Retro review: Alfa Romeo 156 GTA Reviews 2023 | Top Gear
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Wednesday 4th October
First Drive

Retro review: Alfa Romeo 156 GTA

£27,322 when new


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This review was originally published in issue 103 of TopGear magazine (2002)

If car manufacturers are to be believed, there’s one attribute which virtually all new cars have in common, and have had now for many years, and that is they’re all ‘fun to drive’. It doesn’t matter that the car in question is an eight-and-a-half-seater diesel midi MPV, if there’s one thing you can bet your hat on it’s that the new Samosa Swooper 1.3XDi will be ‘fun to drive’, or so we’ll be told by the company’s publicity machine. Invariably this claim is either pitifully wide of the mark or just plain wrong. The Swooper, in any guise, isn’t ‘fun to drive’, it’s duller than dishwater and always will be. 

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Not so Alfa’s new 156 GTA. To be fair Alfa Romeo isn’t making that vapid claim in those precise words for its new model, at least not in print, but the GTA is nonetheless huge fun to drive and a welcome tonic for anyone becoming a little jaded by average workaday cars puffed up by dubious hype. 

It all starts while approaching the GTA. In common with the other new 156s, nothing fundamental on the outside has changed. But on the flagship GTA there are tasty new alloys (hiding big multi-piston Brembo hardware), a front airdam and lower front spots linking broader front wings. There are vented side skirts along each sill while the lower portion of the tail section now features twin tailpipes and an ‘extractor’ fin which helps draw air from the front to the rear and away.

Step inside and again, there’s been no massive shift in visual approach, just a series of modifications and sporty enhancements which include alloy pedals, a new wheel, sports front seats, gearstick and materials. Current 156 owners will also notice extra airbags, new instrument surrounds and a completely new centre console featuring telematics galore, dual zone climate control and a host of other mods. 

The GTA has a choice of beefed-up transmissions, a six-speed manual or the Selespeed paddle-shift semi-auto, but under the bonnet there’s one engine on offer and it’s all that’s needed, a 3.2-litre derivation of Alfa’s existing three-litre 60° V6 24v. This pumps out 250bhp at 6,200rpm and 221lb ft of torque at 4,800rpm. On paper this will see the GTA sprint to 62mph in 6.3 seconds and surge on to 155mph. Our bumpy, twisting test driving route (on part of the old Targa Florio course in Sicily) didn’t allow verification of these figures but I’m not arguing. The GTA is quick and feels it. Prod the drive-by-wire throttle, the V6 sings and you go forward – fast. Power delivery is broad, seamless and ample. To quote from Alfa’s literature, ‘The GTA can also travel in sixth gear at less than 2,000rpm and [this is the bit I like] unleash speed spurts without changing gear. Extremely satisfying behaviour, therefore, even during daily use'. Lovely!

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Importantly, it sounds good too. Not noisy or intrusive, but crisp and sweet, too sweet for me to remember to sample the aural bombardment available from the new 11 speaker Bose sound system with its 360 watt power output (4x40w plus 200w subwoofer). I’m reliably informed by a colleague that its reeeeally awesome. 

Anyway, couple all this with a six-speed Selespeed and fun remains very high on the agenda. Of course, I’m not suggesting the manual version is any less fun, but as a self- confessed fan of electronic manuals (though not ‘manualised’ autos) I guarantee that a good driver on a demanding and unfamiliar road would be both smoother and quicker with Selespeed than the same driver having to shift his way up and down a manual ’box. 

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking God never intended cars to be front- wheel drive, let alone high-performance cars. God intended the front wheels to steer and the rears to drive, and the new 156, GTA included, is front driven. Well yes, that’s true, but electronic dynamic control systems, in this case ASR, (plus EBD and ABS of course), have improved significantly. They’re less intrusive and a great deal more subtle than they were just a few short years ago. On top of that, Alfa engineers have carefully refined many aspects of the 156’s suspension, steering and brakes for GTA duty.

Ride height, spring and damper settings, reinforced lower beams on the front double wishbones, special struts and steering links, beefier anti-roll bars and relocated rear suspension attachment points are some of the suspension improvements, while the steering is now a very rapid 1.75 turns lock to lock. This is 25 per cent more direct than the old 156 and Alfa claims the GTA has the most direct steering of any mass-produced car. So it can be positioned accurately and instinctively at speed, it won’t tie your arms in a knot on a hairpin and nor will it scare you witless should you encounter a surprise bump. 

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The result is an Alfa which grips hard, steers fast and rides both tautly and comfortably, whether at low speed over Sicilian potholes or at high speed over yomps, bumps and crests. Plus the big new Brembos are beyond criticism in terms of feel and strength, and I’ve no reason to question their resistance to fade either. Both understeer and oversteer can be induced – the former with more difficulty than you’d imagine from a powerful front- drive car, the latter with a little practice – but the balance of grip in a corner between front and rear is pretty near spot on. And this much you can confidently and safely discover before any chassis electronics cut in. 

During this drive it didn’t take more than a few kilometres to realise that the new 156 GTA is one very well sorted, well rounded motor. Purists with rear-drive 3 Series BMWs will have to drive very hard to put any distance between themselves and the new 156 GTA. And I suspect that distance won’t be down to the front or rear drive thing, but because their BMW will have to be the more powerful and expensive M3. 

Rivals: Audi A4 3.0 quattro, BMW 330i, Subaru Impreza WRX STi, Saab 9-5 HOT

Verdict: A proper red-blooded Italian sports car that happily seats four. People will want one, and want it bad

3.2-litre V6
0-62mph in 6.3sec, 155mph
£27,500 approx

Words: Tom Stewart

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