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There was little surprise, several months ago, when a panel of European journalists voted the Alfa Romeo 156 the Car of the Year 1998. For it's not only a car of remarkable beauty but one whose detail is impressive and whose standard of finish is much more in the old Alfa tradition than many Alfas have been these past two decades.

When I lived in Italy during the '60s, the Alfa Romeo Giulia saloon was the car par excellence for those who wanted a sporty 4-door 4-seater, while the coupé version, clothed in its exquisite Bertone designed body, was probably the most coveted of all the affordable GT cars. Great to look at and wonderful to drive, they were full of typical Italian brio and particularly satisfying when pushed hard. In the '70s I drove an Alfetta GT for a couple of years, that sleek coupé designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, and later owned a four-door Giulietta. Excellent cars but, sadly, both suffered from rust which, at the time, seemed to afflict Italian cars more than most.

These past years have seen quantum leaps in the quality of the Fiat Group's products and the 156 Alfa Romeo does have a real quality feel about it. That's good news for lovers of this Italian marque for it has a build integrity to match its charismatic styling. Although Alfa's management asked Giugiaro's Ital Design and other design houses for styling recommendations, the version finally selected came from the Alfa Romeo in-house design team, Alfa Centro Stile, headed by Walter de Silva.

At some angles, the 156 provides a reminder of that '60s Giulia coupé and at other angles there are touches of Alfas from an even earlier period, yet the overall look exudes the best in contemporary design. It's available in twin-spark 4-cylinder 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0 litre versions and also with a V6 2.8 litre powerplant. The version I spent a week with was the least powerful, the 1.6 litre TS 16v model. However, there's plenty of power available from its excellent twin-spark plugs per cylinder engine which is very quiet, except when you take the revs up between 5000 and 6000 rpm and then you hear that familiar and wonderful Alfa Romeo howl

A real head-turner, this Milanese beauty

It has fine, progressive acceleration and, provided you're prepared to fully use the precise and quick 5-speed gearbox, you can put up impressive averages. I took in three countries during the week and had plenty of opportunities to discover how good the Alfa is over numerous types of terrain. It's excellent as a motorway cruiser but equally - perhaps even more - at home on undulating roads.

The beautiful wood rim steering wheel is adjustable for both reach and angle, the supportive bucket seat adjustable for height, length and recline, so whatever your shape, a perfect driving position is easy to find. In terms of passenger and boot space, the 156 is similar to that of two of its major rivals, the 3-series BMW and the Audi A4, and it will undoubtedly appeal to some owners of these two models. And with a basic price starting at just under BEF 700,000, you get a whole lot of car for your money.

It's probably the best Alfa since the early sixties and quite possibly the best ever. Time will tell.

©Dick Suter - 1998

Original article appearing in "Internationals in Belgium" Dick Suter was an editor of the magazine and contributor and Ginny Suter was a regular contributor in the late 1990's and 2000's - The magazine had a circulation of 10,000 Please note that this article was first published many years ago and telephone and fax numbers are likely to be out of date and email addresses have been removed.

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