RE: Shed Of The Week: Alfa 156 Sportwagon

RE: Shed Of The Week: Alfa 156 Sportwagon

Friday 2nd January 2015

Shed Of The Week: Alfa 156 Sportwagon

Nice colour, low miles and... a Selespeed? Shed pledges support for a quirky old Sportwagon



Shed's feeling a little delicate today. In what he presumes was an attempt to rekindle the flickering flame of their relationship, Mrs Shed gave him a Jamie At Home recipe book along with a batch of cocktail instructions that she somehow managed to download from the family Amstrad.

Here are the dreaded buttons...
Here are the dreaded buttons...
Unfortunately, in the confusion of an unexpected family visit, these got mixed up. The resulting concoctions mixologised by Shed included one featuring five parts vodka, one of cherry brandy, three celeriac chips, half a Cumberland sausage, a slice of gravy and two sprouts from the Waitrose Essentials range.

It sounds awful, and indeed is on first tasting, but after two or three Moscow Tools things do start to look a bit better. This beverage/meal hybrid is not really recommended for those of a short-fuse, 'angry drunk' disposition, because it does bring a mind-altering quality over and above that provided by the alcoholic content. If you're the sort who's easily wound up by small things, best to avoid it.

Shed is such a person. The latest small thing to get his goat is an apparent growth in the trend towards 'bait car' ads. Here's a clean-looking, well-specced and keenly-priced car. Further investigation by the interested punter reveals that this particular car is 'sold', but perhaps Sir would care to look at these other similar cars (which somehow are not really all that similar)?

Still look fantastic, don't they?
Still look fantastic, don't they?
This Alfa 156 Sportwagon has a baitish whiff to it - one owner, very low mileage, right colour, right interior, alluring price, weird spec panel - but bringing an element of reality to the price is the presence of the dreaded Selespeed auto gearbox. The ad doesn't actually use the word Selespeed, and there are a few inconsistencies in the spec panel that make you question the ad in general, but the only 156 to get a real auto was the 2.5 V6, so we must assume the worst.

How bad is Selespeed? Depends on how lucky you are. You might never experience a broken solenoid, relay, multiplug, sensor, clutch and actuator. You might always hear the comforting sound of the Selespeed pump priming the system each time you open the door. You might see the 'Selespeed failure' light come up on the dash, only to feel a wave of relief when it disappears on restart.

What's it like to drive a Selespeed Alfa? Pre-'02 models like this one had thumb-change buttons on the steering wheel, but the key to smooth Selespeeding is not so much in your digits as in your toes. The trick, as with Smart cars, is to ease off the throttle during upshifts. The car's transmission ECU can be rather too keen to downshift, dropping more cogs than you really want it to on the entrance to a roundabout (say). Alfa has tried to smooth things out with software upgrades over time but none of them have been wholly successful. At the end of the day it's all in your right foot, and in your understanding of how the system is meant to work.

Where style over substance is allowed
Where style over substance is allowed
That weird spec panel gives our Shed a five-cylinder turbo engine. As any PHer worth his salt will know, the only five-cylinder to appear under that seductive 156 bonnet was a 2.4-litre diesel, and turbo petrols never made an appearance there - more's the pity. A turbo 156 would have been quite something. It would be wrong to rank Alfa mechanical reliability on the same level as political integrity or celebrity appeal. Admittedly, when our Shed was built, Alfa came joint worst for breakdowns in a survey by Germany's ADAC (their RAC/AA). Yes, the marque didn't do well generally in reliability or warranty claims throughout the 2000s. Yes, you need to change 2.0 cambelts every 36,000 miles. Yes, you need to keep your eye on the oil pressure dash warning (oil pumps can fail). And yes, if the bolts holding the aluminium suspension bits on haven't been periodically tightened the component wear rate will ramp up. But, er, these few problems apart, Alfa mechanicals have a very decent reputation.

As we all know, diesels are hardly worth starting up unless they come with some form of outside assistance, so Alfa hasn't spurned turbocharging its oil burners, but the company has been a relatively late arrival to the world of forced aspiration in petrol engines. They have dabbled in the past, mind ye: 48 years ago they grafted twin oil-driven superchargers, pressurised carburettors and water injection onto a 1,570cc twin-plug GTA engine. The resulting GTA-SA produced 250hp. Go here to almost hear one running over the sound of two Italian chaps gassing. Only ten GTA-SAs were built for Group 5 endurance racing, so who knows how much one of those would cost now.

