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The Alfa 156 captured the European Car of the Year title
1998 with its striking looks and modern technology;
but is it really as good as the plaudits suggest?

Most of us at one time or another have dreamt of driving something racy and Italian, then everyday life intervened and we found ourselves driving sensible family hacks. But if those yearnings of your formative years have never been completely extinguished, now might be the time to rekindle them!
   For years, the finest cars in the compact executive sector came from Germany with manufacturers from most other countries struggling to get a look in. But no more, that dominance has been broken by the renaissance of Alfa Romeo whose handsome 156 has become the most influencial vehicle from that stable for many a year and the car that has finally brought the Latin manufacturer in from the cold.
   What a difference a few years has made. Forget other Alfas of recent times with their arguably quirky handling, rust problems and peculiar driving position, all that is history now. The 156 has striking looks, an enviable pedigree and the European Car of the Year 1998 title. In fact, it's superb all round with a delightful blend of early Alfa styling and modern technology.

   The designers really went to town on this car, in fact, there's an overwhelming impression that they returned to basics and started with a clean slate: take the beautifully crafted front door handles or the hidden rear ones (designed to bestow the saloon with the look of a two-door coupé), then cast your eyes over the sculpted bonnet before opening it to reveal the 2.5-litre V6 24V power unit and associated chrome pipes topped with red Alfa Romeo lettering, or the 1.8 and 2.0-litre Twin Spark 16V engines fitted to less powerful versions which are equally impressive.
   But, it's the prominent beak-like chrome grille with Alfa badge that makes the front so eye-catching and certainly leaves a lasting memory after first viewing the car.

    Inside it's much the same story. Well appointed and full of character with hooded dials and wooden-trimmed steering wheel, as well as a central wood-style console, to give a pleasantly nostalgic retroflavour combined with nicely placed controls. Practability is also high on the agenda with the use of attractive upholstery and quality plastic that was completely squeak-free during my brief drive. Space is adequate and unlike Alfas of yesteryear you can get a decent driving position, although some may find access to the boot a mite on the snug side.
   But it's on the road where the qualities of the 156 are fully appreciated with a poise and precision that's second to none. The eager and responsive engine (controlled through drive-by-wire technology in the larger engined derivative) is allied to a slick gearbox (six-speed on the V6) to make the car remarkably quiet at cruising speed and a real pleasure to drive. Happily the motor thrives on revs with an intoxicating warble which only borders on raspiness when pushed really hard. A barely audible hum is all you hear at tick-over.
   Claimed top speed ranges from around 130 mph for the 16-valve engined models to a shade over 140 mph in the V6 variant, with the latter having the ability to reach 60 mph in a whisker over seven seconds. Braking during our run was equally impressive with just the right amount of pedal feel to the ABS system.

   Niggles, well just a few. I'm not sure whether the off-set front number plate positioning and the high rear end with narrow tail lights really work; both minor personal opinions which are much to do with my lack of familiarity with the car and something one would soon become accustomed too.
   It is hard to believe that the 156 will compete for your attention with the likes of Toyota's Avensis or the Vauxhall Vectra on price; both fine models, but surely not in the same league. The Alfa is certainly equal to the Audi A4 and BMW 3-series and they are considerably more expensive than the £22,776 cost of the 2.5-litre V6 variant.
   The range actually starts at £17,972 for the 1.8 Twin Spark and this includes three years warranty, with unlimited mileage, as well as an eight year anti-corrosion guarantee. Supplies of the car have speeded up over recent months, but expect a four month wait after placing an order.  


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