With almost a million people visiting dealerships on the first 'open doors' Sunday, over 100,000 orders placed in just a few months and 680,000 total sales between 1997 and 2005, the Alfa Romeo 156 one of the most successful models in the brand's history. The 156 was presented to the international press in 1997 at the Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon. The company's intentions were clearly declared: to create a saloon that combined style and impeccable dynamic behavior, with a perfect balance between performance and handling. A 100 per cent Alfa Romeo product formula. The goal was highly ambitious and resulted in one of the best front-wheel drive cars ever.
A saloon with a sporty heart
Alfa Romeo and front-wheel drive
In 1986, the state owner of Alfa Romeo since 1933, IRI, sold the brand to the Fiat Group. As in all industrial integration processes, the first years were devoted mainly to the rationalisation of production and supply chains. In the 1980s, the watchword for all carmakers was 'synergies'. Process and product were increasingly standardised, many components were shared for cost reasons and designers were obliged to respect rigid constraints which smothered creativity. In the following years, these rules were loosened as customers disliked the excessive homologation and began looking for more identifiable cars. The personality of the brand returned, and this turning point changed the history of turn-of-the-century car design.
From production rationalisation to brand centrality
For Alfa Romeo, this meant a return to its origins. The first big step to relaunch the distinctive characteristics of the brand was to revive Alfa Corse, the racing team where the young Enzo Ferrari had taken his first steps. In 1993, the 155 GTA participated in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) championship in Germany, driven by Nicola Larini who won by finishing first in 11 out of 20 races and carrying Alfa Romeo to the top step of the Nürburgring podium for the first time. The contribution of design was paramount. The 164 of 1987, the brand's first front-wheel drive flagship, was designed by Pininfarina, but from that moment on, the role of the internal Centro Stile Alfa Romeo became increasingly important. In Arese, technologies changed, people changed and processes changed. The Centro Stile team integrated new computer-assisted systems for design and prototyping and worked closely with the technical teams too – after all, what is functional must also be beautiful and vice versa. Form and substance always go together, that is the 'necessary beauty' of Alfa Romeo.
Sporty driving, high performance, innovation and style
The Centro Stile created not only the style of a model, it designed a complete range. In 1995 the brand brought an original two-volume model to the 'C' segment, the 145, and the following year this was joined by the two-and-a-half-volume version, the 146. The GTV and Spider sports cars followed, created in collaboration with Pininfarina, but the real turning point came with the 156. The style of the 156 was an extraordinary mix of strength, innovation and classicism. The front shield reclaimed its dominance and projected its lines onto the bonnet. Seen from the front, the mudguards seemed 'clamped on the wheels' flush with the bodywork, radiating strength and road grip. The relationship between glass and metal surfaces resembled a coupe more than a saloon. The rear door handles disappeared, integrated almost invisibly with the window frames and the clean flanks highlighted the car's sleek and dynamic profile. 'It seems to be moving even when it's still,' commented Italian car designer Walter de Silva. The 156 returned to the kind of use of colour previously glimpsed in the Carabo and the Montreal. The Alfa Romeo designers found inspiration in the Museum collection, observing the colour of the 8C 2900 B of 1938 they invented 'Nuvola' blue, obtained with a multiple layer mica effect that gave the car an iridescent glint.
Designing a new range
The 156 was an astonishing car from a technical point of view too. The designers had been asked to develop the concept of 'advanced sportiness' by combining power, lightness and control. This has always been the formula expressing Alfa Romeo driving. To achieve this goal, new materials such as magnesium and 'tailored blank' steels were introduced, highly refined suspension systems were designed and particular care was devoted to mechanical tuning in order to enhance handling performance and trajectory precision. The 156 convinced everyone that it was the most thrilling saloon to drive of its entire generation. The sporting version was a winner as in 10 years of Gran Turismo championships it won 13 titles.
At launch there were six engines. The Busso V6 was accompanied by three 'Twin Spark' engines which, for the first time, combined double ignition (a technology previously used by Giuseppe Merosi in 1914) with four valves per cylinder. According to the logic of the European market at the time, petrol was the prevailing fuel. These rules were about to change and it was Alfa Romeo who launched the revolution with the 156, the first car in the world to launch the 'common rail' system. Journalists testing the 1.9-litre and 2.4-litre JTD versions in Lisbon were amazed and for the first time, diesel engines were offering petrol-level performance, silencing and comfort.
The birth of the 'common rail'
The 156 won the hearts of public and critics, and in 1998 delivered the international 'Car of the Year' award to Alfa Romeo for the very first time. Its younger sister, the 147, which shared not only the stylistic 'family feeling' but also the base, suspension and engines, followed up a few years later, winning the same award in 2001.
'Car of the Year'