The twisting bitumen threads its way down South Australia's Fleurieu Peninsula, following the narrow margin between the hills and the sea. The winter rains have brought verdant hues to the landscape; dairy cattle grazing contentedly in the cool moist air. The road twists and dives, corner advisory speed limit signs a sprinkling of 35's mixed with more frequent 60 km/h yellow diamonds. The Alfa's engine and driver are warmed and in good form; working together in a blur of clutch, accelerator, brake and gear lever movements. The twin cam sings; the utterly magical steering needs only the conscious input of tiny wrist movements.
But at this corner the act is slightly unsynchronised, the gear selected one too high - third where really second was demanded. Without the same level of engine braking, the discs have to work a little harder - the braking is intruding well into the turn-in zone. The ABS flutters the pedal for the shortest breath of time, the chassis shrugging off the error with absolute stability and confidence. Even with the slightly untidy entrance, the car is balanced by the time the apex arrives, a point within the corner simply able to met with absolute accuracy every time. Even in the wrong gear, the pull out of the corner is creamy smooth and responsive, the flat torque curve of the variable camshaft timing able to overcome driver error with ease. The corner is exited flat and hard, the front wheels drifting right to the edge of the bitumen as the short straight is met and dispatched. Then there's the next corner... and the next....and the next.
Like all brilliant cars, the 156 is able to contemptuously overcome driver errors. Get it slightly wrong and it puts a smile on your face; get it right and you laugh aloud at the sheer, intimate cornering delight that this car provides.
In Australia the 156 is available with two engines and three transmissions. The base model is the one tested here - a 5-speed manual with the 114kW 2 litre engine. This costs A$46,950. Adding the Selespeed automatic 5-speed (complete with steering wheel up/down gearchange buttons and tricky stuff like auto throttle blipping on downchanges) adds $3000, while the 140kW 2.5 litre V6 version is available only when tied to a conventional 4-speed auto. Equipment levels on the base model are selectively good - wood, CD sound system, electrics (windows, mirrors, locking, climate control) and twin airbags, but with some omissions - cruise control, alloys, sunroof, leather and metallic paint. Other than cruise control, the latter are available as options - but spend these dollars and the price jumps by A$7200.... It's a bit of a surprise to outlay around fifty grand (including ORC) and find skinny 185/65 tyres on steel rims.
Inside, the optional leather of our test car made for an opulent introduction. The seats are beautifully supportive and comfortable, featuring adjustable height and lumbar support. Facing the driver is a wood-rimmed steering wheel and, on the end of an over-long gear lever, another chunk of wood. Like some other aspects of the interior and exterior styling, we wonder if these fashion pieces aren't going to look awfully dated in a few years' time - just check the interior of an Alfa 164 or late 33 to see what we mean... Certainly, wooden steering rims and gear knobs don't provide anything like the grip of leather items, especially in hot weather.
The widely-spaced speedo and tacho sit in deeply recessed binnacles, separated by a warning light graphic. Along with the console-mounted fuel, clock and coolant temp gauges, these are white-faced and have slightly odd markings, making it hard to read them at a glance. Also on the centre console are the climate control dials. Each of these combines two functions into the one dial, making it difficult to immediately ascertain their function. However, with a few hours' familiarity everything becomes clear. What remains a little disconcerting is that the climate system is programmed to switch on the air con compressor every time that the car is started - however, the dealer can disable this function. Ventilation is via very small grilles in the middle of the dash, with Alfa-eyeball vents at each end of the dash and a pair for rear passengers mounted at the back of the console. In cool conditions with strong sunlight the ventilation was marginal; in hot weather it would certainly not be sufficient without running the aircon.
Accommodation for a mid-size car is good - there's plenty of room for the front occupants and the rear benefit by being able to place their feet under the front seats, although rear headroom is limited. The doors open wide and the boot is large, especially given that a full-size spare is provided. The interior ergonomics are slightly marred by the fold-down centre-mounted arm rest; in its lowered position operating the handbrake is almost impossible, while in its raised position the driver's elbow still hits it when releasing the brake. The presence of the armrest also precludes a lidded centre console compartment box. The single CD AM/FM sound system is competent without being outstanding; interestingly enough all the speakers are door-mounted, with two-way splits used at the front.
From a family car perspective probably the greatest trade-off is in the ride. The 156 rides very firmly, even on the 65 series tyres. On smooth roads and across typical urban spoon-drain topography it's fine, but take it across broken and choppy bitumen at speed and you're constantly aware that you're riding in sports sedan, with the emphasis on 'sports'. More evidence that the 156 was really developed for good roads comes from the steering. While in almost all conditions the steering is amongst the very best of systems that we've ever experienced, when cornering hard on bad surfaces the steering can kick-back violently - an unexpected surprise given its normal poise.
Straight-line performance is respectable rather than scintillating - conditions beyond our control meant that we were unable to complete full performance tests but a 0-100 km/h time of about 10 seconds has been achieved by other testers. The low-kay engine in the test car felt a little less sharp than in the Spider that we previously tested - it's been suggested to us that these twin cams really loosen up after about 10,000 kilometres have passed under their wheels. Certainly, the car felt nowhere near as fast as Alfa's claimed 8.6 seconds. However, use the lovely gearbox and light clutch to good effect, be prepared to head for the 7000 rpm redline frequently and the 156 never feels underpowered. The variable valve timing and variable intake manifold means that the 187Nm arrives at 3500 rpm, but with excellent flexibility either side of this figure. You can tool around being the lazy driver - changing up earlier and holding higher gears down to low speeds - and the engine will cope uncomplainingly. But to really go, big revs are needed.
The front suspension uses a double wishbone arrangement with cast iron, steel and light alloy components. Designed to allow camber recovery by the wheel in its roll and steer movements without adversely affecting scrub radius, the suspension provides excellent FWD grip, steering feel and precision. Front geometry includes 4 degrees of positive castor and 6-7 degrees of kingpin angle. At the rear, MacPherson struts with unequal length links are used, a system which incorporates same-phase passive rear wheel steering. Brakes comprise 284mm ventilated front discs and 251mm solid rears. ABS is by Bosch 5.3, a system that uses four active sensors and incorporates Electronic Brake Distribution. The active sensors process the signal at the sensor itself, allowing wheel speeds of down to 4 km/h to be sensed and also having reduced sensitivity to electromagnetic interference.
The exterior styling is of the sort where you're never gonna confuse this car for a Camry in the carpark! Probably its bold front three-quarters styling works the best - the aggressive-but-traditional Alfa grille with an offset number plate leading into the bulging rear quarters, unmarked by the rear door handles which are integrated into the C pillars.
If you're after sheer straightline grunt, the 156 (at least in 2 litre form) is not the car for you. But if you have a need for four doors and a boot and enjoy the subtleties of driving a sophisticated, brilliantly-handling Euro package, put the 156 on your shortlist. Its ability to put corners behind you with poise and ease is simply breathtaking.