Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon

The Alfa 156 is typical of aggressive Italian styling.

designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro... nice hey?

The Alfa 156 has been around since 1997 and there is no doubt that it is still one of the more attractive cars around.

When the 156 range arrived in South Africa, Alfa added the 2-litre Veloce Sportwagon to the local line, and that's the subject of this test.

As mentioned the 156 has been around for quite sometime and the sedan model is a previous South African Guild of Motoring Journalists' Car of the Year winner.

For the recent changes Alfa approached non other than Giorgetto Giugiaro himself, of the famous Italian design studio, ItalDesign.

The style of the 156 includes an enlarged Alfa-Romeo trademark grille, redesigned headlights of the clear-lensed type and a newly designed bumper.

The strongly tapered roof line ends in a fairly prominent tailgate spoiler atop the angled rear glass and has flanks that squeeze in slightly to emphasise the sportiness of the overall shape.

At the rear the changes are more subtle but ItalDesign smoothed it a bit, giving the Sportwagon a cleaner look. Although the changes at the rear are difficult to spot, they include reworked taillights and a freshened up bumper.

There are still the prominent chrome front-door handles, as well as the trademark rear-door handles, hidden in the window frame.

The car also boasts new multi-spoke alloy wheels, but we doubt that this is an enhancement because it will be a frustrating job cleaning them.

Alfa didn't tamper too much with the 156's interior and the revisions are mostly reserved to trim and material changes - but the overall ambience is still sporty and elegant.

It is also clear that practicality wasn't too high on the priority list when Alfa designed the interior. For a station wagon and a lifestyle vehicle there are few nooks and crannies - and don't expect to find cup holders!

Although the 156 Sportwagon is not about load lugging there is still a reasonable amount of versatility and overall space. However its boot space is still modest when compared to other rivals such as the BMW 3 Series Touring.

Alfa also upgraded the car's equipment levels, especially on the safety side. The car now features an additional two airbags bringing the total number to six.

The 156 comes standard with ABS with EBD, and traction control is also fitted.

An attractive leather-trimmed three-spoke steering wheel faces the driver with a cruise control stalk behind it.

The large individually hooded dials of the speedometer and revcounter are clearly visible. It is an attractive design giving quite a sporty feeling.

Cabin design eschews the generic, and the centre console has a trio of gauges for analogue clock, fuel and coolant at eye level.

Three distinctive chrome-rimmed dials for the dual zone climate control echo the minor instruments.

But we doubt the effectiveness of Alfa's climate control. The centre air vents are rather small and it doesn't supply sufficient cold air on very hot days.

There are also an audio system with a CD front-loader and all-round electric windows as standard.

Driving the tried and tested 2-litre TwinSpark engine has a power output of 110 kW and torque of 181 Nm.

It is a lusty unit, though it requires some dedicated input from the driver to get the best from it.

Rev it hard and it really comes on song, rewarding with an eager character and a satisfying combination of intake and exhaust gruffness that will satisfy Alfa lovers.

The engine offers relatively standard fare for sporty four-cylinders: twin cams, 16-valves and variable valve timing, but Alfa's 2-litre also has dual spark plugs.

Even with the latter there is little real thrust below 3 000 r/min but typical drivers are likely to be the kind of souls who don't mind stirring the engine with the five-speed box.

There is a strong and important emotional element to the driving experience which manifests itself in the interaction between the various controls: steering, pedal and gearshift all work in harmony.

The 156 (and 147) is blessed with crisp, sharp steering which results in a direct feel. But it is also not the best in the business anymore.

Suspension is all-independent, a combination of front wishbones and rear spring struts. The ride is firm, and anti-roll bars at either end effectively fulfil their role when cornering. We also found the car had excellent road grip.

