1997 Alfa-Romeo 156 2.0 Twin Spark Type 932 vs. 156 2.5 V6 Q-System and 156 GTA
Alfa Romeo truly rediscovered its mojo with the 156. Handsome, crisp-handling and desirable, the 1998 Car of the Year became an instant best-seller. We celebrate the 156’s 25th birthday with a cross-section of models that highlight its broad appeal.
Story by Nathan Chadwick
Images by Michael Ward
Alfa’s Little Jewel
Alfa-Romeo 156 Type 932 at 25 why it’s one of Alfa’s Greatest
Celebrating an all-time Alfa classic
When the first reviews of the new Giulia appeared around six years ago, mainstream journalists loudly proclaimed it to be the best Alfa Romeo for decades, and that anything produced since the 1970s was junk. This was either a group-think malfunction or collective amnesia – everyone had seemingly forgotten the 156 Type 932.
It’s hard to reconcile just how much of a step change the 156 Type 932 was for Alfa at its launch in September 1997. While ardent motorsport enthusiasts may love the angular 155, the reality is that the first Fiat-developed Alfa was something of a badge-engineered compromise. The 156 changed all that. Delayed by one year to be perfected – where have we heard that before? – the 156 eschewed the cuboid design ethos that had dominated Alfa thinking for the best part of a decade and a half. In its place was a new shape authored by Alfa’s design chief Walter de Silva that embraced curves with the enthusiasm of an 18-year-old at a strip club.
Its design was daring and clever. Hidden rear door handles transformed the four-door saloon into something that looked like a coupe, while an audacious front grille forced the numberplate to be offset (annoying the OCD among us at the time). The interior was a masterpiece of packaging and design, too: despite having notably smaller external dimensions than rivals like the Mondeo, Vectra and 3 Series, there was genuine room for five. It was comfortable, well-specced and good to sit in, with supercar-style scalloped instrument binnacles, a comfortable driving position and superb optional hand-stitched Momo leather Recaro seats.
The 156 was an instant hit. Journalists and customers loved it alike. In group tests, it outscored the BMW 3 Series. It won the European Car of the Year award in 1998, and scooped a further 35 awards. Huge waiting lists developed, with nine months your likely wait to have a 156 on your driveway.
Launch engines included 1.9-litre and 2.4-litre diesels, four-cylinder Twin Spark petrols and a 2.5-litre Busso V6 petrol, which won International Engine of the Year in 2000. The 156 drove superbly, with quick steering, excellent grip and feelsome handling. The key to this was its multi-link rear suspension, shared with the GTV, which helped turn-in immeasurably.
Alfa expanded the 156 range in 1999 with the launch of the Sportwagon – the estate version that eschewed load-lugging for lifestyle (it actually had less rear storage space with the seats up than the saloon). Its success was helped by a memorable ad campaign featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones. A Selespeed automated manual also joined the range in 1999.
Just after the hot GTA debuted in 2001, range updates in 2002 included an upgraded interior and exterior trim, while direct-injection M-Jet engines replaced the existing petrol line-up and electronic stability control and traction control were added.
A more significant update came in 2003, courtesy of a Giorgetto Giugiaro-penned restyle for the front and rear ends.
Production of most 156 variants ceased in 2005, although the specialist Crosswagon 4x4 stumbled on until 2007. Some 674,111 examples of the 156 were built in total – for context, its replacement, the 159, managed a mere 240,000.
TWIN SPARK OF GENIUS
For many, the Twin Spark is peak 156. The lightness of the four-cylinder engine provides superb handling balance, and a complete lack of understeer unless you’re oblivious to your own mortality. We’ll get onto that in a moment, but it’s critical to understand just how important the Twin Spark 156s were to Alfa Romeo: the 2.0-litre version was the best-selling, contributing to a 40 per cent increase in Alfa’s year-on-year sales.
Alfa offered three Twin Spark engines: 1.6-litre (120hp), 1.8-litre (144hp) and 2.0-litre (155hp). It is one of the latter we have here today, courtesy of former Alfa Romeo UK press garage supremo, Darren James.
All Twin Sparks had twin cams and variable valve timing, but the full-fat 2.0-litre offered a pair of balancer shafts to minimise vibrations. Although the 11hp advantage over the 1.8 may be meagre, it definitely feels smoother.
