Ken’s 2000 Alfa Romeo 156 2.5 V6

This is a post is written by Ken about his 2000 Alfa Romeo 156 2.5 V6. He is from New Zealand, one of the most beautiful countries I ever visited, and he has a really cool car blog, revvedupblog.wordpress.com (You should check it out!). Anyways, here is his story about his Alfa Romeo. 

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What makes this car more special than others is that it was my first car. It was the car I learnt to drive in, it was the car I used to take my driving test, and it was the car I grew up with. My parents owned the car before me. We got it sometime around 2001 when I was but a small boy who didn’t know what an Alfa Romeo was. I remember looking down from my bedroom window onto the driveway and seeing this weird and unusual looking thing sitting there. I remember thinking it was a strange looking car, especially the front. I didn’t care much for the hidden door handles either as I could never reach it. I remember when they brought it back and they were so excited by it. I refused to ride in it unless I was forced to. I ignored the Alfa like a cat ignores an empty food bowl.

Now though, I think it’s a beautiful looking car. But of course I would. Still, you have to admit for a car that was launched in the late-1990s it still looks good today. It’s aged well. The same can’t be said for its contemporaries. The Walter d’Silva penned body exudes classic Italian styling cues. Subtle detailing, curves at all the right places, and perfect proportions. The Alfa shield up front which weirded the younger me out has now grown on me. The ‘whiskers’ joining the grille to the headlights are on of my favourite details. I like the unsymmetrical positioning of the number plate too. From the side it does look like a coupe with those hidden rear door handles. The rear actually looks like time was spent designing it. The taillights were so good that they pretty much used the same design for the 159. I love walking up to it in mornings and always give it second look when I leave it at night. 

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It’s funny isn’t it? The relationships we make that last a lifetime usually start out this way. Be it a person, a thing, or an event in one’s life. At first things start out awkward and rocky but in time the bond becomes strong and unbreakable. A few years later and when my interest in cars blossomed I had learned more about Alfa Romeos and their colourful history. Then that’s when it started. I started noticing Alfas. I had matchbox toys of an Alfa Romeo SZ (one of my first actually) and in my first ever Top Gear magazine (April, 1998 with the Rolls Royce Silver Seraph on the front cover and the free fridge magnets) an Alfa 156 was featured in a comparison test against the BMW 328i and Audi A4.

This was a car I grew up with. It came into my life a couple years after my little sister and to me the Alfa felt like a sibling. It’s been there through it all; it was the car we took to do our oaths to become NZ citizens, it was there for all our countless house moves, it was the car I used to go to the school formal, and as mentioned before it was the car I got my license in. It was also the car we used on a number of road trips around the South Island of New Zealand. As a result of driving up and down the South Island, the Alfa clocked up a lot of kilometres early on in its life. It didn’t help that they had a fuel card as well which meant fuel was pretty much “free”. The milage piled on when mum had to take dad to the city everyday for his dialysis treatment. Yet through it all the Alfa stayed strong and never caused trouble. As of today it’s got 177,859 km under its belt. 

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For the large part of our ownership with it it never skipped a beat. The few times it went to the shop was due to human error. Small parking lot dings, or in one instance, a large one. Dad had somehow managed to rip half the front bumper off one time after hitting a boulder of some kind. No idea how he managed that but there you go. That was the result of it. I never understood all those people saying Alfas are unreliable, they cause heartache, and are like Italian women. Beautiful and tempting curves but given the chance they’ll burn through your wallet with their hot Latin blood.

