Ten Point Test

Auto Trader Ten Point Test rating: 78%

Every time Alfa has introduced a family car, it crows about how it’s finally set to take on BMW – and win. We’re told that the compact executive sector will never be the same again, but until the 156 came along, it was obvious that Alfa was full of empty promises.

Whether or not the 156 really was the car to take on BMW is debatable; what can’t be denied is that several years after the 156 met its demise, it’s a car that provides far better value than a contemporary 3-Series ever can.

1: Looks 10/10

Only the Italians could build a car that looks as distinctive as this, and in Sportwagon (estate) guise, the 156’s design works especially well. From the eye-catching triangular grille on the nose, to the sleek rear lights, taking in the concealed rear door handles along the way, the 156 just oozes style all over. Indeed, the 156’s design works so well that Alfa only really updated it, rather than going for a clean-sheet design, when the 156 was replaced by the 159.

2: Looks inside 8/10

The distinctive design continues on the inside of the 156, with typically Italianate design much in evidence. The deep hooded nacelles over the instruments and the angled instruments in the centre console both point to Latin origins.

Unfortunately, also pointing to the car’s Latin origins is a driving position that harks back to the dreadfully uncomfortable Alfas of the 1970s, which were frankly something of an ergonomic disaster. The 156 is a lot better than many of its predecessors, but you need to have long arms and short legs to get truly comfortable. However, the steering wheel adjusts for reach and rake, which goes some way to compensating.

3: Practicality 6/10

If it’s carrying capacity you’re after, don’t expect too much of the 156. Even the estate with the seats down can muster just 1,181 litres of luggage espace and the saloon has just 379 litres on offer. This doesn’t compare very favourably with other lifestyle saloons such as the Audi A4, which can muster 445 litres with the seats up, or 719 litres with them down.

What makes things worse is that the rear seat doesn’t fold forward at all, so carrying awkwardly shaped or large loads is pretty much impossible. At least the cabin is decently proportioned, with good headroom for everyone and reasonable rear seat leg room.

4:Ride and Handling 9/10

Sporting saloons often have sharp handling at the expense of a comfortable ride, but the 156 doesn’t suffer from this at all. With precise steering and a chassis that soaks up the bumps while also offering a great drive for the enthusiast, Alfa’s boffins have done a great job of selecting suspension settings.

5: Performance 8/10

The 156 is a sporting saloon/estate, so as you’d expect, there’s a decent degree of performance on offer throughout the range. Slowest of the lot is the 1.9JTD turbodiesel, which tops out at 119mph – even the smallest petrol car, the 1.6, can crack 124mph.

If you’re after something seriously quick, you’ll be wanting the 3.2-litre GTA, which is a true brute of a car that can manage 155mph and which is capable of despatching the 0-60mph sprint in just 6.3 seconds. However, you’re more likely to want a better performance/economy balance, and you’ve got two key options; the 2.0JTS with its direct-injection petrol engine, or the 2.4JTD five-cylinder turbodiesel.

Opt for the 2.0JTS and you’ve got 165bhp to play with; enough to give a 137mph top speed and a 0-60mph time of 8.2 seconds. Take the diesel option though and there’s 150bhp on tap; enough to manage 127mph and 9.8 seconds.

6: Running costs 7/10

The Alfa falls down a little here, as even the 1.6 sits in insurance group 11 and none of the petrol cars is likely to achieve much more than 30mpg in the real world. The 2.0JTS, as tested here, can supposedly manage around 33mpg, but if great fuel economy is your priority, you’re better off going for a diesel. Alfa’s 2.4JTD unit is a real pearl of a powerplant, with a hefty 225lb ft of torque on tap, yet the unit can manage around 43mpg on the combined cycle.

7: Reliability 6/10

Alfa Romeo doesn’t have a reputation for producing bomb-proof cars, and unfortunately that’s for a very good reason – its vehicles can suffer from all sorts of problems. Corrosion isn’t one of them, so forget about the Italian rust thing, and focus instead on weak engines and temperamental electrics.

The oil pump can fail on 2.0-litre petrol engines, while the Selespeed gearbox can be very troublesome. Air conditioning systems pack in frequently, while the paintwork of black cars can prove worryingly fragile. As if this isn’t enough, alloy sumps can get cracked from coming into contact with speed humps, while front tyres wear quickly on V6 cars – they can also wear unevenly.

8: Safety 8/10

Marketing an executive car without packing it full of safety gear would be tantamount to commercial suicide, which is why Alfa has thrown pretty much everything in its armoury at the 156. All models have six airbags, along with anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution, brake assist and ESP – or Vehicle Dynamic Control in Alfa parlance. There are also three-point seat belts for those in the rear of all models except the entry-level 1.6 Turismo.

All this kit should inspire confidence, so it’s a shame that Alfa didn’t crash test the 156 to put a seal of approval on its work. However, it’s clear from driving the car that the bodyshell is at least as stiff as its rivals, so should the worst happen, you should be pretty well protected.

9: Equipment 8/10

While most German rivals refuse to load their cars with equipment, Alfa is more generous. As a result, even the entry-level cars come with air conditioning and remote central locking. Most models also feature alloy wheels, cruise control and climate control, but it’s a shame that rear electric windows are generally optional.

Also on the standard kit list are a CD player, heated mirrors and an alarm, but sunroofs are few and far between while leather trim is also relatively rare, as is electric seat adjustment. Still, even the most basic cars are pretty well stocked with goodies, so you won’t have to look very hard to find something gadget-laden.

10: X-Factor 8/10

In theory the 156 has pretty much everything you could want; low purchase prices, great styling, plenty of equipment and performance options from mild to wild. Reliability can still be an issue though, but if you buy carefully you could put something far more stylish on your drive than the neighbour’s 3-Series, without having to endure constant visits to the garage in return.

Specifications

Model tested: Alfa Romeo 156 2.0 JTS Lusso
On the road price: £19,000
Price range: £14,820-£20,000
Date tested: March 2009
Road tester: Richard Dredge