Alfa Romeo's gorgeous 156 was arguably the marque's last smash-hit and the GTA was a glorious flagship. Very few remain, and those that do, are super cheap. Time to get one?
Originally penned by the design legend Walter de Silva, the Alfa Romeo 156 arrived on the world scene in 1998 and achieved good sales at a period when the marque was under serious threat of going under (is it ever any different?). To this day it remains an attractive car to look at, and when it comes to the flagship GTA derivative, seriously desirable.
Launched in South Africa in late 2003, the GTA featured not only significantly revised styling, including those glorious 17-inch telephone dial alloy wheels wrapped in 225/45 rubber, but also the marque's 3.2L 24-valve V6 "Busso" engine, tuned to deliver 184kW at 6 200rpm and 300Nm of torque at 4 800rpm. It made a fantastic sound.
Mated with a 6-speed manual transmission, the GTA was claimed to accelerate to 100kph in 6.3 seconds and on to a 250 kph top speed. But the numbers alone don't tell the full story, because this car thrilled all the senses...
The steering was superbly feelsome and sharp (even compared with the standard car, the steering required fewer turns lock-to-lock), the ride fairly firm, especially over transverse ridges and for a front-wheel drive car with a hefty engine up front it felt surprisingly neutral when pushed hard.
The GTA wasn't just a 156 with a bodykit and big engine, there were some very important detail changes under the skin, too. The front suspension, for example, is significantly different, with a reinforced lower beam, special wheel strut with a different steering link connection, new shock absorber and spring settings and a bigger-diameter anti-roll bar.
At the rear, the GTA also has different body attachment positions compared with its siblings, different spring and dampers settings as well as a bigger-diameter anti-roll bar.
There are fewer changes inside, but to be fair not much was needed because even the standard 156 had an attractive facia and a sporty persona inside. The 156 GTA did, however, get leather-upholstered one-piece front sports seats (with heating), the usual aluminium pedals and special instrumentation.
Upon launch the 156 GTA was positioned against the BMW 330i (E46) and Audi A4 3.0 Quattro - both capable cars, but lacking severely in charm compared with the fiery Italian.
Finding a clean 156 GTA will take some careful searching, and when you do, you'll have to make sure about the service history in addition to the usual physical checks (rust and signs of modifications/abuse). But you're still likely to pay very little for what is a bona fide modern classic, bursting with character and genuine playfulness.