Time to play

_MG_5571_6x4_4a0984f685c9d-lightboxI would also bring forward some of the major servicing items from the next few services forward, and also fix some known weaknesses. This was always going to be an expensive exercise, but I had the funds at the time, and wanted the car absolutely right – rather than buying a warranty (not cheap for the GTA) and waiting for breakages.

Through the alfaowner.com forums and the excellent EVO article on the 156/147GTA, I knew of some of the common modifications and mechanical weaknesses. I have always liked the car, and didn’t want to seriously modify it and destroy the balance between GT and hot hatch that it treads so well.

Modifications, in my mind, should be about addressing some dynamic weaknesses of a car, or making it more to your personal taste, not trying to turn water into wine. What I wanted was better traction, improved ride quality, and improved composure when pressing on on bumpy roads. The car is quick already – 15 seconds dead to 100 is still pretty competitive today – and the engine is so driveable as standard, I did not want to mess about with it.

Many owners have adjusted spring rates, lowered ride heights, and increased front anti-roll bar thickness. I decided to go with my gut feeling – the car handles very neutrally as standard, is not blessed with excessive suspension travel or ride height, but does feel under-damped. I selected Koni FSD shocks as direct-fit replacements, as they are supposedly a great balance between comfort and dynamic ability when pressing on. I also had the front lower wishbones, front and rear ARB drop links, and front ARB replaced at the same time – all were in pretty good shape but tend not to last much longer on GTAs. My car already had Alfa’s own front strut brace fitted – I’ve driven GTAs without them, and it’s clear the strut stiffens up the front end and makes the suspension better able to handle poor surfaces and hard cornering.

To improve traction I had Alfa’s Q2 torsen differential fitted, which is fitted on many current models that share this gearbox, and would surely have graced the GTA if available at launch. It is also very good value, and strong – more than a few GTAs have had standard differentials grenade, often taking the gearbox casing with them.

In terms of mechanical weaknesses, GTAs are pretty well behaved as Alfas go – though work on them is not cheap because of the accessibility of components in that crammed engine bay, so if doing one job, it often pays to do more. On this front I decided to replace the cambelt, tensioners, spark plugs and water pump in addition to the usual 48k service fare, as well as refresh the coolant and any tired looking hoses. I used a well known Alfa specialist (shamefully, without a quote or shopping around – a new job and young daughter were keeping me busy!).

All this work, and the service (which threw up a need for new brake pads all round and some other odds and sods), race-quality fluids supplied from Millers, plus four new tyres fitted just afterwards, came to an eye watering £5k or so – which did not please me. It turns out the specialist in question, while undoubtedly competent and friendly, charge high prices – including full Alfa RRP for parts. I could have saved around £1k by buying the parts online myself prior to the service, and do not find this acceptable since the garage must be able to get them at least that cheaply – which I told them (not that it did me any good). I had been lulled into a false sense of security by excellent and economic service from a VAG specialist when I had my V6 Passat.

Still, we enthusiasts all suffer for our interest in cars – the important thing is – did it drive well? The answer is an emphatic YES. 9 months later (I’ve been a bit slack with my A-J entries) I am still astounded at how good it is, and enjoy every drive. It almost annoys me that the car was just a torsen LSD and some quality shocks away from being so amazing.

Traction, first of all. Alfa’s double wishbone front suspension already does a fair job of it, and it isolates power delivery from steering very effectively (no revoknuckle needed here!) so the effects of the LSD are all positive. Torque steer is reduced, and applying power mid-bend simply sucks you into the apex rather than spitting you wide. In normal driving the car feels safer, more stable and more grown-up to drive, especially in slippery conditions. When pressing on, a huge dimension has been added to the handling through the ability to apply the power so early – in the dry, in particular, it feels like a 4WD car.

The shocks have similarly helped matters. High-speed dips that previously saw the undertray kiss the ground are negotiated so easily, you wonder what the fuss used to be about. Ride quality is improved markedly, especially on poor surfaces and at low speeds. Smooth-surface, high-speed ride was fine in the standard car, but has not suffered. And on challenging roads, body control is much, much better, improving everything from cornering to braking.

The result is a car that feels remarkably composed in day to day use, yet has significantly more depth to its talents when the road opens up. As an exercise in restrained modification, it has to go down as a big success, and I’m glad I did it, even if just for what I have learned.

There have also been some other benefits – probably as a result of the factory cam timing being awry, and the expensive gearbox oil I used – the mpg and low-revs torque have both improved markedly. The fact my air con still refuses to play ball (my one fault with the car in recent years) must be helping, but long runs are seeing up to 33mpg, and I often average 28 over a tank despite not hanging around. Maybe I’ll even get some of that money back…

As a post-script to this, I recently had an enforced job change to one where I’ll be doing serious mileage and want something a bit more suited for tramping motorways – if anyone wants to make me an offer on one of the latest and best 156GTA SW’s around, I’m all ears – check out the “alfas for sale” section of alfaowners.com for more details.

 

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James Wyatt