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Can the Alfa Romeo Giulia slay the ghost of the 156?

By raccars Published

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Will Alfa Romeo's new saloon manage to displace memories of the disastrous 156?

The Alfa Romeo Giulia is one of the most hotly anticipated new releases of 2016, a sharp looking executive saloon designed to take on the likes of the BMW 3 Series. Does this sound familiar?

Alfa Romeo 156

Indeed, Alfa Romeo has been down this road before in the form of the 156, another stunning looking saloon from 1997. At the time of its release the 156 caused quite a stir in a sector depressed by the European preference for hatchbacks. The 156 made buyers sit up and reconsider the saloon, thanks to its supremely stylish design. It was sharp and appealing both inside and out, with the performance to match. Mechanically it shared some components with its racy predecessor, the 155, mixed with plenty of modern new engineering.

Under the bonnet there were a number of Twin Spark petrol engines to choose from, plus an innovative new diesel unit, the first production model to feature common rail fuel injection. This system made for a more refined and economical ride and has since become a standard in modern diesel engines.

The combination of style and substance was an instant hit and won the 156 masses of industry awards. 365,000 of them were on the road within two years of the 156's release, making it Alfa's biggest hit since the Sixties. Over the next few years the 156's line-up expanded to include a Sportswagon and a racy 3.2 V6 GTA. There were also a couple of automatic transmissions within the range, which is where the problems started to appear.

The beginning of the end

After the initial glow of ownership had subsided, Alfa owners were starting to find their 156s somewhat problematic. The smart new suspension system had an appetite for tyres and bushes; timing belts were catastrophically temperamental; the variable valve timing was unreliable; the 2.0 litre found itself starved of oil; diesels suffered brake failure; and the list goes on...

That's not to say that every 156 was unreliable, but it was no longer looking like a tempting alternative to the less glamorous German saloons. Complaints about poor dealer service and delays on parts delivery only compounded the damage to Alfa Romeo's reputation. Like an X-Factor winner who has an X-mas number one and then spirals away into obscurity, the 156 fell dramatically out of favour and resale values dropped like a stone. Alfa attempted to stem the tide with some refreshments but came to the conclusion that the damage had been done and a more dramatic approach was required.

The 159 that took over from the 156 wasn't a bad car but couldn't quite overcome the damage done to Alfa Romeo's image by the 156 fiasco. Looking back, the 156 is one of the Italian firm's best-selling models, with 650,000 unit sales in eight years. Had Alfa been able to maintain that stellar start, the firm's fortunes could have been very different - a lesson the Italian company has hopefully learned from for the sake of buyers of the Giulia.

Alfa Romeo Giulia

The signs are promising. Alfa Romeo's biggest release in recent years has been the gorgeous 4C sports coupe and roadster, which has been an unqualified success despite a background of corporate restructuring by parent firm Fiat Chrysler.

The Giulia itself is Alfa's first saloon since the ill-fated 159 and the first mass market Alfa Romeo in 20 years to use a rear wheel drive format; a layout which has traditionally worked well for the company. The development process has been extraordinarily long, with ex-Ferrari engineer Philippe Krief at the helm. Bearing the weight of its predecessor's history, the Giulia will have to withstand a lot of scrutiny when it arrives just a few weeks from now.

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