Why you’d want an Alfa Romeo 156 GTA
By the end of the 20th century, most everyday saloons were pretty similar and boring, with the focus moving away from looks to crash safety, and excitement limited to new driver aids.
The Alfa Romeo 156 broke the mould: sharp styling with clever hidden rear doorhandles made it look exciting, and the interior didn’t disappoint either. But the real thrill came in the new millennium, when Alfa launched the 156 GTA with 250bhp, lowered suspension, Brembo brakes and a six-speed transmission, with optional Selespeed semi-auto, plus a fabulous soundtrack and super-quick steering. A five-door Sportwagon estate would follow, as a highly desirable occasional load carrier in the Scimitar GTE mould.
Sure, it lacked the ultimate performance of a Subaru Impreza WRX STi or the durability of an E46 BMW, but it had character and style. The GTA’s charisma – and its rarity – have made it increasingly desirable and prices are rising, with specialists ready to restore and upgrade.
Autocar loved its looks, pace and brakes, but was less impressed by the hard ride, poor turning circle, high fuel consumption and over-servoed, kart-quick steering. The leather-lined interior and luxury features such as heated seats, climate control, cruise control, electric windows and Bose speakers give a classy feel, but make it costly to put right today if neglect has taken its toll.
Upgrades are available from specialists such as Autolusso, including a 3.8-litre engine, uprated suspension and brakes (the 305mm discs were prone to warping), or a Quaife limited-slip diff. The latter, optional when new, is recommended for press-on drivers because it helps reduce the pronounced understeer of the standard car – and the tendency for the factory diff to fail catastrophically when caned, damaging the gearbox. Budget around £1000 for a Quaife installation – less costly than a new ’box…
Many traditional Alfa features are carried through – including corrosion, sadly. It’s not excessive for the car’s age, but complicated by the lack of availability of correct new front wings and floors, so every repair has to be handcrafted.
Ironically, the wheelarch liners – put there for protection – rub away the paint and encourage rust to start: enthusiastic owners better secure the liners to prevent this from happening. Check carefully for rust and poor past repairs because it can be extensive and expensive to sort.
Images: James Mann
Alfa Romeo 156 GTA: what to look for
See above for trouble spots
The 24-valve, quad-cam V6 engine is robust if it’s serviced regularly and well looked after – cambelt replacement is best at 48,000 miles rather than the 72,000 recommended by the factory, along with the tensioner, idlers and water pump. Poor performance is often just the MAF (mass air flow) sensor failing.
Look for radiator leaks, and budget to replace if it’s suspect; if a new rad has been fitted, check for signs of head-gasket failure from overheating.
The six-speed gearbox should be smooth; if the clutch is heavy, it may need replacing. Selespeeds are less desirable because parts are scarce,
Early 305mm front brakes are often improved with later 330mm rotors; front suspension bushes get a hard life so be prepared to replace them.
Electronics can give nightmares, so check everything works and no warning lights stay on; an airbag light is an MoT fail, but usually an easy fix.
Alfa Romeo 156 GTA: on the road
The Alfa V6 is phenomenally flexible, pulling all the way from 500rpm, which should have made the GTA relaxing and easy to drive, given its performance. However, the hyper-quick steering detracted from that, making the car feel nervous at speed, and the very poor turning circle, resulting from the big wheels, could be an embarrassment.
A hard ride, even with standard bushes, made it uncomfortable on poorly maintained roads. The driving position doesn’t suit all, but at least there are heated leather seats: check all the electronic functions work.
A full and detailed service history is great to have and enhances the value but, even if it’s there, take a good look under the bonnet and beneath the car for signs that it’s really been well looked after. Is the engine undertray there? It’s low and vulnerable, but helps protect the aluminium sump. How old does the oil filter look, and is the oil level correct? Is the clutch slave cylinder leaking fluid? What exhaust system is fitted, and are the cats there? It’s highly unlikely to pass an MoT without them.