Darren’s car is in immaculate condition inside, with leather Recaro seats, and a view across the dash and binnacles that feels far more exotic than you’d expect from a small executive saloon of the era. The only fly in the ointment is the fake carbonfibre on the centre console, which didn’t look convincing in the 1990s and is even less today. Still, it’s nicer than the ‘plastic wood’ alternative. There’s a lovely growl on start-up, followed by a wispy smooth idle. The sweep around the rev range is linear. While not especially torquey, there’s enough mid-range thump for most applications, though you do have to row the gears to extract the best out of it. With a redline of 7000rpm, it sounds special in a way that turbocharged four-pots don’t. It feels quick, too: it’s a flyweight and can hit 62mph in 8.3 seconds.
However, it’s not straight-line speed that the Twin Spark does best: it’s corners. The multi-link rear suspension and then-novel double wishbone front suspension layout deliver fantastic handling. You feel instantly connected to the front wheels, and cutting through roundabouts and extra-urban roads, the steering feels alive and engaging, but never off-puttingly harsh.
This particular car features a high-level Sportpack rear wing. Although you’d be hard-pressed to put the aerodynamic advantages of this enormous rear wing to much use on a suburban bypass, it did have a function — namely to homologate Group N racing versions. You just need to keep an extra eye out for cyclists. Perhaps the biggest surprise, given how sporting the Alfa feels, is just how good the ride is. While noticeably firmer than, say, a Volvo or Citroen of the era, there’s a pliancy and composure to the way the 156 brushes off bumps and cambers that makes modern cars feel as if they’ve got concrete in the tyres.
Nowadays, good 156 Twin Sparks are hard to find. Cambelt replacements at every three years/32,000 miles are very expensive. However, good 156s have grown in value as numbers have diminished. A really good one starts at £2000, although you can get them cheaper – but expect to get busy on the suspension, floor and body.
TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS Alfa-Romeo 156 2.0 Twin SparkType 932
- ENGINE: 1970cc 4-cyl 16v DOHC
- COMPRESSION RATIO: 10.1:1
- MAX POWER: 153hp at 6400rpm
- MAX TORQUE: 187Nm (138lb ft) at 6400rpm
- TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual, FWD
- WEIGHT: 1250kg
- TOP SPEED: 129mph
- 0-62MPH: 8.3sec
Until the GTA arrived in late 2001, the 2.5 V6 was top of the 156 tree. Although the Busso V6 was hardly new, it was spruced up with 24 valves, giving it 190hp – good enough for 0-62mph in 7.7 seconds and 145mph full-whack.
It’s long been posited that the V6 is the poor relation in terms of cornering compared to the Twin Spark, and while it can’t be denied that the four-pot feels keener in the corners, the six-cylinder car certainly isn’t disappointing. There’s more weight in the nose, which means the steering feel isn’t quite as vibrant – Alfa upped the power assistance to cope with the V6’s weight – but this is still a car with a 2.2 lock-to-lock hydraulic steering rack. It’s sharp and responsive, and keen to play in the corners. It is highly sensitive to tyre choice – poor or old rubber will result in the V6 nosing its way around corners with all the precision of a drunk in search of a kebab. A decent set of boots, however, works wonders.
Unlike the other great Alfa Busso front-driver that preceded this, the 164, there’s little if any torque steer, and you have to be pretty anvil-like on the loud pedal on a bumpy road to make the steering wheel protest. Any qualms are forgotten as soon as the creamy-smooth V6 Busso dumps its torque load and the 1990s ‘Arese violin’ plays to its heady 7000rpm peak.
The V6 model received a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, which works well with the fairly modest 218Nm peak torque at a lofty 5000rpm. Although the V6 feels somewhat softer than the Twin Spark, provoke it and it comes alive, shedding its refined V6 cruiser image.
This particular car is pretty much unicorn specification. Phil Ward imported this 2005 model from Japan. Not only is it a rare combination of V6, Sportwagon and Giugiaro facelift, but it also has the Q-System automated manual gearbox. Unlike the sequential-shift Selespeed system, the Q-System (made by Aisin in Japan) has an H-pattern shift. To say it takes some getting used to is a bit of an understatement. I can only apologise to the Mercedes-Benz driver behind me when I pressed the ‘clutch’ (brake) while accelerating, and go and apply another bandage to my roof-reshaped forehead. Q-System actually works well once you’re used to it. While nowhere near as quick as modern automatics, it’s smooth and slips between the ratios imperceptibly, though you need to engage Sport mode to really make it sing. Although Q-System adds more than a second to the car’s 0-62 time, the 156 V6 isn’t really about traffic light GPs.
