The Knowledge: The Alfa Romeo 156 is a great way to get your Alfa fix for peanuts
Alex has been a road tester and motoring writer for more than 10 years, and has written on new, used and classic cars for What Car?, Autocar, The Daily Telegraph and PistonHeads, among many others.
You aren’t a real petrolhead unless you’ve owned an Alfa Romeo at least once, right? So spake Clarkson, and whether you agree entirely with that sentiment or not, it’s certainly true that owning an Alfa Romeo is an experience everyone should try, given the chance.
Trouble is, as we all know, an Alfa can be a fickle mistress. Indeed, that's part of the reason owning one is such a rollercoaster. It's also why buying one brand new is a feat undertaken only by the brave of heart (and strong of wallet).
Happily, there are plenty of cheap ways to get your Alfa Romeo fix at the bargain basement end of the used car market. And one of the best of them right now looks to be the Alfa 156. Not only is it smooth, sleek and svelte, with looks that have only improved with age, but the 156 also has plenty of space for your family, or your mates. Choose the slinky Sportwagon, and there’s even room for the dog too.
Either way, the 156 is great to drive, with taut handling and a selection of lusty engines; of those, the 2.5-litre V6 is probably the sweetest, with a glorious soundtrack and a delicious slug of low-down torque that make it a delight to hustle along. It isn’t cheap to buy or to run, mind you, so if cost is a factor, the rev-happy Twin Spark four-cylinder engines are good substitutes.
At the top of the range, of course, sits the GTA, which pairs dramatic performance from its 3.2-litre V6 engine with drop-dead gorgeous looks and a luscious, leather-lined interior.
Even in a relatively cheap specification, though, the 156 feels special inside. Sure, the plastics are slightly flimsy, but the gorgeous interior styling makes up for that – and if you can find one with leather seats, the 156 offers a slice of Maserati-esque Italian luxury that belies its price.
Why you should buy one now
The reason is simple: prices are on the floor. You can’t give a 156 away these days, which means it’s possible to buy even a spankingly good one for a bargain basement price.
We’ve seen four-cylinder cars needing work selling for less than £500, for example, with even tidy low-milers going for barely any more than that. £1,000 should get you one of the best around.
If you want a V6, you’ll have to pay a little more than that, but even then, we’ve seen projects fetching less than £1,000 and clean, tidy running cars with low mileage and history selling for less than £2,000. £3,000 should buy you the cleanest out there.
If you want a GTA, however, you’ll have to adjust your budget significantly, as they fetch quite a premium over the standard car. Prices are a bit erratic, but you can reckon on paying at least £8,000 or so for a tidy example.
What to look out for
Rust is one of the biggest 156 bugbears; the body is galvanised, but you’ll want to check underneath, particularly the floorpan and subframes, for corrosion.
Diesels suffer with dicky EGR valves and cracked sumps, and while most 156 engines are actually reasonably reliable, the 2.0 JTS in particular has several known issues. Beware that cambelts need replacing at 36,000 miles, and it’s recommended to do the water pump at the same time, as these can implode rather prematurely.
Suspension wear is common, so listen for creaks and knocks over bumps, and check for uneven tyre wear which could point to geometry problems caused by worn upper wishbones.
Electrical issues are not unknown, either, so check all of the electrics work as they should. You’ll want to check all the dashboard lights come on and then go out, too – especially those for the engine management, airbag and ABS systems.
Given the low prices, there are quite a lot of neglected 156s out there, so you’ll have to choose wisely. But if you can do that, a 156 will be a rewarding – not to mention, family-friendly – way of getting your Alfa Romeo fix.