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Assume you are a single man or woman. Picture yourself in a room with three most amazing specimens of the opposite sex, all vying for your undivided attention. Imagine how difficult it would be to decide between them. How in the name of the gods can you have them all? At the same time, you must admit that the thought of such an opportunity is incredibly exciting. Now, in a roundabout way you understand how it feels to review the Alfa Romeo 156 GTA.

Potential suitor number one is the familiar silhouette of the Alfa Romeo 156 saloon. Would you believe that the 156 was first launched to the public in 1997? As I write this story, that is five years ago. To my eyes, it has lost none of its elegance, and Italian originality. From a distance, or at a glance, it may look like a coupe, thanks to the simple movement of the rear door handle to the C-pillar. The overstated front door handles enhance the effect. The flanks are smooth and flowing, yet the nose could belong to no other marque but Alfa Romeo. Pressing that point home is the offset number plate position, emphasising the sharp Alfa grille. So far, I've only described the basic 156 shape. The GTA takes it all a step further. The GTA is the 156 after an intensive muscle-toning regime. Yet, it remains subtle enough not to offend other road users.

The arches are extended, but not cheaply of course. A body kit has been attached, though my wording does not describe how well integrated it is. The front splitter and side skirts are particularly complementary to the car's shape. A small criticism is that the rear bumper looks a little unfinished, and the exhaust seems to hang in mid-air clumsily rather than in an integrated manner as Alfa Romeo have managed to incorporate in the new 147 GTA (see pictures from the 2002 NEC Motor Show for instance). However, along with the darker headlight treatment, the overall effect is successful. Not many people take the GTA to be anything other than a special car. Which it most definitely is.

Thankfully, the interior continues the theme. This particular suitor is wrapped in black leather, with curves as far as the eye can see. Alfa have cleverly not skimped on equipment either. After all, the GTA saloon will set you back the best part of 30,000. I must admit, I'd like to see a stripped out version, but anyway, the interior is a good place to be. You will be glad to know that it is not styled like other saloon cars. The fascia wraps around the driver and passenger, though some of the materials used are unusual to say the least. The important parts are done well (steering wheel, pedals, gearlever), though it took me a few days to find a comfortable driving position. One can't help but think that some of the function has been sacrificed in the name of form. Saying that, the aesthetics alone may be a very attractive proposition.

Now, if you are a regular reader of The Car Enthusiast you will know that we don't often put style above substance. Enter suitor number two - the driving experience. By the experience, I am first of all talking about the chassis, and how it feels to drive it. The GTA after all is a front-wheel drive car, with a not inconsiderable weight to carry around. Cynics might mumble how BMW and Mercedes-Benz wouldn't compromise in this way, but cynics are generally going to lead a dull life, untouched by passion or enriched by new experiences... Drive the 156 GTA down one of your favourite roads hard and you will not be disappointed. It truly is a masterpiece. You sense a direct connection with the individual components. The steering is wonderfully quick, yet full of feel, allowing you to place the GTA with incredible precision.

The 156 GTA handles a typical A-road with aplomb. In fact, it is possibly too good for that. In the wet or dry it allows you to seamlessly string together fast and slower corners. This is not a surprising result though. All 156s feature a double wishbone suspension up front. Compared to the rest of the recently revised 156 range, the GTA has a reinforced lower beam, different steering link fastening position on the struts, new spring and damper settings, a larger anti-roll bar and a lower ride height. At the rear, pick-up points are revised, as are the damper and spring settings and the anti-roll bar. I would not dare accuse the Alfa Romeo Design and Development team of taking common short cuts such as merely fitting a lowering kit on the car. Well, not having driven the GTA on some particularly untypical British B-roads anyway...

Not only is the chassis precise, it is also very very capable. Grip levels are quite high, but that doesn't mean you will get sudden breakaway when you exceed those levels. Slides are progressive and certainly controllable. Bearing in mind our November weather, most of our driving was done in damp conditions as well. The brakes are fabulous. On first acquaintance, I considered them to be a little 'grabby' driving around town, but on the open road, and from speed, they fill the driver with confidence, stopping with little fuss, time and time again. Most of the time the ABS is not needed while driving 'con spirito' in the wet, but there was one strange moment where the rear end stepped out while braking into a tight left hand corner. The car was easily controllable though, without danger. However, I think many drivers may be caught out by the fact that it does not handle like a powerful front wheel drive car. Alfa Romeo have managed to give it a much more fun chassis than those cynics could comprehend.

