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This is an article from the magazine Auto Italia published with their kind permission.

Alfa Romeo 156 GTA
- Making the Fast Faster


Uprated performance and handling from Monza sport tuning.
Test by Simon Park / Photography by Phil Ward / Auto Italia Magazine

TS Eliot asked: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?" Well, some of it – the ‘conventional’
wisdom which has it that no more than 200bhp can be efficiently transmitted through front-wheel drive – now
languishes alongside ‘you can have too much of a good thing’ in a dusty file marked ‘no longer relevant’.
Because we now know better – sort of.
When Alfa Romeo introduced the 250bhp 156 GTA four years ago, there were dark mutterings about understeer, torque-steer, axle-tramp and so on. But the thing worked, albeit with some provisos – and the likes of Monza Sports Tuning have since shown that these can be addressed. Necessity, though, has been the mother of invention here, and Alfa’s own recent revelation that forthcoming models mustering more than 200bhp will have all four wheels driven speaks volumes.
When Alfa Romeo introduced the 250bhp 156 GTA four years ago, there were dark mutterings about understeer,
torque-steer, axle-tramp and so on. But the thing worked, albeit with some provisos – and the likes of
Monza Sports Tuning have since shown that these can be addressed. Necessity, though, has been the mother
of invention here, and Alfa’s own recent revelation that forthcoming models mustering more than 200bhp will
have all four wheels driven speaks volumes.

Let’s just hope that they draw their inspiration from Lancia, rather than Audi, and don’t lose sight of
that essential ‘Alfa-ness’ which makes the GTA such a hoot – particularly these two modified ones.
Monza Sports Tuning is well-versed in the art of improving 156s now, whether for race, track day or
just fast road use. Their main man Bryn Griffiths raised a few eyebrows when he tackled the 2003 Alfa Romeo
Championship in a diesel-powered estate (well, okay, Sportwagon), and a whole lot more when he started
winning in it. The GTA too has benefited much from MST’s ministrations, and Roberto reported on their
progress in the engine compartment last year (issue 89).

One of the cars he tested was GU52 OML, the coruscant Nuvola red example of dairy farmer Chris Carpenter (Moovola, surely?), which was then standard apart from a modified ECU. Chris, though, wanted the ultimate, multi-purpose GTA – still road-friendly, but suitable for serious track days too. He also wanted to enhance his chances in that gloriously politically-incorrect feast of hooligantics, the European Cannonball Run. It worked (he came 28th out of 128 in 2004), and a glance at its current spec shows why. At Goodwood recently we were able to try it in its latest, blood-curdling form, and compare it
directly with both a slightly milder MST-modified car and a standard one. The latter provided a useful
benchmark against which to assess the other two, and it’s where I started…

Simon Jones has it in mind to give his sensible-red car a few tweaks, too, but at the moment its only
non-standard feature is larger (330mm) front brake discs – a popular mod, since the regulation-issue 305mm
items have a tendency to warp.With its lowered stance and full-width front splitter-cum-leaf sweeper,
the GTA looks the business, for a start. Inside any 156 is a nice place to spend some time, and the GTA’s
ultra-supportive seats make it even nicer. Then you start that luverly V6 and it’s nicer still. Even in
standard form it’s a class act and, for a while, as I start to savour it properly, I’m wondering why anyone
needs to lavish loads of loot on after-market mods.

With ‘just’ the basic 250bhp to cope with, the front wheels are remarkably well-behaved, though you
certainly sense that they’re pretty close to their limit. The effect on the steering, though, is virtually
zilch. It’s almost spookily light, with no appreciable weighting-up awaiting you even on full lock. Alfa
obviously did a lot of work here, cleverly mitigating any real torque-steer effect without leaving you feeling
detached from what’s going on.



The country roads around Goodwood offer the usual mixture of surfaces, and it’s here that the GTA’s weakest
link – the ride – manifests itself. For a no-nonsense sports saloon it’s not too horrendous, but you get
the feeling that the suspension, and the damping in particular, is struggling to cope when it meets a
poorly-surfaced corner, for example. There’s a bit of roll, too, although plenty of grip. The 3.2-litre V6
delivers the goods when you wind it up – and sounds fantastic in the process – but once again I was
sampling one back-to-back with my own 147’s torquey 16v turbodiesel, and was again momentarily surprised
by the V6’s comparatively flat bottom end. Perhaps a re-mapped Monza Sports version would remedy this? Time
to take a step up the ladder...

Remedy it it does – it’s the second thing you notice in the ‘softer’ of the two MST cars, after the noise. Rick Capella’s silver-grey example might not be quite so radical as Chris’s car, but it’s obvious within the first 50 yards that the engine, anyway, has had a good seeing-to. The re-mapping in this case yields an extra 48bhp at the top, but the improvements lower down are even more dramatic, a heavily re-profiled torque curve giving the V6 real muscle from around 2000rpm. This is now a serious engine, endowing the GTA with vastly better driveability, and an even fruitier sound courtesy of the Supersprint exhaust system.

The car’s nether regions received the close personal attentions of The Man Himself, Rhoddy Harvey-Bailey,
from which other MST customers can now benefit. It was intended all along as a quick road car (joining several
others in the family garage, but they’re German – boo!) and the re-valved, RHB-specified Bilstein dampers
were developed with this in mind. The springs are standard. On the test route, the improvement in ride quality
is almost as marked as the engine’s superior characteristics – more composed, better body-control and an
extra ‘layer’ of insulation from surface imperfections. The Eibach anti-roll arrangements work beautifully,
too, and though dramatic improvements in sheer cornering power were hard to spot at country-road speeds,
the whole car felt more responsive, more firmly planted on the tarmac.

