Individuality is part of Alfa Romeo. If you drive one you're making a real statement about cars and not simply looking for a way to get from A to B. Unlike most manufacturers, Alfa has an uncanny ability to produce classic cars from day one. Alfas don't need maturing or any delay for buyer consideration: they're right from the first time the covers are stripped away.
When the Alfa 156 arrived five years ago, it was immediately recognised as beautiful both inside and out. Time hasn't diminished that.
But the car is a lot better than beautiful; it's an event to drive.
Few were surprised when the 156 was named 1998 European Car of the Year for its abundant character and top styling.
The car was both a popular and worthy winner of the prestigious award and had the distinction of being the first Alfa to take the title.
Alfa took only another three years to win the Euro COTY again - with the adventurous 147.
There's no question that any model in the 156 range is a car to treasure.
And if you want extra style, a Sportivo version is offered on both 2.0-litre Twin Spark four-cylinder and 2.5-litre 24-valve V6 engines.
This August the 156 story becomes even hotter when the first of the shattering GTAs arrive. It's Alfa's less expensive answer to the BMW M3, a cracking high performance four-door saloon that is picked to sell for between $90,000 and $100,000.
The 156 is an important component in Alfa's local line-up, accounting for 12 of the 23 models sold here.
Half the 156s are stylish Sportwagons, smoothly designed estates which are priced from $61,995 to $74,995. The least costly cloth-trimmed 156 Twin Spark is $56,995. Leather trim adds $3000.
A Monza version has 16-inch alloy wheels and 205/55 tyres instead of the 15-inch standard alloys, a full Italian leather interior, carbon fibre console, side body skirts and red on black instruments.
Step up to the slightly more aggressive Sportivo, and the 156 gets deep air splitters that have their origins in Alfa's Group N and Super Touring racing cars.
The splitters divide the airflow around the wheels and under the car and effectively pull the air out from under the rear, reducing aerodynamic lift.
The car also has a rear wing, and side skirts provide a fine balance to the styling. With the exception of the bootlid spoiler, the external modifications are discreet enough and retail for $3500. But for our money, the standard 156 looks so good it scarcely needs the rear spoiler. And why does the Sportivo have a rear wing when the lustier GTA doesn't?
An additional $3000 buys the 17-inch alloy wheels in a new multi-spoke design with 215/45 size tyres.
The 156, in any form, can mix it with the best of company - including BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
The gorgeous body is all curves and inspiration, with a collection of unique aesthetic details which exude personality and make the car instantly recognisable.
What's more, not only does the 156 look and feel good, it makes a great sound in both straight four cylinder or V6 forms.
At just over 4.4 metres long, and sitting on a wheelbase of 2595mm, the 156 makes a bold statement.
The familiar Alfa grille is the core from which the entire car seems to expand, leading first to the pair of classic Alfa whiskers and four small air vents.
Single panes of glass cover the lighting clusters with their four recessed circular headlights. The grille shape continues into the bonnet as a vee and also cuts into the prominent body-coloured bumpers.
The Sportivo spoiler adds presence to the front end but doesn't necessarily enhance the shape. Without the spoiler, the rounded styling under the bumper looks totally integrated with the rest of the design.
And during several days' driving in the Sportivo we needed to be constantly aware of the spoiler near kerbs and driveways. With the lowered suspension the spoiler is close to Mother Earth, and too easily damaged.
Viewed in profile, the 156 is even more impressive. The rear door handle, housed within the window frame, is almost invisible.
The design makes the car look like a three-door coupe, and that look is accentuated by a relatively high waistline that evokes distant memories of the Bertone-styled Alfa Sprint and 1750 GTV Coupes of the 1960s.
The rear-end is compact and tapered with a slightly downward slope. The rear window is teardrop-shaped. The 17-inch diameter multi-spoke alloy wheels don't make the car look over-tyred, and add an extra sporting dimension.
But the standard car's drilled-style 15-inch alloys are also handsome and are in keeping with the overall design.
Alfa uses magnesium, alloys and high strength multi-layer steels extensively for structural components. The front seats are magnesium and the cabin is designed as a survival chamber.