Oh and as luck would have it as soon as I took possession of it its hot fiery Latin personality came out. It was July 2010. I was getting ready for the senior formal. I had my outfit picked out and the Alfa was cleaned and shiny. And then all of a sudden, like something out of a Greek tragedy, a week before the ball the gearbox decided it didn’t want to be a gearbox anymore. Instead it turned to mush. It felt slushy and loose. I thought it had gone for good. Turns out the little selector clip had snapped. That was just the start of it. It was out of service for damn nearly half a year. image5 (2)

So it was out of service for a while then I left it undercover in a garage as I went overseas in 2011. My parents had tried to convince me it was time to sell it. We should cut our losses and that I should get a new car. Obviously this upset me. I was annoyed, angry, and sad all at once. It was more that they suggested that. This car was more than a car to me by this point. It was like a friend, a sibling. It had more than a decade of memories with it. I couldn’t, no wouldn’t give it up without a fight. Shortly after that it was brought back to life. After two years away I was finally reunited with it. Its gearbox was fine, it had a new battery and was fresh and ready for our new life in Wellington. But that meant having to drive it up from Christchurch to Picton and then a short stint on the ferry. This would be the first time I had taken the Alfa on a proper road trip. I had imagined that it’d take me a while to get accustomed to it again after all that time apart. But as with all best friends we got in sync in a heartbeat.

Even though it was a 13 year old car by this time it still smelt like the day we got it. That’s Italian leather for you. The rest of the interior seems to have aged quite well. It doesn’t look or feel as old as it actually is. The silver-faced dials hidden in deep pods are a great touch. The steering wheel is nice and chunky and a good size. And the panel gaps are still as big as they were when we first got it. There’s hardly and equipment either. Okay, to be fair the 156 was first released in 1997 and in terms of technology that was like being the Dark Ages. There are no toys or gadgets to boast about. It has very simple and standard kit such as air con and a CD player. In an Italian car I don’t mind the Draconian levels of spec, that’s less things to go wrong. But if this were a German car I’d have expected eventy billion things to be adjusted and an owner’s manual thicker than the Oxford English Dictionary. The 156 doesn’t have an incredibly thick owner’s manual or a million buttons to push. What it does have is a broken air conditioner. It only developed this issue recently. The heater works fine though it does take a while to heat up. image6 (2)

Which is fine because it’s the ambiance that really shines. It’s a lovely place to spend time in. It really does feel special and I’m not just saying that because its my car. But its the smell of the leather that’s always the first things people point out when they hop inside. That and the stupid rear door handles. I quite like the hidden door handles now. It gives it a coupe-esque look and I’ve always wanted a coupe. Right now how I wish I could say it felt like new to drive too but I’d be lying. It feel its age. I mean the engine is still going strong and the gearbox is fine now but where it feels its age is in terms of refinement. Road and wind noise are very apparent at high way speeds. The ride is a tad firm compared to newer cars too. But I’ve got young bones so that doesn’t really matter to me. What matters more is that even after all these years it’s still a great thing to drive.

First the engine. The engine shines above everything else. It’s the one thing that hasn’t gone wrong. Yet. It’s a 2.5-litre V6 with a DOHC design and quad cams. Four valves per cylinder giving a total of 24. It produces 190bhp and 220NM of torque, when new. It may have lost a few. I’m not sure. It doesn’t feel it though. It still feels plenty rapid and when you get it above 4000rpm it makes the most glorious noise ever. There are times, especially now living in hilly Wellington, where I take it to the redline it for fun just so I can hear this engine sing. James May has said it’s one of the best engines to ever come out of Italy. I’d have to agree with that.image7 (2)

I’ve been around 6-cylinder cars for a large part of my life. But the one that stood out the most for me was the V6 in this Alfa. Not only was it a beautiful sounding engine but it was responsive and had more than enough power for a beginner driver. Then there’s how it looks. Sometime when I’m bored I’d just go down and open the bonnet. Have you ever seen a more beautiful engine in a mainstream car before? I haven’t, even in 2014. Those chrome inlet pipes, the gorgeous ‘Alfa Romeo’ writing… It just adds to the drama and theatre of the Alfa experience. Less glamorous was when the muffler rusted off while I was in Japan. The friend who was looking after it at the time replaced it with a make-do muffler taken from a 1970s Ford Cortina. I don’t mind it, it makes a unique burbling sound. But its the pure and natural engine noise that dominates.

