The Brave Pill | Alfa Romeo 156 GTA

There was no chance that this week's Pill could top the Bentley Turbo R that featured last time in terms of cost, extravagance or ability to shrink even the sturdiest bank account. So we've opted for something almost completely different, breaking new ground with both the lowest power output yet - a mere 247hp - and also the heresy of front-wheel drive. Yet being as it's an Alfa with an MOT history more colourful than an explosion in Jackson Pollock's workshop, many will still regard it as the braver choice.

Anybody who has been writing about cars for any length of time will have dropped a few clangers. I still wince when I remember letting the Rover 75 win a comparison test it should have finished last in, and once placed the Toyota Corolla T-Sport above a Leon Cupra. But there's one time I got it righter than most, and that was the Alfa 156 GTA.

The UK launch was held in the far north of Scotland in the very nice Ackergill Castle near Wick in 2002, this being the days when car companies had budgets to waste on pampering scuzzy hacks. The magazine I was working for wanted to have more than another version of the first drive we'd already done in Italy, so opted to send a 'B6' Audi A4 3.0 Quattro and an X-Type 3.0 Sport up for a group test. This was in the days when the Northern Constabulary still took a hands-off approach to road policing, and we blasted around the emptier parts of Caithness for two days at considerable speed taking pictures and harvesting impressions.

For me, the GTA walked it: it was much better looking, better to drive and vastly more charismatic than either of its stodgy rivals. My conclusion, in the June 2002 issue of CAR, was that "if you've got a budget of £27,000 and want one of the finest sports saloons on the planet then come here first."

It turned out I was in a minority of pretty much one. Other contemporary write-ups criticised the GTA for its sometimes harsh ride, occasional traction issues and lowness of its perceived quality - or for being a front-driver priced against all-wheel drive opposition. I don't think it won a single other comparison test, most of which, to be fair, also featured the segment's top trump of an E46 330i. I wasn't quite laughed out of town for my enthusiasm, but I certainly heard a few Nelson Muntz style "haw haws" as I walked past.

The Great British Public seemed to share the lack of enthusiasm; just 268 saloons and 110 of the Sportwagon estates were officially sold here, with a handful more arriving as parallel imports. By the end of the decade values had fallen so far that some were being bought to be broken up for other parts of Europe, especially Italy, where the car was still held in much higher regard.

As is often the case, values have risen as numbers have fallen. Well cared for low-mile GTAs plateaued around the £8,000 mark in the early 2010s and now you'll have to find at least 50 percent more to land a good one, presuming you can actually track one down. While 260 are either registered or SORN according to How Many Left - more than two thirds of the original UK allocation - they are coming up for sale less and less often. To get back to that 17-year old comparison, you could buy both a well-kept B6 3.0 Quattro and the finest X-Type 3.0-litre Sport in the land for less than the cost of this slightly crinkly GTA.

As this week's Pill is being offered for £6,495 before negotiations start even Inspector Clouseau could deduce it is some way from being a pristine garage queen. Our shed boasts 150,000 miles and has an MOT history that features more red than green, with evidence of - among other things - some-time rusty front wings, corrosion in the rear floor, what seems to be a semi-permanent check engine light and the prodigious appetite for suspension components that the GTA was infamous for. But to return to the point at the top of this paragraph, it is less than half the price of a really good one, a difference that would pay for a lot of fixing. (There is an even cheaper GTA currently in the classifieds, but it is carrying a Cat D marker and an obscured numberplate that denies us a look at its MOT history.)

So let's concentrate on what's good about our Pill. It had a new timing belt 3,500 miles ago, which is one of the bigger and more expensive jobs on these, especially as the car developed a reputation for belt failure some way short of the official 72,000 mile interval. It also got a Quaife LSD fitted last year - a popular upgrade suggesting a degree of love, and also a useful one given the reputation the factory differential has for premature failure. It also has the bigger front discs that were originally fitted to the 2004-on cars, a stainless steel exhaust and Koni struts that the owner says were put on as recently as this January. There's also an Alfa Romeo Owners' Club sticker on the rear window, which is either a good sign of care or a cunning ruse. Regardless, it looks good in the pictures with a dark blue colour that suits the car particularly well. Be honest here: is there a better-looking saloon from this era than a GTA?

While servicing can be pricey given the GTA's appetite for both 10/60 synthetic oil and the knuckle-shredding difficulty of extracting the three spark plugs on the back of the engine, it will be as nothing compared to some of our previous contenders. It is also the first car we've featured other than the Audi A8 4.2 TDI to stand any chance of getting north of 30mpg under gentle use. All in, an aged Alfa with a patchy history is the most sensible Brave Pill so far. Is that good or bad?

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Comments (58) Join the discussion on the forum

  • PokiGTA 01 Jun 2019

    Brave, yes. Silly? No

    The GTA is, in my opinion, one of the greatest cars ever produced. It was catastrophically flawed but it had a way of making you smile even when you hated it for its foibles and failings. I owned one for nearly 8 years and if I hadn't accidentally put it into the back of a Kia Rio, I'd still have it.

    The engine is everything. No modern tricks to the Busso. No variable valve timing or direct injection or twin sparks or any trick intakes. Just 3.2ltrs of exceptional engineering that dated back nearly 30 years. No V6 of the same era came close to getting similar output/litre without the trickery mentioned above.

    The chassis was good. People knew that from the twinspark and earlier 156 models, but with the big engine, AR changed the suspension and tested it vigorously on the track. They compromised on the suspension kit because of cost but Eibach worked directly with them to sort the GTAs chassis and suspension set up.
    The steering was utterly direct.1.7 turns lock to lock. With stiffer springs, dampers and a tighter rear bar, it drove like a gocart. Add to that a Quaife or Q2 and it was perfect.

    It failed with the standard diff. Putting a 250bhp and 300nm torque engine through the front wheels is hard enough without an LSD to rein it in. The 147s would explode because of the traction control and AEB. Luckily the 156 only had traction control to stop wheel spin.

    The early brakes were known to warp. Typical Italians really. The later 330mm disks were much better and stopped very well.

    The package tho... Wow. Those seats and the interior and the front end and the noise. It made up for the $2800AUD cost of replacing the timing belt.

    There are less than 100 156 GTAs left in Australia and we never got the wagon sadly.

    I miss mine terribly. It was obnoxiously loud and bumpy and pretty rough, but what a car

  • carinaman 01 Jun 2019

    I'll be disappointed if the bogey doesn't make an appearance in this thread.

  • Mike 83 01 Jun 2019

    I used to race one of these my old workmate had in around 2008 to 2011 with a saab 95 aero hot i had at the time and it was really close often photo finish in a strait line wish I bought the alfa though sounded and felt more special.

    Edited by Mike 83 on Saturday 1st June 06:44

  • richinlondon 01 Jun 2019

    Remember testing one when I had my fiat coupe, made the ride of the fiat feel like silk in comparison

  • vulcan1208 01 Jun 2019

    I bought on of these new in 2002, it was in special order Miro Red @£2000 extra and had black seats with tan inserts. I had to sell it to pay a tax bill but since then I have had a new XF, a new XJ and a Maserati and none have matched the GTA for sheer "feel good" factor.

    A magnificent car.

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