Having a loan car whilst your own car is being serviced is a standard these days. Often, you’ll get an entry level Fiesta, Polo or other marque consistent model; if you’re lucky may be a demonstrator. But this was little different.
My 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulietta JTDm2-120 (Alfa know how to title a car…) was due its first service. UK trading laws are quite straightforward – servicing completed outside the franchised network does not affect the warranty if it is consistent in timing, content and parts used to the manufacturer’s schedules, and completed by a tax registered motor business. So, for better value, convenience and that elusive warm feeling, I’m using our local Alfa Romeo specialist. The one with “Alfa Romeo Milano The Workshop” signposted over the entrance. And my loan car was a 2003 Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagen. The 1998 European Car of the Year, no less.
Actually, I asked for the 4C or the Alfasud Sprint, rather optimistically. But, with nothing more than a telephone number, I was given the keys to a twin cam 16V Alfa, with 108,000 miles on the clock and some fuel in it. Just don’t bring it back empty was the only request. No licence check, no insurance forms, no ID check.
First stop was a fuel station (in fact the one I used before) just around the corner, and I added the fuel I expected to use during the day. The gauge moved up a bit and then fell back to zero, the miles to empty indicator raced up to 190, which was impressive for two gallons, and we were off.
First impressions were around the compact nature of the car. Not just the width, but the external mirrors were small, the wipers short and the dash simple and compact.
Two instruments in front of the driver, three more in the centre binnacle, three twist knobs for the heat and air conditioning (no, of course it didn’t) that worked just like my Giulietta’s and stalks for the other functions. Some warning lights in the centre of the instruments, most of which stayed off all day, and logical controls for the windows, mirrors and the like. The radio was an aftermarket unit that did the job of contacting the BBC.
Size wise, this car is actually a close match for my Giulietta, being just 4 inches longer and a couple of inches narrower. But, it did feel more compact, partly because of a much lower scuttle and dash structure, and partly through an impression of being internally much narrower.
Parking it up at work reinforced this impression – this did not look like a BMW 3 Series competitor, which is what it was perceived as, and intended to be, back in 1998. It is the same length and width as the 1990-2000 BMW E36; the new 3 Series G20 is 10 inches longer in wheelbase and four inches wider, sized almost exactly as the 5 series (E39) was in 1998. No wonder the 156 felt compact.
The styling of the 156 (Tipo 932 in Alfa code) was by Walter de Silva and the Alfa Romeo Centro Stile, and was intended to move the brand’s design on from the blocky and obviously Fiat related 155, by picking up something of the spirit and essence of the first Giulietta of the 1950s (above). A compact, elegant sport saloon, may be sized to match the 3 Series but trying to compete by othering something different, not something aping the BMW. De Silva has (modestly) described it as masterpiece; certainly it was a great looking car in 1998 and has aged very well, and has something Alfa about it.
Personally, I think it looks great, especially around the front and from the compact nature of the car. Alfa hid the rear door handles to aid a coupe look, and this was the first Alfa to have the now typical offset number plate, to accommodate the deep shield grille.
How often do you open the bonnet on a regular loan car? Me neither, but this was different. The 156 was built with a variety of engines – 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0 four cylinder petrol, 2.5 and 3.2 V6 petrol, and 1.9 and 2.4 litre four cylinder diesels. This car had the 1.8 litre petrol, so (nominally) 140 bhp, 120 lbft and 9.4 seconds to 60. I didn’t verify this, of course, and some of the horses may well have retired in a car of this age, so from a performance view there is little to say, other than that the car went happily with the flow and drank modestly as far as I could tell.
The engine is what Alfa termed Twin Spark – in a way Alfa has used on and off since 1914, there are two spark plugs in each cylinder, one in the middle of the four valves and one smaller one to the edge between an inlet and an exhaust valve. The intention now is to enable smoother idling and low load performance at high air:fuel ratios and the second plug is fired simultaneously with the central plug.
Suspension is double wishbones at the front, helping the low scuttle, and a MacPherson strut assembly at the rear. In theory, there is some Fiat Tempra (a saloon based on the early 1990s Tipo) in the central floorpan but Alfa managed to modify even that. In effect the platform is an Alfa one, and was also used on the Lancia Lybra, a similar saloon and estate sold in lower numbers only in Italy and certain southern European markets.
Driving was an enjoyable experience. Obviously, you’re not going to thrash such a car on first acquaintance in traffic, and it has to be said, it did feel as if most of the suspension bushes could do with replacing. It pulled and braked straight, but felt a bit loose. Nothing dangerous, just fair wear and tear, and I’m comparing a 15 year old 108,000 mile car to a 12,000 mile car. Still, it was a pleasant drive, with a compact feel, good visibility (except in the small mirrors), a sharp turn in and little sense of imminent understeer. The steering is quick, with just over 2 turns from lock to lock, which helps the impression of a prompt response. There are very reasonable seats and a better driving position than Italian cars are supposed to have, also, but the rear seats are for two, really.
The character of a car to a brand is not easy to define; much of it comes through either visual impression or the feel of the contact points, but somehow, something, tells you when you’re in an Alfa. Aside from the main instruments paired behind the wheel, two features did this especially in this car – the first being the front door handles. Not only are they deliberately echoing old style chrome handles, but there is a separate button to depress as well. When did you last do that? In my case, a Hillman Hunter.
The other was the angle of the gearlever. Although not very evident in this library photo, the lever is set on a raised element of the console, and angled back in a manner reminiscent of an older Alfa saloon. You suspect the original was a consequence of the placing of various mechanical elements and the interior spaces, and the 156 was a deliberate mimic, particularly as the Lancia Lybra’s lever does not angle in the same way. To add to this, a wooden rim steering wheel was also available.
The estate version of the 156, known as the Sportwagen was launched in 2000, and clearly aimed at the lifestyle not volume format of estate. Think Audi A4 or BMW 3 series Touring, not Volvo 240. It is arguable how much usable it was than a saloon, unless you dropped the rear seats and may be fairer to consider it as a hatchback rather than an estate. But the looks might sway your opinion, and the telephone dial alloys might help.
The other notable 156 variant was the 156GTA, named after the 1960s Alfa Romeo GTA, or Gran Turismo Alleggerita, Lightweight Grand Tourer in literal translation. Fitted with the Giuseppe Busso designed 3.2 litre V6 engine with 250bhp and 220 lbft of torque. Although the car was launched in 2001 and production ran to 2005, it never took the facelifted nose and tail but did gain a widened wheelarches, as tracks were widened to cover revised suspension and bigger brakes. Best of all, the engine noise was perhaps the best of is time for something fewer than 12 cylinders. A BMW M3 with a bit more character and soul? May be ,but may be not for everyone, and Alfa took 3 years to sell a run of just over 3500 cars.
A repair shop that offers a loan car like this is clearly Alfa focussed.
Most repair shops would run a mile from such a car as a loaner, but when the forecourt area has an Alfasud Sprint in racing trim, a 164 V6, multiple 156s, Spiders and 147s and a Alfa 4C, and the workshop a GTV, classic Spiders and a 2000 Spider then you can tell you’re in the hands of an enthusiast.
The Bentley is only allowed as the owner also has an Alfa!
So not a typical repair shop loaner, but not a typical repair shop either. Was it better than a main dealer experience? Was it better than a brightly coloured Fiat 500 or a Vauxhall Corsa with “Buy me now!” stickers on it?
I think we can agree on the answer to that one!