Alfa Romeo 156 GTA: Unsung Hero

After a gap of 26 years, Alfa's evocative GTA nameplate returned on a car that could have been a true great: the 156 GTA. When it arrived in the UK in 2002, it was one of the year's most highly anticipated newcomers.

Still one of the prettiest estates ever made
Still one of the prettiest estates ever made
So it was with genuine exuberance that I climbed off the prop plane at Wick airport in the far north of Scotland for the launch of Alfa's new GTA. As it turned out, this was a terrible choice of location for a press launch - not because the traffic-free sweeping roads weren't fantastic (they remain some of the greatest in the UK), but because they uncovered every ill thought-out fault in the car.

The first problem was that the GTA really wasn't 'alleggerita'. Sensational though Alfa's 3.2-litre V6 engine was, it made the GTA 55kg heavier than the 2.5-litre V6 156, with most of that extra weight over the front wheels. Alfa selected a very strange choice of dampers and springs for it: the dampers were too stiff on bump and didn't have enough rebound, giving rise to the twin problems of crashiness over rough surfaces and an unsettling sense of 'float'. The 156's bugbear of bottoming out on undulating roads was even worse in the GTA, and torque steer was a constant companion.

Like most journalists on the launch, I came away frustrated that the 156 GTA was such a blunt tool, and I stuck it in my oubliette of could-do-better target-missers.

Dampers, a diff and ARBs transform the GTA
Dampers, a diff and ARBs transform the GTA
Then I started hearing stories from owners and specialists that they'd sorted the GTA's issues. I went and drove a few. In fact, I've now driven four different owner-modified GTAs. As a result, I've done a total volte-face.

I don't normally subscribe to the modders' charter, but in the GTA's case Alfa clearly got it so wrong that even small changes make a huge difference. By fitting 15mm shorter springs, Eibach anti-roll bars and Koni FSD dampers, I can attest that the handling is transformed. No float, no bottoming out and much more precise turn-in.

And then there's the differential. Probably a majority of UK GTAs now have Alfa's Q2 diff fitted - partly because Alfa's original diff insisted on exploding at the first opportunity, but also because the Q2 diff is so effective: it lets you put the power down much more easily, mitigates torque steer and improves turn-in.

High miles, yes, but it's Β£6K...
High miles, yes, but it's Β£6K...
The engine is the one thing that definitely doesn't need any mods. The 250hp 3.2 V6 remains an absolute classic, capable of 155mph and 0-62mph in 6.3 sec while sounding like cream poured over silk.

So what price a 156 GTA? Β£5,995 can still get you a decent one, as this black example proves. It's high mileage at 130K but seems well looked after.

At Β£8,950 is a red 62K-mile example that's sat pretty much unused in a private collection for nine years. A pristine, 21K-mile black example has sadly now sold, representing the very top end of the market at Β£12,495.

Such relatively low prices have attracted, ahem, a certain type of buyer for whom a visit to the crash barrier or knacker's yard is a badge of honour. That's making an already rare car - only around 350 GTAs were imported to the UK - even scarcer. Me? I'd love to find a 156 GTA Sportwagon estate, but there are none in the classifieds - not too surprising as just 112 Sportwagons were sold in the UK. I've now got one eye on the classifieds and the other on the Eibach parts catalogue.

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (80) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Gorbyrev 02 Apr 2015

    Good shout. That engine is one of the most glorious powerplants committed to production. Interesting to hear of the aftermarket attempt to rectify the under-development of the chassis. Strikes me as a very PH sort of activity. The 156 is the only car I know of that caused a friend of a friend to trade in a younger car for an older one (not his original plan!), a twin spark Sport Wagon in white. What a gorgeous thing it was too.

  • soad 02 Apr 2015

    The Best Ever Six? Obviously, it's the Alfa Romeo Busso V6.

  • greeneggsnsam 02 Apr 2015

    It's a similar story with many other Alfas, or any other car really. If it has enough good points to be worth a look at, enthusiasts always come up with improvements that the manufacturer had to cut corners on for cost purposes.

    My Alfa GTV has the same chassis mods as described, with a Q2 and even a handling kit - and it's fantastic. These mods take away the niggles and while it'll never keep up with a Lotus or whatever it just makes it that much easier to enjoy the high points - mainly the superb engine.

  • JaguarsportXJR 02 Apr 2015

    Both my boss (who's a friend) and my girlfriend have banned me from looking at these as it invariably starts a month long period of want, followed by a few weeks of mourning when I realise I can't justify one.

    Back in the day when these were new I worked just up the road from an Alfa/Fiat dealer that had a red saloon with the "telephone dial" wheels parked on the forecourt. I was in training to join the police and left the office for a run every lunchtime. However long my route I would always plan it to end outside the dealership as I knew that no matter how knackered I was, I'd always finish the route in order to have a few minutes rest sat on the wall gazing lovingly at that GTA, before walking the five minutes back to the office.

    Just a little insight into my broken mind there.

  • Ali_T 02 Apr 2015

    Still, in pre-facelift form, the best looking saloon of all time, in my eyes.

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