Question whether the servicing has been by a specialist that knows the GTA’s quirks, and uses the right tools and parts. Suspension wears front and rear, so budget £1000 to go through all of the bushes and joints if there are no bills showing it’s been done recently. Five-hole alloys were standard, 16-spokes optional – but the 330mm disc conversion won’t fit behind the earlier 16-spokes, only the five-holes.
Alfa Romeo 156 GTA price guide
- Show/rebuilt: £15,500
- Average: £7500
- Restoration: £3000
Alfa Romeo 156 GTA history
1997 156 range launched: two diesels, three variable-valve Twin Sparks and 187bhp V6
2001 Sep GTA and Sportwagon GTA launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show
2002 RHD cars arrive in the UK
2002 Dec GTAm shown at Bologna Show: 3.5-litre, 300bhp, but didn’t enter production
2003 Nov 330mm front brake discs fitted, less prone to warping; other 156 models get Giugiaro facelift, never applied to GTA
2004 Mar Autodelta Sportwagon GTA 3.5 shown at Geneva Salon
2005 Oct Production ends
The owner’s view
“I liked the GTA when it first came out,” explains serial Alfa and Italian-car fan Mark Crawley. “When my Maserati Ghibli was stolen,
I began looking for a GTA – it’s less likely to be taken because it fits in my garage!
“I’ve had six Alfas – they have a lot more flair than most modern cars. I saw a blue GTA two years ago and nearly bought it, but when this one came up in 2018, I grabbed it. The previous owner had spent £15k on a respray, a Ferrari F430 throttle body, rebuilt suspension, a performance exhaust and 330mm brakes – he even made a bespoke alloy engine undertray.
“I intend to keep it and enjoy it – in an age of boring cars, there’s nothing quite like it. I’m planning a few improvements: the digital display in the dash is breaking up and I’ve found a firm in Rochester than can rebuild it.”
BMW 330i (E46)
With a straight-six, rear-drive and performance to match, the 330i saloon and Touring were the thinking man’s choice. Economical and cheap now – but it’s no Alfa.
Sold 2000-’05 • No. built production n/a • Price now £1500-3500
SUBARU IMPREZA WRX STi
With 261bhp from its 2-litre flat-four and all-wheel drive, the STi was an astonishing 148mph all-rounder. Estates were import-only and most have been thrashed.
Sold 2002-’05 • No. built n/a • Price now £7-20,000
Alfa Romeo 156 GTA: the Classic & Sports Car verdict
The GTA has come of age: its strengths as a desirable classic outweigh its weaknesses against some contemporaries, and tired examples are now being rescued and restored.
Its rarity in either body style, in every market, means that demand is outstripping supply. Beware cars that have been neglected, crashed, highly modified or thrashed to within an inch of their lives on track days.
Great character, with modern toys and creature comforts in a car that looks and sounds stunning, and has more than enough performance
Hard ride, dire turning circle and understeers when pressed; prone to rust and poor parts availability
Alfa Romeo 156 GTA specifications
- Sold/number built 2001-’05/1973 saloons, 1678 Sportwagons
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 3179cc 24v V6, Bosch Motronic fuel injection
- Max power 250bhp @ 6200rpm
- Max torque 221lb ft @ 4800rpm
- Transmission six-speed manual or Selespeed button-shift auto, driving front wheels with ASR (Anti Slip Regulation), optional LSD
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, coil springs rear MacPherson struts; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes 12/13in (305/330mm) front, 11in (276mm) rear vented discs, with servo, anti-lock and electronic brake force distribution
- Length 16ft 6in (4430mm)
- Width 5ft 91/2in (1765mm)
- Height 4ft 7in-4ft 71/2in (1395-1411mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2595mm)
- Weight 3109-3219lb (1410-1460kg)
- 0-60mph 6.5 secs
- Top speed 150mph
- Mpg 15-30
- Price new £26,900/27,900 (2002 saloon/SW)