Potentially ruinous in the best Alfa tradition!
Potentially ruinous in the best Alfa tradition!
Back to our Sportwagon. As a 2001 model, it should benefit from that year's 2.0-litre 150hp engine upgrade, but it misses out on the 2002 facelift, which may or may not be an issue as many believe this first model to be the best-looking 156.

All 156s came with quick steering. That was something of a revelation on the 1998 launch. Shed well remembers having to wind off lock on more than one occasion in response to the lightning (for the time) turn-in. On the downside, fuel consumption has never been a 2.0 Twin Spark forte. With the auto box you'll be looking at the wrong end of the 20s in urban/general driving.

So, what about this car as a classy start to the New Year, and as an entry into a new brio-enriched style of motoring? As noted, some festive foolery has gone on in the spec panel, but in the New Year spirit let's assume the car is a real one and not bait, and proceed accordingly. Or not, if Selespeed fills you with dread. 46,000 miles is not a lot - and nor is ยฃ990 for a sporting 3 Series-sized estate that openly put style ahead of function and that will gladden your heart every time you look at it.

Here's the ad.

RED .1996 cc Petrol, Automatic. VERY NICE EXAMPLE OF THIS CLASSIC ALFA ESTATE CAR.FINISHED IN PROTEO RED WITH FULL BLACK LEATHER.BLACK ALLOY ROOF BARS.16" SPORT ALLO WHEELS.ALL ELECTRICS & REMOTE LOCKING WITH ALARM & IMMOBILISER.CARBON FIBRE EFFECT DASH BOARD WITH SPORTS LEATHER STEERING WHEEL.HEATED ELECTRIC DOOR MIRRORS.1 PREVIOUS OWNER WITH STACKS OF SERVICE HISTORY.LONG MOT.VERY CLEAN TIDY & RELIABLE.P/X BARGAIN.

Author
Discussion

Morningside

Original Poster:

23,859 posts

199 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
Never really looked at Alfa and looking at the photos I thought "Hmm..go on then" But, well, after reading that you have totally put me off owning one.

That gearbox sounds an utter nightmare and re-kindled the thoughts of reliability I always had and heard about Alfas.

So I will pass on this one.

B'stard Child

23,222 posts

216 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
Based on the advert not for me - however my interest is there for the cocktails - can you make me one? - go easy on the sprouts as I like them on Mrs BC's plate at xmas

DamienB

1,175 posts

189 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
They've been trying to shift that for weeks. And Sportwagons with roof rails are fairly rare and sought-after... I have assumed there's something desperately wrong with it for it not to have moved for so long. Shame, nice colour...

V8 FOU

2,831 posts

117 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
Selespeed is OK. I have had 2. Main problem is that they don't get adjusted properly plus people using them like a conventional auto. The "lift" on gearchanges makes them almost seamless. The pumps benefit from new brushes once in a while, plus the relays are a service item. Hardly anything to get that upset about. Same system as the Maserati and Ferrari F1.

Good shed though. and the right colour.

J4CKO

34,757 posts

170 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
2 hours and four posts, not a lot of interest in this one !

Looks nice, but probably best avoided at shed money.

Morningside

Original Poster:

23,859 posts

199 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
V8 FOU said:
Same system as the Maserati and Ferrari F1.
That maybe the case BUT most people don't have Ferrari/Maserati money to fix things on a family car.

J4CKO

34,757 posts

170 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
Morningside said:
V8 FOU said:
Same system as the Maserati and Ferrari F1.
That maybe the case BUT most people don't have Ferrari/Maserati money to fix things on a family car.
Is it the same as in a 360 ?

I drove one of those and decided I would want a manual, yesterdays tech, especially first gen versions of stuff always looks a bit gash ten plus years after the fact.

AC43

9,430 posts

178 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
Perfect shed. Glad it's not a manual and round the corner or I'd be in trouble.

Liquid Tuna

1,384 posts

126 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
You've not even tried this week, have you? Awful, awful choice. This thing makes that Metro from few weeks back look reliable!

ecs0set

2,252 posts

254 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
Liquid Tuna said:
You've not even tried this week, have you? Awful, awful choice. This thing makes that Metro from few weeks back look reliable!
Err...



Rare return to form for SOTW in my view. In my experience, Alfas can be much more reliable than you might imagine.