Alfa has built the interior around the driver's seat, with two round instruments for the speedo and tachometer. The gear lever is mounted high and close to the steering wheel. Smaller dials for fuel, water temperature and clock are in the centre of the wraparound facia. They're oriented towards the driver.
When comparing the 156 with its German rivals, take stock of its standard specs. Many of its features cost extra on the opposition.
The standard Compact Disc sound system, air-conditioning and climate control commands are located low in the facia. We found the top fascia vents not really powerful enough to counter a hot, muggy summer day in Auckland.
The steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach and the driver's seat has a 40mm height adjustment. The seat back is equipped with self-adaptive position adjustment.
Both engines are inspiring to look at, especially the V6 with its chrome plated inlet manifold.
And they perform as well as they look.
The 114kW Twin Spark is a gem that uses a lot less fuel than the 2.5 litre, 140kW alloy V6 which is Alfa's first petrol engine to adopt electronic throttle control.
The Twin Spark uses 11.7 litres/100km in the urban cycle, the V6 16.5 litres/100km.
The difference is less pronounced in the rural cycle, with figures of 6.6 litres and 8.4 litres/100km. In the combined cycle, the four-cylinder uses 8.4 litres and the V6 11.4 litres/100 km. In all cycles there is only a minimal difference in economy between manual gearbox and Selespeed auto. Both cars have more than adequate urge, but I prefer the smaller capacity four-cylinder.
The Twin Spark produces peak power at 6400rpm, just 100 revs higher than the V6, and churns out 187Nm of torque at 3500rpm, compared with 222Nm at 5000rpm for the V6. The 186kW GTA will have a mind-blowing 300Nm of torque. The V6's top speed is 230km/h (manual) compared with 216km/h for the 2.0-litre four.
The V6 takes 7.3 seconds to reach 100km/h, 1.6 seconds faster than the Twin Spark. The Selespeed 2.0-litre is as quick to 100km/h as the manual. Inspired by Formula 1 gearboxes, the Selespeed five-speed auto (a $2000 option) is a sequential unit with steering wheel-mounted buttons for gear selection and the system operating the clutch and changing gears. It needs less than seven-tenths of a second to complete a gear change.
The V6 uses Alfa's Q-System electronic, four-stage auto with the choice of full automatic or manual selection by sliding the gear stick to the left. The choice of conventional H pattern gear operation, or fully automatic adaptive gear changing is unique to the 156.
Manual Twin Sparks have a five-speed box, the V6 a six-speed.
A double wishbone front suspension is allied to an updated MacPherson strut rear layout, and offers trim roadholding and handling.
The sharp, super-direct rack and pinion steering is superb, and takes only two turns of the steering wheel to go from lock to lock. Quick is definitely the word.
Exceptional bodyshell torsional rigidity is another bonus in a car that absorbs bumps well.
The Sportivo, with stiffer damping, feels firm.
The naturally-aspirated Twin Spark version, with less weight up front, feels a touch more balanced than the V6, but in both cars you'll be impressed by the amount of grip and body control.
The standard equipment list for all 156s sold in New Zealand includes ABS anti-skid braking for the four-wheel disc system (284mm ventilated front discs and solid 251mm rears), electronic braking distributor (EBD), twin front airbags, remote-control central door-locking, electric windows, one-touch electrically operated door mirrors, delay interior lights with map lights, electronic pre-tensioners for the front seatbelts, heated door mirrors, rear armrest, ski tunnel, leather-bound steering wheel and gear lever knob.
There's adjustable lumbar support on the driver's seat, foglights front and rear, centre front armrest, Alfa's fire prevention system and a stainless steel tailpipe.
The V6s gain Momo leather upholstery, side skirts, the larger alloys and carbon fibre dashboard trim.
Flair, inspiration, satisfaction are inherent in the 156 Sportivo, but you have to keep coming back to the fact that the standard 156 is one impressive machine, and a model destined to be remembered.
European marques are showing healthy sales gains. Alfa Romeo is doing even better. Last year more than 300 new Alfas were sold in New Zealand, doubling 2000 sales. That Alfa is definitely on the move will gladden the hearts of all motoring enthusiasts.
AutoPoint road test team: story by Donn Anderson.