It's very difficult to agree on what defines automotive beauty. To some it's a flowing shape, to others it's an elegant engineering solution. Fashions change and a car that was beautiful can rapidly become gawky and gauche. The Alfa Romeo 156 was a car that united opinion. It was beautiful. So why did Alfa Romeo see fit to indulge in a little cosmetic surgery?
Some manufacturers just feel the need to tinker. Sometimes the facelifts work, sometimes they go a little bit wrong. A straw poll in the office saw everybody rated this Alfa Romeo 156 as a good-looking car but there seemed something of a split as to whether it was actually any better looking than its predecessor. Credit for the styling job went to Giugiaro's Ital Design studio and it's a very neat piece of work. The Hannibal Lecter-style hockey mask of a grille and the frowning jewel effect lights catch the eye of the dedicated Alfisti, but few would spot the differences if unprompted. Genuine anoraks would also spot the microscopically modified tail lights and the Sportwagon estate version's ever-so slightly cleaner rear bumper design.
The styling revisions marked a distinct shift in Alfa Romeo's design language. We first saw the big grille on the 147 hatch and it was subsequently incorporated into the revised GTV and Spider models. When the 156 came in for the treatment, it was indicative of a company revelling in its stock on the rise.
All 156 variants featured a revised centre console with dual-zone climate controls so that driver and front passenger could set their own temperatures. There's an impressive Bose multi-speaker stereo system - and the option of the clever CONNECT 'telematics' set-up, offering satellite navigation, internet use and access to the emergency services. There's also six airbags as standard, plus the Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) stability system, brake assist and Isofix child seat mountings.
Though the 156's build quality and reliability record is not quite as good as that of, say, Audi, it's not far off. Watch for thrashed examples but also check for faulty electrics and water leaks which are not uncommon. The diesels are hardy beasts but can eat front tyres. Check the suspension alignment and also the underside of the diesels and the GTA models as spirited driving can put the front spoiler into contact with the road, a costly fix. By the time the facelifted 156 was launched, many of the niggly problems that affected earlier cars had been well and truly ironed out.
(based on a 2.0 JTS) A clutch assembly is around £138. Front and rear brakepads are around £50 per set of each, a rear exhaust box about £143 (excluding catalyst), a starter motor around £190. A replacement headlamp is about £145.
Aside from the styling tweaks, the most significant change was the introduction of another JTD diesel engine and an absolute belter at that. With 175bhp on tap, it's one of the Multijet common rail diesel engines. This system took the idea of pilot injection - squirting a small amount of fuel into the cylinder to 'prime' the combustion chamber for the main ignition process - and refined it still further. In this instance, the main injection is divided into a series of smaller injections, allowing smoother, more gradual combustion that utilises fuel more efficiently. The electronic control units, therefore, have to be astonishingly precise. The upside is that huge torque figures can be generated - this five-cylinder 2.4-litre unit cranks out 284lb/ft of torque and runs with very low emissions as well as excellent refinement. A six-speed manual gearbox ensures that you can always strike a decent balance between low speed acceleration and high speed cruising efficiency.
The 2.0-litre JTS engine was subtly updated at the time of the facelift. This engine already offered 10% more power and 14% more torque than the old 2.0-litre Twinspark unit. Yet, thanks to a system where fuel is injected directly into the combustion chamber rather than into the inlet manifold, it actually used less fuel.
The big hitter in the facelifted 156 range was the GTA version and before you do a double take, yes, it does carry the styling of the pre-facelift car. Perhaps Alfa's budget could only stretch so far. As its stands, it's the best of both worlds. If you don't get on with the revised 156's styling, save up for a GTA and get one of the world's great engines as recompense. With a 250bhp version of the top 3.2-litre 24v V6 petrol engine and numerous handling tweaks, the result is a soundtrack to die for and a fitting flagship to a great line-up.
The Alfa Romeo 156 offers a refreshing alternative for the BMW fan that's wavering. It's a car that needs no excuses. The build quality is decent, the range of engines is impressive and the styling is sharper than anything in the class to emerge from Germany. It seems a long time since the 156 won the European Car of The Year award back in 1998. The facelifted cars only served to remind us how little needed changing.