John o' Groats is situated at the northernmost tip of Scotland, and a small sign in the harbor says "Land's End 876 miles." Nice geography lesson, but car enthusiasts should note that this sparsely populated area is also home to some of the most spectacular driving roads in Britain.
The A9 runs up the coast from Wick to John 'o Groats, past Dunnet Head, before becoming the A836. On its way, the views are spectacular, but if you are going as fast as I am today, you need to keep your eyes bolted firmly on the road. Crests, dips, fast turns and some very long straights are all on the menu, and the Alfa Romeo 156 GTA is lapping it all up with a raw ability and exuberance seldom encountered in increasingly capable but characterless modern cars.
GTA. That's an old moniker, but a distinctly Alfa one-1969 was the year when it was applied to the neat little Bertone coupe that went racing and won countless events. In later GTAM form, the car became a racing legend.
Heady stuff that, and with such a mighty reputation to live up to, you can be sure Alfa Romeo does not apply the GTA badge lightly. It was right to hold it back all these years, waiting for a worthy successor to wear it with pride and confidence.
For Alfa fans, the wait has been well worth it. Plain and simple, with its 250-bhp 3.2-liter V6, the new 156 GTA is the most inspirational front-wheel-drive car I have ever driven. That it is also the fastest production Alfa Romeo ever is almost incidental.
A front-wheel-drive car with 250 bhp would normally be a recipe for torque steer and all kinds of other handling woes. Cadillac's 300-bhp Northstar V8 engine creates havoc in its front-drivers, and tuning VW Golfs beyond 200 bhp quickly shows up the shortcomings of MacPherson strut front suspension.
I pondered this as I pushed the Alfa GTA harder and harder through the turns, looking for signs of misbehavior. Coming out of one tight, uphill right-hander, I deliberately floored the throttle early to try and provoke the front end. On the dry surface, grip from the 225/45ZR17 Michelin tires on 7.5Jx17-in. alloys was enormous. Although the traction-control light flashed for an instant, the uprated double-wishbone front suspension hunkered down, converting engine output to forward motion with hardly a wiggle through the steering wheel.
You can tell this car is aimed at serious drivers, because the ASR traction control has some tolerance dialed in so it does not shut down proceedings at the merest hint of slip at the front wheels. It does curb excessive wheelspin but helps you make maximum progress by allowing some degree of throttle steer.
The front end is very pointy. Just 1.75 turns lock-to-lock make the rack-and-pinion steering significantly quicker than the 2.2 turns of the normal 156, already strong in steering response and feel. On the other hand, because the rest of the chassis has been uprated to suit, the GTA remains totally balanced and never nervous when turning-in, even at high speeds under braking. The only downside to the quick steering rack and larger rubber is the turning circle restriction I discovered in a car park.
As I was shown in a rather spectacular racetrack video sequence narrated by Alfa's chief test driver, you can throw the GTA into a corner sideways and opposite lock it on power almost like a rear driver! I stopped short of that on public roads, but, on the other hand, racetracks are smooth and some of the bumps and crests of these Scottish byways were already testing the chassis to its limits in the vertical plane. On a very fast dip with bumps involved, I did manage to bottom the car, but at that point I was really trying!
As the miles rolled by under the GTA's wheels, I also had time to reflect on how supple the ride is despite all the lowering and stiffening work. The car is taut but never jittery at low speeds, and as you pick up the pace, things smoothen out and everything snaps into focus. Porsches are like that, too, and it is a consistent characteristic of really fast cars.
Development engineer Lorenzo Minelli was on hand to explain the changes. "The basic 156 suspension is double wishbone in front and MacPherson strut beam axle at the rear with anti-dive, anti-squat geometry. The uprated suspension is a mix of production 156 and some new parts," he said. "The lower arms and uprights are pressed steel, the upper ones alloy. The springs are the same rate as the 2.5-liter V6 156, but shorter," he continued. "The dampers are uprated, so the front and rear end up 30 and 40 percent stiffer. The anti-roll-bar diameter has been increased to 23mm and 17mm front and rear, which is 1mm up from the normal 156 2.5 V6."
To help contain the much greater power and torque, two reinforcing struts are solid mounted between the front subframe and the bodyshell. The GTA also has different suspension top mounts and bump stops. The car weighs about the same, and the 3.2-liter engine is only about 10kg heavier. On the other hand, the new alloy wheels are lighter.
"Understeer is very linear as you approach the limit," Lorenzo explained. "We needed to balance out the quick steering, so the kinematics were changed by taking the steering closer to pure Ackerman. The inclination of the rear beam axle is greater. and we have more stabilizing toe-in per degree of lateral force with progressive rear bushes. The castor angle is the same, but we actually reduced negative camber at the front from 1 degree 20 minutes to just 15 minutes."
It all works very well in practice, and contains the 250 rampant cavallini very well indeed. Going from 2.5 to 3.2 liters is a massive jump for the 156, and the base motor is the 3.0-liter V6 from the larger 166 saloon and the GTV coupe.
"The block itself is unchanged, and we achieved the capacity increase with a new long-throw crankshaft, and lightened and balanced rods and shorter pistons," Lorenzo explained. "The new camshafts have higher lift, 9.3mm for both intake and exhaust, and compression ratio is up to 11.3:1, so 98 octane super unleaded is a must. We retain the hydraulic tappet, and there is no variable valve timing arrangement. Finally, the Bosch M3.1 engine management system has been reprogrammed to cope."
The car I drove had the six-speed manual transmission, which proved swift and positive, but you can also opt for the Selespeed clutchless shifter. Made by Magneti Marelli, its paddle shifter makes life easier on mountain roads strewn with hairpin bends, as well as in heavy traffic. I personally like it even if many motoring writers seem unable to get to grips with the concept. The GTA's Selespeed system has been recalibrated for faster shifts, and the mechanical components have been beefed up to take the greater torque of the 3.2-liter motor.
This 3179cc V6 is one of the best engines I have ever driven. Creamy smooth from DC to light, it burbles into life with a fruity howl and then orchestrates a fabulous multi-layered warble from off idle to the redline and beyond. It is pure mechanical music that makes enthusiasts swoon with ecstasy.
The lighter internals certainly play a significant role, as this motor revs faster than other Alfa motors despite its larger capacity. It is still so smooth as you approach 7000 rpm, it gives the impression there is still more to come. The 250 bhp is developed at 6200 rpm and 221 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm, but the beefy torque curve and crisp throttle response ensure that impressive urge is present right across the rev band.
Against the stopwatch, the GTA delivers. The clocks stopped at 6.3 sec. for the 0-to-60-mph dash, and top speed is 155 mph. In the real world, this car is as quick as you would want to go in a front-wheel-driver.
The Alfa Romeo 156 GTA faces stiff competition from the BMW 325i Sport and the Audi A4 3.0 quattro, which sell for similar money. The Alfa is quicker than its rivals and far more inspirational than the competent and beautifully built, but rather anodyne, Audi. Even the BMW, quintessential rear-wheel-driver, struggles to match the Alfa for motor music and sheer fun factor. The latest Alfas are well-made and potentially reliable, so you can now make a choice with your head as well as your heart. However, once you have driven it, the GTA tugs at your heartstrings very strongly indeed. You have been warned.