You’d expect being front wheel drive and having a large V6 up front that the handling would be… understeery to say the least. But it isn’t. Oh yes if you drive it like an idiot then it will understeer but drive it properly and it quickly becomes apparent that this has one of the finest front-wheel drive chassis ever made. The steering has a nice weighted feel to it, excellently responsive, and gives good feedback of the road. I know exactly how much lock to put in and can place it exactly where I want to on the road. There aren’t any nasty surprises and it has never caught me off guard.

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The gearbox, despite its snapped gear selector clip thingy, is also a peach to use when its in one piece. Changes are slick and easy to find. The clutch is nicely weighted and has a long bite. This has caught a few of my friends out when they drive it. Nowadays though the Alfa is starting to become more temperamental and on cold mornings it refuses to go into second gear. I don’t know why and don’t have the patience to find out. But once its warmed up it goes into second again. It’s just something I’ve had to learn to live with it. Just another one of those ‘Alfa’ traits I guess. Sometimes, especially after driving a new turbo car, I forget that the Alfa doesn’t have the same mid-range punch as a lot of these new cars so I have to drop a gear or two to get it any pick up from it. That’s not a complaint, I love going through all six gear and the aural reward I get when I hit the accelerator in 3rd gear is beyond incredible.

Now as a student I haven’t got the resources to fully maintain an Italian car. Fuel costs are high, as one would expect from a 2500cc V6. It’s not devastatingly thirsty but there are times where I wished it had a smaller capacity engine. I mean the Abarth 500 has pretty much the same sort of performance figures but only has a 1.4 turbo which sips fuel rather than binge on it. It also needs a bit of maintenance at the moment. Nothing major, it hasn’t affected the way it drives. But unfortunately I have been driving it less lately. Partly due to the fact that fuel now costs an arm and a leg. So I only take it out once a week for the weekly shop. This once glorious brand with its rich motorsport history is now being used a glorified shopping trolley. I do feel bad and sometimes take it out for a drive every now and then. But I think it’s time for me to get a new car and put the 156 into retirement. I daren’t sell it though. It’d only be worth around $2.99 at the very most. No, it has far too much sentimental value. My plan is to put it into storage until a time comes when I’m able to do all the necessary fixes to get it back into showroom condition.image10 (2)

Don’t get me wrong though, owning an Alfa is an experience in itself. Having one for a first car is a great way of being introduced to petrolhead heaven and hell. There are times where this car will drive you insane. Your local mechanic will love it as it’ll mean he’ll be able to send all his children to university with all the repair it’ll need. It’s not the most practical car either, as the turning circle is about as good as that of the moon’s. You’d expect it to be quite roomy inside having a horizontal mounted engine but no. The boot is smaller than almost all its rivals. There’s also a massive blind spot in its rearward visibility, which caused me to back it into a mailbox and seriously scratch it. Not my fault, that was a design flaw AND it was a ninja mailbox that came out of nowhere. Still, at least I’ll always know which is my car at a car park. It’s the one with the 6-inch scratch.

But, when all is well and you’re on one of the very many beautiful roads in New Zealand and there’s not a car to be seen… then it all starts to make sense. I can’t put my finger on it but it has this magical spark. This isn’t even the 2.0 TwinSpark version, imagine that’d have twice the spark! All those little niggles are soon forgotten and at the end of the day they’re just that: little niggles. When the engine, the handling, and the steering all come together in perfect harmony you get the sense that this car is more than just a car. It has a heart and a soul. As cliched as that sounds it’s not something I’ve felt in many other cars. It seems to be a very Italian trait. The Alfa has shown me and made me believe that cars can have personalities. That they can be more than machines, they can also be a companion. It also turned my love for Italian cars into a passion. Like I said, I won’t rush into getting a new car. For now I’ll spend as much time as I can with the 156. Never has the term “I love this to bits” been more apt. I truly do love this car to bits, warts and all. image9 (2)

Ken, 

Thanks for submitting your post! I am jealous that you have an Alfa Romeo, and a lovely one at that. If I were to get an Alfa, it would be a 2005-2011 159 saloon in black or red.  Just like Top Gear UK said, “You aren’t a petrolhead until you have owned an Alfa.”  Thanks for submitting your story! Anybody who wants to submit their story of their car, click here and follow the directions. 

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