About a quarter of a century from its launch in Lisbon in October of 1997, we can certainly include the 156 among the most important Alfa Romeo models in history. The best 156s left are now starting to garner the attention of enthusiasts and collectors, especially those carrying these three magic letters: GTA.
One of Alfa's major commercial successes, with over 670.000 cars (673.435) made, the 156 singlehandedly brought Alfa Romeo's market share in Europe's major markets up to levels never reached by the brand before, on the back of its stunning looks, wide range of lusty engines, and handling prowess.
But as time passes and the number of surviving examples dwindles, the best 156s left are starting to garner the attention of enthusiasts and collectors, especially those carrying these three magic letters: GTA.
As previously mentioned, the turn of the Millennium was one of the rare bright spots in Alfa Romeo's turbulent history.
Sales were buoyant thanks to the 156 and its smaller hatchback sister, the 147, whose introduction brought increased economies of scale, as the two cars shared the platform and most major subsystems.
In short, the time was right for Alfa Romeo to celebrate by offering enthusiasts something special like the 156 GTA, launched in September 2001 at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
A historic nameplate
This high-performance derivative of the 156 marked the return of a historic nameplate, even though it betrayed its original use and meaning.
GTA stood for Gran Turismo Alleggerita, and it was first used in 1965 for a "homologation special" based on the Giulia Sprint GT but with aluminum body panels to save weight, hence the term "Alleggerita," which is the Italian for "lightened."
However, the 156 GTA was anything but a stripped-back racer.
It came with a luxuriously appointed interior and was complete with all the gadgets, so it tipped the scales at 1485 Kg, which put it among the heaviest models in the 156 range.
Not that anyone complained, though, because the 156 GTA's package included one of automobile history's greatest engines.
A legendary powerplant
The 3.2 liters V6 engine, rated at 250 HP at 6200Rpm, is undoubtedly the defining element of the 156 GTA, setting it apart from the rest of the range in the period and making it so much more desirable for collectors nowadays.
It represented the last evolution of the V6 engine designed by the legendary Giuseppe Busso and first introduced in the Spring of 1979 under the hood of the sadly unloved Alfa 6 sedan.
Two decades later, though, the powers that be at Alfa Romeo's parent company Fiat Auto considered Arese's V6 kind of a "legacy" product, manufactured in relatively small volumes in a factory soon to be closed.
The idea of a 3.2 liters V6 was first mooted in July of 1998 when the Alfa engineers were mulling possible evolutions of their engine that came without additional costs.
As 78 mm was the maximum stroke obtainable from the raw crankshaft castings and without modifications to the block, the idea was to replace the existing 2.5 and 3.0 versions of the V6 with a 2.8 and a 3.2 liters that shared the same 78 mm stroke, but paired with a 88 and 93 mm bore diameter respectively.
The 2.8 liters V6 never made production, but the 3.2 liters became the ideal engine for the GTA project, because it gave the car the powerful and distinctive powerplant it needed with minimal investment in hardware: new cylinder liners, new pistons, a new profile for the intake camshafts, and a new intake plenum casting bearing the GTA moniker.
Body and chassis modifications
The 156 GTA, available in both sedan and Sportwagon body styles, could accelerate from naught to 100 Km/h in 6.3 seconds and reach a top speed of 250 Km/h.
To rein in such exuberance, the Alfa engineers reinforced the lower beam of the double-wishbone front suspension, repositioned the steering link, and increased the diameter of the anti-roll bar. The rear MacPherson strut system had different body attachment points and a thicker anti-roll bar, while springs, shocks, and bushings were stiffer on all four corners.
As one would expect, the braking system was uprated as well, with 305 mm ventilated front discs with twin-plunger Brembo calipers and 276 mm discs at the rear. ABS and ASR were, of course, standard equipment, as were the lovely "teledial style" 17" alloys, shod with 225/45 tires.
Thankfully, the designers of the Centro Stile Alfa Romeo chose not to mess with perfection: the stylistic changes made to the GTA merely reflected the technical ones while remaining pleasantly understated: the new bumpers, wider fenders, and side skirts only noticeable by the most attentive onlookers.
A rare beast
As often happens with Alfa Romeos, the 156 GTA is perhaps more in demand now than it was in the period.
Less than 5000 examples of the 156 GTA were produced (2625 sedans and 2026 Sportwagons) between 2001 and 2005.
With such a limited production volume, it sure doesn't surprise that the GTA never received the restyled front end designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro for the 156 range, which was introduced in 2003.
In December of 2002, Alfa Romeo presented at the Bologna Motor Show the 156 GTAm, a prototype built by the Fiat Group's racing division, then known as N-Technology.
The aim was to transfer some of the technology from that year's 156 GTA SuperTouring racers into a road car. Equipped with huge 8 x 19" wheels shod with 235/35 tires, Eibach springs, and adjustable Bilstein dampers, the 156 GTAm looked bitchin' in black with its wider fenders and deep chin spoiler.
To ensure the go matched the show, the GTAm was equipped with an uprated V6 engine whose cylinder bores measured 97 mm in diameter rather than 93, resulting in a 3.5 liters displacement.
Although the power rating quoted at the time for the GTAm was 300 HP, the experimental 3.5 liters engines built in the period at Arese only achieved about 280, according to people involved with the project.
Development of the 3.5 liters version of the Alfa V6 was quickly abandoned, though, as the 156 GTAm wasn't greenlighted for production.
Even though some independent tuners have since built even larger displacement "Busso" V6s, Alfa Romeo engineers I've spoken with already considered the 3.5 a step too far because of the restriction of coolant passage around one of the cylinders in the rear bank.
Production of the Alfa Romeo 3.2 liters V6 engine at Arese ended on December 31st, 2005. In a rather poignant coincidence, its original designer Giuseppe Busso died just a few days later, on January 3rd, 2006.