In conclusion, a lot has been written about the Alfa 156 and when it was first launched it impressed with its tautness and agility, as a true Alfa. These days, however, although it doesn't look its age, thanks in no small part to excellent genes and a recent facelift, when it gets to the high road you can't help thinking the car is feeling its age a bit.

nice looking rear-end

the Sportwagon offers plenty space

Wagon... is this really a wagon? I'm afraid so, but Alfa's 156 Sportwagon is more than that. 
Wagon is no longer a dirty word. It might conjure images of family holidays with hordes of kids for the older generation but the yuppies are starting to accept this configuration as a viable route to multi-purpose motoring.
It isn't surprising that an Italian car is in the vanguard of such a development - they know what style is about and, with the Latin zest for life, a jam-jar that offers the best of both worlds is what you'd expect from a brand such as Alfa Romeo.
Certainly, with the 156 Sportwagon, they've achieved remarkable things stylistically with that distinctive nose and sweeping flanks merging seamlessly into the estate rear.
Of course style comes at the expense of some practicality and the gunslit rear windows and sloping roof mean rearward visibility isn't exceptional and total load volume is not especially generous.
The stylists from Centro Stilo in Milan made no secret that they weren't trying to build a cavernous load-lugger however, and that's shown by the fact that the 156 sedan and sportwagon share the same overall length and therefore the same rear overhang.
Being an Alfa, you'd expect it to be a real driver's machine, and that holds true up to a point. The lusty engine note, focused instrumentation, and general demeanour all suggest a car that provides broad smiles and big thrills.
While the typically quick steering (two turns lock to lock) gives the sensation of accurate, almost pointy, handling characteristics, it can't ultimately disguise the early onset of understeer.
In the centre console and at its highest point are three additional gauges: petrol, coolant temperature and analogue clock. While the last probably belongs in the middle of the car - so all can view it with equal ease - the location of the other two is unconventional and might irritate those who habitually glare at a fuel gauge every few seconds!
Complementing the trio of auxiliary gauges and aligned below them are three knurled wheels to regulate fan speed, cabin temperature and direction of airflow, their precise action and rubbery finish make them a tactile delight.
And, it being a wagon, you can add a number of practical features that you'll no doubt use if you're a true wagoneer: on your wish list tick the boxes next to 12-volt plug, horizontal luggage cover, vertical safety net and a lidded glovebox in each rear flank.

Dylan enjoying the fun-to-drive 156

Dylan Slater, our aspiring young journalist trying hard not to smile... he said the 156 was better than sex... Jaaa - I wanted to know how he knew.

ALFA 156 SPORTWAGON (2.0 Twin Spark) TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS:

Engine: 4 in line, front transverse

Bore x stroke : 83 x 91mm

Capacity: 1970 cm3

Max. power output KW (bhp-EC) at rpm: 110(150) @ 6,300

Peak torque Nm-EC (kgm-EC) at rpm: 181 (18.5) @ 3,800

Timing Control: 2 OHC (toothed belt) 4 Valves per cylinder, electro hydraulic variable valve timing

Fuel feed: Bosch Motronic M.E.7.3.1 phased sequential electronic MPI combined with ignition

Suspension: Front: Independent with double wishbones and anti-roll bar mounted on ball joints. Rear: Independent, MacPherson struts with lower side levers and reaction arms, anti-roll bar mounted on ball joints

Brakes: Front: D 284 mm (ventilated). Rear: D 251 mm

Length / Width / Height (mm): 4441 / 1743 / 1430

Fuel tank: 63 litres

Kerb weight (DIN): 1335 kg

Top speed: 215 kph

Acceleration: 0 to 100 km/h  8.8 sec. 0 to 1000 m 28.8 sec.

Consumption (l/100km): Urban cycle:12.3,  Out-of-town cycle: 6.6,  Combined cycle: 8.7
Warranty: Three years or 100 000km.
Service intervals: 20 000km
Price: R194 500
Car from: Alfa Romeo SA

the torquey 1970cc, twin spark, 4-cylinder, 16-valve Alfa mill is a pleasure to drive.

Car supplied courtesy of Jacques Wilken (of Wilken Communications)

and Alfa Romeo South Africa.