Note that I have intentionally not centred on the reason for the cynic's doubt - all 250bhp and 221lb.ft of it - the engine. Suitor number three, and certainly the most sensuous. You may remember that we drove the Alfa Romeo GTV Cup last year. It was powered by the classic 3.0-litre V6 Alfa engine, which I concluded was the soul of the car. As expected, the next evolution of that unit does not disappoint. The 156 GTA features a new 3.2-litre V6. The extra capacity was achieved through lengthening the stroke. Thankfully, the engineers were not content with that. The intake and exhaust ports have been increased in size as well, necessitating different valve timing and a whole new engine calibration. An oil cooler was also deemed necessary.

To be honest, I don't care what they have actually done. The Alfa V6 used to be a classic. Somehow it now goes beyond that. It is nothing less than glorious. Weirdly enough, it will suit any type of driver. You want to trundle along the motorway at 70mph with the odd blip on the throttle to get past that person doing 69? No problem, leave the gearbox in 6th (yes it has six forward gears) and you will be more than content with your progress. You want to clear the cobwebs on a fresh November morning on a deserted B-road? Great, keep the engine on the boil and you shall be rewarded by wads of torque, and a soundtrack to die for. The engine in the GTA really is that good.

Sitting in traffic fails to disguise the GTA engine's potential. It idles smoothly as you'd expect, but there is a definite 'burble' there - intent if ever I heard it! The first time you accelerate through the gears will take your breath away. Yes, it acquires speed at a decent rate (you can read the figures below), but the noise is simply mind-blowing. Something tells me that the Bose stereo system will not get used to its full potential in the GTA. How can I possibly describe it to you? We should start sampling engine notes and putting them online as a download. Yes, it really is that good and no we didn't record it. You would have to spend a hell of a lot more money to beat the noise the GTA's engine emits.

Which leads me back to your quandary. Do you choose aesthetics, handling, or a powerplant to rival the best? You don't have to. You may now have all three lovers. Oh, and if you are not really single, you can actually fit the family in the 156 GTA as well. Hell, there's even a 'Sportwagon' estate - the ultimate in subtle sporting aspirations?

www.alfaromeo.co.uk

Road test: 2002 Alfa Romeo 156 GTA (saloon)
Story by Shane O' Donoghue, images by Adam Jefferson

Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image.

Technical specifications

Price at time of story: 26,900.00 (on the road)
Performance
Max speed (mph): 155.
0-62 mph (seconds): 6.3.
Urban mpg: 15.6.
Extra urban mpg: 32.8.
Combined mpg: 23.3.
CO2 (g/km): 287.

Engine
6 cylinders in 60 degree V, transversely mounted in the front.
Cubic capacity: 3179cc.
Bore x stroke (mm): 93 x 78.
Valve gear: Four valves per cylinder.
Fuel system: Bosch Motronic ME 7.3.1 electronic MPI with selective knock control.
Max power (bhp): 250 at 6200 rpm.
Max torque (Nm): 300 at 4800 rpm.

Transmission
Six-speed manual.
Ratios:
Final drive: 3.733
1st: 3.500
2nd: 2.235
3rd: 1.520
4th: 1.161
5th: 0.971
6th: 0.818
Reverse: 3.545

Chassis
Front: Independent, double wishbones with double trailing arm and anti-roll bar on ball joints.
Rear: Independent, MacPherson struts with transverse levers of different lengths anchored to an aluminium cross beam, reaction arms, offset coil springs, and anti-roll bar mounted on ball joints and linked to the damper.
Steering: Power assisted rack and pinion.
Turning circle (diameter): 12.1m (laughable).
Brakes: Anti-lock braking system with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD). 305mm ventilated discs front. 276mm discs rear.
Wheels: 17 x 7.5 inch alloy (wheels on test car are an optional extra).
Tyres: 225/45 R17W.

Dimensions
Length (mm): 4430.
Width (mm): 1745.
Height (mm): 1402.
Wheelbase (mm): 2595.
Front track (mm): 1522.
Rear track (mm): 1509.
Cargo volume (litres): 378.
Kerb weight (kg): 1410.
Fuel tank capacity (litres): 63.


Picture gallery

Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image.
Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image.
 

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