Phil, who is selling the car to fund a 156 GTA purchase, has had the car four years after purchasing it via Midlands Car Servicing. “It’s a dual-personality car – I wanted an automatic because it makes motorways and town driving easier,” he explains. “But when you bang it into Sport mode, it really flies.” Given its relative thirst for fuel, the V6 was always rare. The few that remain are highly prized, and today a good one starts from £3000, while a minter can be more than twice that.
TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS ALFA-ROMEO 156 2.5 V6 Q-SYSTEM
ENGINE: 2492cc V6 24v DOHC
COMPRESSION RATIO: 10.3:1
MAX POWER: 190hp at 6300rpm
MAX TORQUE: 218Nm (161lb ft) at 5000rpm
TRANSMISSION: 4-speed automated manual, FWD
TOP SPEED: 141mph
Original look (opposite) contrasts with Giugiaro’s 2003 makeover. Twin Spark handles better than V6.
GTA is easily the most collectible 156, with very good reason. Its 250hp V6 is a truly sublime creation
GTA: GRAN TURISMO ‘ALLEGGERITA’
The ultimate version of the 156 owes much of its appeal to Maserati, which was drafted in to work on the engine, and constructed the cars by hand in its Modena workshops. The styling, effected by Giorgetto Giugiaro, shared very little with the normal 156 – only the doors, bootlid and roof panels were the same. The front wings, for instance, were hand-rolled at Maserati.
The interior was a step up from standard 156s, too, with deeper, more heavily bolstered seats with a ribbed centre section, while there was extra noise insulation and a generally much sturdier feel than standard 156s. That’s borne out by the fact that it’s not very ‘Alleggerita’ at all – indeed, it weighs 210kg more than a Twin Spark and 110kg more than a V6.
That’s largely down to the extra engineering that went into the chassis. But this was compensated for by the 250hp 3.2- litre Busso engine, the most powerful production version of this venerable powerplant. You’ll hit 62mph in 6.3 seconds, before maxing out at 155mph.
There’s so much more to this engine than simply maxing it out, though. Firstly, there’s the torque – a thumping 300Nm, most of which is available by 3500rpm, cannoning you along the road with an almost turbocharger-level of thrust. Unlike forced induction, which tends to have a narrow power band, the Busso allows you to scream all the way to 7000rpm, with peak power coming at 6200rpm. It’s a potent, narcotic feeling that has you finding any excuse to slingshot out of just about everywhere.
Of course, unleashing a V6 to such vertiginous revs means you get to savour the engine note, which transitions from far-off grumble to burly rasp to heart-pounding howl as the rev needle swings around the binnacle. It certainly helps mask some drawbacks. The front-wheel drive GTA had a rough time of it in the UK press: its hard ride, poor compliance and open diff made it unruly on anything other than smooth surfaces. But it didn’t take long for the aftermarket to right most of those wrongs. I’ve been fortunate to drive dozens of GTAs over the years and only one has lacked an aftermarket Q2 or Quaife torque-biasing limited-slip differential. This gets around the traction and not-disappearing- head-first-into-a-hedge issue.
On standard suspension, the GTA isn’t at its best, being crashy, and the steering has a tendency to go light on cambers and midcorner. Again the aftermarket has come to the car’s aid – most GTAs are now running upgraded suspension and anti-roll bar set-ups and are generally night-and-day better than original spec: you can tell, for instance, what the front wheels are doing.
Upgrading is what the owner of this GTA Sportwagon, Greg Eves, has done. He’s owned this example for 12 years and in that time it’s served as a daily driver, but following a respray it’s now more of a high days and holidays car. It’s running Koni FSD suspension and Q2 limited-slip differential. Greg learned his Q2 lesson the hard way: “The open diff blew on the M25, taking the bellhousing with it. Torque is the most impressive thing about the 156 GTA. My other car is a Subaru Legacy twin-turbo, and it has nothing low down compared to this.”
The GTA has its flaws, but its rewards outweigh the drawbacks – just hammer the accelerator in third and find out. These days, you can chance your arm with an auction car for under £10k but a good one will cost more than that, with low-mileage minters starting at £15k and advancing from there.
TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS 156 GTA
ENGINE: 3179cc V6 24v DOHC
COMPRESSION RATIO: 10.5:1
MAX POWER: 250hp at 6200rpm
MAX TORQUE: 300Nm (221lb ft) at 4800rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual, FWD
TOP SPEED: 155mph
The ultimate GTA version of the 156 owes much of its appeal to Maserati