancia share the same engines and transmission. Alfa got modified 4-cylinder engines (e.g. with twin-spark added) and sportier suspension setup. 

146 is a 145 with longer boot, although both of them are hatchback.  

Brava is the 5-door version of the 3-door Bravo. Marea is the 3-box saloon version. Marea Weekend is an estate. 

Alfa GTV / Spider, Alfa 156 and Lancia Lybra received much more development. GTV / Spider has multi-link replaces strut as rear suspension. The front still rides on strut. On the contrary, 156 has the front suspension changed to double-wishbones while using struts at the rear. Lybra remains strut in front but introduces a new GLA (Guided Lateral Arm) rear suspension. Again, Alfa has its own engines (including V6s) while Fiat and Lancia share the same engines. Alfa even got advanced transmission such as Selespeed. Although there are still a lot of common components sharing among them, it is no longer adequate to call these cars as sharing platform.

The above report was last updated on 27 Dec 99. All Rights Reserved.


156 JTS
156 2.5 V6
156 GTA
Front-engined, Fwd
Front-engined, Fwd
Front-engined, Fwd
Size (L / W / H / WB) mm
4430 / 1750 / 1420 / 2600
4430 / 1765 / 1407 / 2595
Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl,
VVT, variable induction,
balancer shafts.
V6, dohc, 4v/cyl.
V6, dohc, 4v/cyl.
1970 c.c.
2492 c.c.
3179 c.c.
165 hp
190 hp
250 hp
152 lbft
164 lbft
221 lbft
F: Double wishbones; R: Strut
205/55 WR16
205 / 60 R15
225/45 ZR17
1285 kg
1377 kg
1410 kg
Top speed
137 mph (claimed)
138 mph*
155 mph (claimed)
0-60 mph
7.8 sec (claimed)
7.2 sec*
6.5 sec*
0-100 mph
18.6 sec*
15.1 sec*
* Tested by Autocar

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