Until a few examples of Alfa Romeo's stunning 8C supercar made their way stateside, the U.S. had all but forgotten about the Alfa brand. Alfa Romeo exited the U.S. market in the mid-1990's at a time when painfully slow American sales were causing the company to lose money. The fabled Italian carmaker had become almost invisible. Mentioning Alfa Romeo usually invoked either blank stares or nostalgic musings on The Graduate, a movie in which Dustin Hoffman beautifully demonstrated the brand's hormonal conveyances while recklessly piloting a round-tail Spider.
By the 1980's, Alfa Romeo was already too familiar with widespread American ignorance and indifference towards its cars. The company went so far as to humor Americans' generally shallow notion of the brand by introducing a new trim level for the Spider—they called it the Graduate.
While most Americans couldn't have cared less about Alfa Romeos, America's car enthusiasts told another story. To car guys and gals alike, the Alfa Romeo name remained a respected mark of excellence. Alfa built passionate cars for passionate drivers, and the company's retreat from the U.S. was lamented by a small group of car cognoscenti throughout the country. For such caring enthusiasts, it must have come as good news that even if Alfa couldn't sell cars in the U.S. it could still build machines as wonderful as the 156.
The Alfa Romeo 156, with its front-wheel-drive, four doors, and origins dating to the Fiat Tipo, is not exactly the type of car that comes to mind when enthusiasts are asked to imagine their favorite Alfas. It is a terrific automobile, though, and one capable of fusing style, practicality, and driving excitement in a rare way.
The 156 was introduced in 1997 to replace the 155, another car that was never sold in the U.S. By tracing the 156's lineage back to the predecessor of the 155, though, the 156 can be connected to a car that was sold in the U.S.: the Alfa 75 (called the Milano for the American market). The 75/Milano was a perky, rear-wheel-drive sedan with a sparkling all-alloy V6 and wonderful balance thanks to a rear-mounted transaxle. Its spirit, that of an endearing driver's car with room for said driver's kin, was kept alive in the 156.
During its long production run, the156 was offered in many different trims. All of them retained the essential Alfa characteristics, but some were clearly more driver-focused than others.
The 156 was initially offered only as a sedan, but Alfa made available the Sportwagon body for 2000. Both gas and diesel engines were used, with diesel engines being particularly notable for their use of common rail technology. The base gas engine was a 1.6L four with 121bhp. A 1.8L four was also available, but the most exciting gasoline four was the 2.0L Twin Spark with 155bhp. This latter engine was replaced by a direct-injection 2.0L four with an additional 10bhp following the 156's first facelift in 2002. The 156 could also be ordered with a 2.5L gas V6 good for 190bhp. The two diesel engines were a 1.9L turbo four with 106bhp and a 2.4L turbo five with 137bhp.
Both 4-speed automatic and 5-speed manual gearboxes were offered on all four- and five-cylinder engines, while a 6-speed manual replaced the 5-speed for V6 models. Available only with the Twin Spark four was an automated manual gearbox called 'Selespeed.' The 5-speed Selespeed had no clutch pedal and featured an automatic shifting mode, but it also allowed drivers to select gears manually for more driver involvement than a conventional automatic transmission.
In 2001, a sportier version of the 156 was launched called the 156 GTA. The GTA was available as a sedan or Sportwagon, and used a 3.2L V6 with 250bhp coupled with the 6-speed manual transmission or Selespeed gearbox. In 2004, all-wheel-drive was made available on 156 wagons with the Sportwagon Q4 and Crosswagon Q4. The latter of the two featured a raised ride height and styling embellishments meant to mimic a small SUV in the same vein as an Audi Allroad or Volvo XC70.
As it is for many Alfas, styling was a high point for the 156. While ItalDesign and Pininfarina both submitted design proposals, the 156 was ultimately styled in-house by Alfa's Centro Stile. This design group was headed by Walter de' Silva, whose undeniable talent later helped turn Audi into a world design leader. The 156 shape was remarkably clean, with a very low (0.31) coefficient of drag and rear door handles tucked invisibly into the C-pillar to emulate a 2-door profile. The design was kept up-to-date with two facelifts, the second of which occurred in 2003 and featured a taller grille to emphasize the more aggressive nose.
The 156 combined the essential Alfa feeling with the practicality of a family car. It received numerous awards, including the Car of the Year honors for 1998, to prove that there was substance backing up its style. The 156 was the kind of car that kept patient Alfa lovers in the U.S. waiting—and waiting some more—for Alfa's return to the American market.
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