UK CAR Road Test
Alfa Romeo 156 Selespeed 1999

This looks like a normal 156, only the flash 16 inch alloys give it away externally. Well, as normal as a 156 can look. The Italians have pulled off a styling master-stroke here, whilst we all thought computers made all cars look the same and makers like Audi and BMW had gone for an ever more Euro-bland, non-threatening look, Alfa have produced the best looking saloon on the market with a fresh design that manages to look suave and sophisticated, yet menacing at the same time and that's without the addition of the sports kit that adds a rear wing so large that it would not look out of place on a Subaru Impreza.  

Even internally, only the different steering wheel gives the game away that this is not a run-of-the-mill Alfa 156 (if there is such a thing). Alfa's new sequential gear-changing system 'Selespeed' makes it's first appearance in the 156, claiming to add a touch of Formula One to what's fast becoming one of the most desirable motor cars in the market. Alfa didn't dare go quite the whole hog mind - there is also a button which converts the thing to fully automatic, should moving your thumbs prove to be too difficult. Should you need further options, the gear stick can be shifted by hand, tip tronic style.

Actually, the two-pedal clutchless system in which gear changes are controlled by a pair of buttons on the steering wheel (once you're rolling above 6 mph) aren't all that Formula One since F1 shifted to the paddle system; it's no big quibble though - it's still pretty advanced and exotic stuff in this market sector. A liquid crystal display in the instrument cluster gives a visual indication of what gear you're in (for those who are tone deaf but they'd better make up for it with damn good eyesight as it's none too clear). One of the main problems with this design is that unless the steering is very high geared, your hands are not always in the conventional positions and the buttons get out of stabbing reach through tight turns. The system works pretty well on upward changes as long as you back off the gas slightly as you change otherwise the car lurches slightly as the engine and gearbox catch up with each other. Down changes are perfect though, as the electronics give the engine a little blip to help the gear home.

Alfa claim normal changes are made in 1.5 seconds which is pretty decent when compared with a good manual box. But if you're loading it up and making bigger demands, then change times speed up to about half of that. Certainly, while you're hard charging through the box, stabbing the button as the engine approaches its high redline peak, the car's performance is top-notch.

This not being a track car, safeguards to prevent over-revving and neutral being selected above 25mph are manifested electronically and at a standstill you can't engage gears without pressing the brake.

Having suffered at the hand of Italian electrics in the past, I still hold reservations about allowing Beppe's Spaghetti quite so much control. I have a horrible vision of a throttle stuck wide open and the car screaming down the motorway with its electronically controlled ABS unable to stop the raging beast that you can't stick in neutral. But then maybe I'm just paranoid and maybe Alfa quality has improved as far as people claim it has and Italian electrical gremlins are consigned to history.

In theory the only downside to choosing a Selespeed is that it is only available with 2.0-litre Twin Spark engine and in some eyes the performance falls a little short of the V6 version. However, the Twin Spark is suprisingly torquey whilst still having the brute force to power the 156 to 60 mph in just over 8 seconds and will carry on going close to 135 mph. Make use of all this performance, mind, and the claimed 33 mpg combined figures will seem like some ridiculous fairly tale (not that any of you believe those figures anyway! Do you??). Realistically, the lazier V6 doesn't need all these cogs and can make pretty fine progress even if you have to change gear by hand.

All the rest is normal 156 - the deep rear shelf and small mirrors still make reversing a bit of a pain, but unlike Italian tanks, this car is primarily for going forwards, not backwards, and go forwards it does extremely well. The rear suspension claims to effect rear-wheel passive steering which stabilises the rear end under heavy cornering. I can't say I noticed it, but to me it's just something else to go wrong as the car gets older. Either way when new, the handling is one of the 156's plus points. It handles well and maintains it's composure perfectly right up until the point when you're probably going too fast any way and the tyres start to lose their grip on the road. Unlike many past Italian cars though, it's not been achieved by giving the car a ride like an unsprung donkey cart and, all in all, is probably as good a combination of handling/ride as you can expect from a front driving saloon.

Alfa/Fiat make big claims about the safety of the 156 and it is fitted with many novel and well designed features to give the security you expect from a modern car. But if you were really interested in that aspect, you would be looking at a Volvo instead? It's enough to say that the 156 claims to be as safe as a comparably-sized Volvo but no Volvo claims to be as good looking as the 156. For all those family men who really want a 2 door coupe but need 4 doors, the Alfa comes as close as it can to fixing your dilemma by hiding the rear doors with a touch of inspired design .

The Alfa's not cheap but if we are all lucky it will depreciate like all Alfas before it, before everyone realises what a fine car it is and we can look forward to some great second hand ones. As Alfa's range continues to expand, I guess this gear system will be available on other engines too. The really perverse could go for a common rail diesel "Selespeed" with the big wing sports kit. Me, I'll stick to a Twin Spark with a normal gear stick and no picnic tables stuck on the back, thanks.

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