And there’s no downside – that I could find, anyway. The thing was an undiluted joy and, as an entertaining
way of getting there and back on Her Maj’s highway, it’s a tough act to follow – figuratively and literally.
“As far as you need to go for a road car,” is Bryn’s assessment, and I wondered if, next, I was about to
encounter the law of diminishing returns…




For real-world road use, yes, probably – unless you’re a total nutter. Don’t let the colour fool you – there’s
a granite-hard edge to this car. Every time you open the garage door it’ll growl “go on, wring my neck”.
The tight little roundabout up near the horse-course was fine in the red car, wonderful in the silver one,
and simply unbelievable in this. Go-kart response, utterly flat, totally neutral, huge grip – is it really
front-wheel drive? It’s certainly giggle-inducingly, licence-losingly irresistible.

It’s all down to some tasty bits of kit, not least the KW coil-over spring/damper units. These allow
key-adjustment not just of ride-height, but of both damper bump and rebound too, and contribute hugely
to the versatility Chris sought. The ride was perhaps not quite as cosseting as the silver car’s, but still
better than standard. The ceramic brakes, with their sintered pads, are just astonishing, and it’s very easy
to stand the thing on its nose at first. The engine had around 265bhp when Roberto tested it, but now shows
312 on the dyno, with low-speed pull the equal of Rick’s car. Both have BMC Carbon Dynamic airboxes, which
force in cold air via a carbon filter, thus creating a virtual supercharger – the higher the speed, the
greater the charge. But only Chris’s has the Supersprint manifolds necessary to fully realise their potential;
he reckons a possible three percent increase – over 320bhp – but only at track speeds.

This was the only one of the three cars I took onto the circuit – amazingly, it passed the mandatory noise test despite its ground-shaking, rolling thunder bellow. Suddenly, the leafy West Sussex lanes become the wide-open spaces of the historic track, and you need to re-adjust accordingly. Initially, like most road cars, the GTA felt less impressive here – slower, less precise. But in this case it was illusory. Having the owner sitting next to you during a track test is always inhibiting, but the car really does encourage you to push – hard. Now you feel the full might of the 300-plus (whatever) horses, and can start to
explore the handling envelope. Fordwater should be flat, and I could address those ceramic brakes much
later for the next right-hander. It’s tidy through St Mary’s, and has no aversion to taking some kerb.
Of the three types of tyre to be found on the three cars, all the drivers rated the Bridgestone
Potenzas highly, particularly at the front, as here. They certainly bite on turn-in, and only
the tight-ish Lavant brings notable understeer, throttle-adjustable and gone in a flash. She nudges
140mph on the long (nearly-)straight, and despite some roll through Woodcote feels more like a racer
with every yard.

Now the chicane – flick, flick, just like that roundabout. But then there’s no power. Huh? Flat in second,
it’s flat as a pancake. Major Tom to traction control – bugger off. One prod of the little ASR button sorts it.
But it gets a bit messier now, the long double-apex Madgwick, next, needing more driver input, more care.
Yet the fundamentals of the car are so ‘right’, the whole device so well focused, that it’s still on your side,
and even more rewarding for the next few laps.

It’s a tour-de-force, this thing, from its mighty engine to its uncanny ability to transmit 60 percent more power than Alfa considers feasible through its front wheels without histrionics. Add virtual race-car handling, and that all-important ‘Alfa-ness’, and it’s goodnight all you Japanese 4wd-Evo-WRC-lookalikes. But it comes at a price, and its slightly more serene – and rather cheaper – silver sister is almost equally satisfying on the road, and probably the more comfortable, practical everyday choice. However far you want to go, though, Monza Sports Tuning seems to have the bases covered.

Our thanks to Bryn Griffiths and Mark O’Reilly (senior technician) of Monza Sports Tuning for their
assistance in arranging this test. Visit www.monzasport.com


MONZA SPORTS TUNING MODIFICATIONS
Prices include fitting, but exclude VAT

KIT ONE: (RX04 NKK) £
Supersprint exhaust system, front racing cat, middle and rear boxes 1346.52
Bespoke re-map carried out on rolling road – dyno’d 298bhp 550.00
Eibach anti-roll bar kit 532.84
Tarox track day package front discs and pads 346.43
Harvey Bailey Engineering suspension – bespoke re-valved Bilstein
dampers designed for the 156 GTA by Rhoddy Harvey-Bailey 1074.70
BMC Carbon Dynamic air-box 243.93
£4094.42
(£3750 for complete kit)

KIT TWO: (GU52 OML)
Complete Supersprint exhaust system, manifolds,
front racing cat, middle and rear boxes 3309.86
Bespoke re-map carried out on rolling road – dyno’d 312bhp 550.00
Eibach anti-roll bar kit 532.84
Tarox ceramic brakes with sintered brake pads 866.42
KW variant 3 coil-over kit – adjustable for compression and rebound 1202.41
BMC Carbon Dynamic air-box 243.93
£6705.46
(£6000 for complete kit)

This is an article from the magazine Auto Italia published with their kind permission.
See www.auto-italia.co.uk or call +44(0)1858 438817 for back issues and subscriptions.