As always I can study the swooping front, the on-off-on blistered swathe running the length of the car, the perfectly proportioned rear and the gorgeous detailing: single aluminium door handles, telephone dial alloys, teardrop mirrors et al.
It may seem a little odd to describe a highlight of ownership that doesn’t involve being within touching distance of the car in question, but this should be taken as no reflection on the car’s dynamic qualities. It is simply that for me, this car is a work of art, a Da Vinci for the road, a Michelangelo in my garage.
From the moment it was launched in 1997, I knew I wanted one, but other priorities (and other cars) delayed the inevitable until 2004, when I could put it off no longer.
With many to choose from, it wasn’t long before I found an Alfa in the colour, specification and condition I was looking for. My new car was a 2001 1.8 twin spark Veloce, three and a half years old, 41,000 miles, 1 private owner. We settled at a more than reasonable £5700 when most similar vintage BMW’s were fetching nearly twice as much.
The Veloce spec was particularly important to me, most pertinently for bringing with it the lower ride height, 16″ teledial alloys and sill extensions, all helping to give a greater sense of purpose to the car’s already sporting looks. Inside I had that charming dashboard with its cowls and auxiliary gauges and grey Momo leather covering the seats. It’s all so effortlessly stylish and feels like a special place to be. Then, as now, when I am in the car I can’t help but look at drivers of similar vintage saloons and wonder what on earth they were thinking. They could have saved themselves some money and had something so much more interesting.
They’d certainly be having more fun. The twin spark engine is smooth and powerful for its size, although that typical Italian rasp is conspicuous by its absence on this model. A case of too much refinement I suspect, although much appreciated on the motorway where the Alfa is very quiet. I know the rasp to be in fuller health on the V6 models.
After three years throwing an MX5 around, I shouldn’t expect the same handling abilities from the Alfa. Nonetheless my initial disappointment was tempered by fitting a strut brace at the top of the engine, yielding both an attractive and highly effective improvement. Quick steering noses the car into bends with much enthusiasm and the balance is very neutral. Understeer naturally sets in as the front wheels lose grip but it’s very gentle and allows for fast, safe cornering. So if not a honed driving machine like the MX5, it is very entertaining for a saloon. In comparison to my wife’s similarly sized VW Passat, the 156 is a pure bred racing car!
Performance is perfectly decent, being a little quicker than the old Mazda for instance, and giving little away to the two litre version. I average 34mpg which is apparently above average for the car; this a testament perhaps to my steady commute that involves little stop-start driving.
Running the Alfa has certainly been no hardship. What those unimaginative and foolish drivers of ‘other’ saloon cars don’t seem to realise is that it doesn’t require a huge leap of faith or act of bravery to own a modern Alfa. This is the 21st Century for goodness sake; even the Italians can screw a car together. It seems they are known for electrical faults but not the sort of thing that is going to leave you stranded anywhere. My car has a failed rear window, but this is hardly affecting my sleep.
They are also prone to oil consumption although my car has shown no signs of this yet. But again, any real enthusiast should not be too worried about checking their oil. Service costs are fine, nothing has fallen off and the trim is bearing up well. I am particularly interested to see the leather seats are ageing well, especially compared to those in BMW’s that seem to crack up appallingly. Sure the overall interior build quality is not in the same league as the Passat, but over the years I’ve always felt this soon becomes irrelevant if you enjoy driving the car. The Mazda was the same and it just never mattered.
Perhaps the only costs that are a little above average are the 36,000 mile cam belt change and the annual insurance premium although the latter has just come down to £300 for my wife and I, which seems perfectly reasonable.
Owning the Alfa then is a real pleasure. Part of me hankers after a more focused driver’s car and perhaps I will one day sort another MX5 or Lotus Elise to fulfil this role as a second car. But day to day it is impossible for me to imagine what could take the Alfa’s place. No other marque has such a romantic history or such a palpable link to its country of origin in every satisfying detail. The question is, can I hang on for longer than my usual three years of ownership and wait for a bargain 159 to come calling? Either way, I expect to be an Alfa owner for a very long time indeed.