Selespeed is not ideal though. I'm sure a 156 V6 manual cannot be too far away from shed money - link

W124

1,335 posts

108 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
Great cars. No more likely to go wrong than any other £1000 car. Very low miles. I used to deliver the odd Stilo on occasion that had the same gearbox. It needs learning and is actually pretty rewarding once you get the hang of it. Admittedly I did so on other peoples cars. It's far, far simpler than DSG. That really is a nightmare. Low end DSG cars will be worth peanuts when they got older.

Great shed I'd say. I'd buy that.

paulmaurice99

115 posts

113 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
As somebody with no intention of buying one, but as an enthusiast commenting on SOTW, I really like that! It's interesting, and that's the whole point isn't it? Doesn't strike me as especially cheap mind you...

chrisga

2,019 posts

157 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
I'd counter the 156 unreliability claims. Our 156 sportwagon is on 178000ish miles with no real probs except a slightly broken drivers side window switch (which could happen to any car as its the plastic switch itself that snapped off, not an electrical issue) and some worn suspension parts - but show me a 156 that doesn't..... Ok its not a selespeed but others forecasted doom and gloom as we passed 100k miles years ago and as yet still nothing noteworthy to report aside from the usual wear and tear items. It also has roof rails so intrigued to hear they are rare and sort after....

Whats going on with the ride height on this shed though? Looks like a moon buggy.

X5TUU

9,764 posts

157 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
Blimey, talk about striking fear into possible future owners, I had no idea selespeed was such a minefield...I thought DSG was bad enough lol


Leins

8,014 posts

118 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
V8 FOU said:
Selespeed is OK. I have had 2. Main problem is that they don't get adjusted properly plus people using them like a conventional auto. The "lift" on gearchanges makes them almost seamless. The pumps benefit from new brushes once in a while, plus the relays are a service item. Hardly anything to get that upset about. Same system as the Maserati and Ferrari F1.
And BMW E36 M3 IIRC

Krikkit

22,324 posts

151 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
One thing I will say for anyone thinking of picking up a cheap 156 that will need a bit of a suspension refresh... Don't. There are so many steel bolts through alu bits that seize solid it's just not worth the bother, I spent hours taking mine apart, and 2 or 3 stubborn bolts took hours of heat/hammering/drilling to remove.

errek72

943 posts

216 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
Trying to understand why alfa was ' late' with forced induction yet they have been supercharging since the 1930's and had turbo Alfetta GTV in the early eighties, as well as that GTA SA that was mentioned. Why write they are late and then offer proof to the contrary?
Seeing similar things in UK car mags. New trend: non-linear car journalism?

smileymikey

1,441 posts

196 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
The most memorable drive of my life was behind the wheel of a 156 Selaspeed. It was so beautifully predictable on the limit loved it!! smile

BFleming

2,993 posts

113 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
I ran a 156 Sportwagon for a couple of years, although I knew enough at the time to avoid the Selespeed. So no, I have no experience of the 2 pedalled 2 litre car. Remember though that the 2.5 v6 was available with a more conventional auto box if that floats your boat.
My 156 experience...
Awful seats, with a cross-bar at the rear of the seat squab that knackered your bum;
Great dash, it still looks good today;
Engine - I had the 2.4D - there are 3 versions depending on year, be careful which you choose (earlier 136bhp model wasn't great (or tunable); mine was the 140bhp, there was also a later 150bhp iteration);
Performance - 150mph on the autobahn following a remap from Red Dot Racing - and a constant Check Engine light at those speeds; fast enough to 'do' an Integra Type R on the Nurburgring!
Economy - 40ish mpg maybe.
Suspension - in reality yes they do all eat through bushes;
Body - no particular issues apart from massive front-end flex which used to distort the NS wing;
Boot - smaller than the saloon, but more usable!
Reliability - never let me down.

Roof bars - sought after? Seriously?

Should I have traded in my Passat B5.5 2.3 V5 Tip Estate for my 156? Um... No. Not one of the best moves over the years.

I was at the Italian Motor Show in Bologna a few weeks ago, which was more of a classic car meet than a car show; however they did have a 156 Crosswagon on display (complete with roof bars!) and various 156 GTA 3.2's. One of those please - but I'm not swapping my current Passat for it!

Edited by BFleming on Friday 2nd January 14:38

Mr E

20,262 posts

229 months

Friday 2nd January 2015
quotequote all
We did 30k in a 156v6. Liked that car.