25 Years of Alfa 156: Is It The Greatest Modern Alfa?
156: a magic number in Alfa Romeo's history and, coincidentally, also the number of kilometers that once separated the former Fiat Group's Mirafiori headquarters in Turin from Alfa Romeo's design studio in Arese, near Milan.
But, in terms of mindsets, these two places might as well have been on different planets, especially during Walter De Silva's tenure at Alfa's Centro Stile, which lasted from 1986 until 1998.
In recent interviews, the great designer has often proudly remarked that he was the last manager ever hired by Alfa Romeo as an independent manufacturer, which speaks volumes about his commitment to Alfa's cause.
We can say that De Silva used the physical distance between Arese and Turin's overbearing company politics to the greatest possible advantage, creating an environment where formalities and bureaucracy were reduced to a minimum, allowing the small team's individual talents to flourish.
The Essence of Beauty
Presented in October of 1997 to near-universal acclaim, the Alfa 156 can be considered the culmination of a creative process during which De Silva's small team dug deep into Alfa Romeo's history, looking for the "essence of beauty," the semantic ingredients that made Alfa Romeos unique and recognizable. And boy, did they find them.
I was among the nearly a million people who visited Alfa's dealers during the 156's launch weekend, and I hadn't seen such a scene before or since. Turin's largest Alfa dealership was so packed that getting anywhere near the cars was a challenge, and people could hardly believe their eyes.
In short, the 156 was a sensation, precisely what Alfa Romeo needed. Badly.
That's because between the 164 getting old and the 145 and 146 sisters somewhat underperforming on the sales front, Alfa's future pretty much depended on the 156's success because, unfortunately, there simply was no amount of international motorsport success large enough to "save" the outgoing 155.
Make no mistake, the 155 was a good car in and of itself, but one that just wouldn't sell, mainly because of an exterior appearance that had been too heavily compromised by the underlying synergies with other Fiat models.
Gone were the marked wedge profile and almost brutalist edginess that had previously characterized most of Alfa's output, replaced by a harmonious and sophisticated shape of almost feminine seductiveness.
The Alfa 156 conveyed the brand's traditional sporting message through a welcome return of the values of elegance, refinement, and eccentricity stemming from the cultural breeding ground that generated the revered GTs of Alfa's more distant past. All while remaining a resolutely contemporary design that didn't mimic any older model.
As a former automobile designer, it still strikes me how masterfully modeled the 156's volumes and surfaces are. The result of a design process made of painstaking, incremental refinements made by people who knew what they were doing and loved every second of it.
Honestly, I wish more cars showed such surface quality these days.
With a quarter century's worth of hindsight, we can undoubtedly place the Alfa Romeo 156 in the Pantheon of all-time masterpieces of Italian design. A labor of love that delights the observer with ever-subtler nuances each time, just like a Giulia GT or a Giulietta Sprint do.
It's fair to say that the Sportwagon model, presented in 2000, lost none of the original saloon's charm. Although it offered no more luggage space with the rear seats in the upright configuration, the hatchback and foldable rear seats made all the difference for many buyers in the period.
But the 156 was much more than a pretty face.
Underneath its swoopy exterior panels, it bristled with the same kind of technical brilliance we worship in Alfa's 1960s models.
Upon its launch, the 156 used the highest number of magnesium components of any production car. The dashboard carrier, steering column support, steering wheel frame, and front seats' frames were all made of this material, leading to pretty significant weight savings: four kg from each seat frame alone.
To ensure the 156 offered the best handling in its category, the Fiat Group's boffins went to town, designing a unique double-wishbone front suspension that used the same mounting points of the McPherson set up the car's platform was originally designed to accommodate.
At the rear, that same platform was substantially modified to install McPherson struts attached to two pairs of parallel transverse links that pivoted on a centrally mounted cross member bolted to the underside of the floorpan. This ingenious setup had already been used to great effect on several Lancia models (and Alfa's own 164) because it offered a favorable compromise between low weight and good handling performance.
Alfa Romeo received over 90.000 orders for the 156 during the first four months, which became 200.000 by the end of the model's first year. The 156 seduced people all over Europe and boosted the brand's market share to unprecedented levels in Germany, France, the UK, and Spain.
The 156 was powered by the Twin Spark 16-valve engines already seen on other Alfa models, with the 1.8 and 2.0 liters units receiving variable intake runners to improve low-end torque. But most buyers chose the revolutionary turbodiesels: the 1.9 liters four-cylinders and 2.4 liters inline-five were the first diesel engines equipped with "common rail" fuel injection, transforming their performance and refinement.
However, the 156s that enthusiasts really want nowadays are the ones equipped with the lusty, melodious 2.5 "Busso" 24-valve V6 engine. It's believed they represent less than 8% of the 673.435 156s ever made and, unsurprisingly, already command a significant premium on the market.
An impeccable pedigree
On the racetracks, the Alfa 156 picked up right where its predecessor left off, winning the Italian Superturismo championship in 1998 and '99, then grabbing the European Touring Car Championship four consecutive times, three with Fabrizio Giovanardi and one with Gabriele Tarquini.
The twilight years
The automobile business has always been fickle, and even the greatest success stories usually last only a few years before a change is needed.
With a replacement model still a couple of years away, Alfa Romeo asked Giorgetto Giugiaro to refresh the aging 156 with a new front-end design. Even for the most outstanding automobile designer in history, improving on perfection is a tall order, and the result doesn't seem to have stood the test of time as nicely as the 1997 original...
To my eye, at least!