I’ve been on a bit of a roll recently giving “real world” owner’s reviews of cars that I’ve owned in the past. You can check out my two previous entries here:
Today, I’m going back to the archives to review a car I owned a few years ago – an Alfa Romeo 156 JTS. Here it is in all its glory:
It’s been a couple of years since I sold this car, but I did keep it for about 18 months and put on plenty of kms in that time, and thought it might be beneficial
Table of Contents
About The Car
Here are the key facts about my old Alfa Romeo:
- 2004 Alfa Romeo 156 JTS
- 5 speed manual (not the dreaded ‘Selespeed’)
- 2.0 “JTS” engine
- Factory standard condition – it must have been a fairly well-specced car new, featuring nice leather seats etc
I bought the car on a bit of a whim back in 2017 – at the time I was driving a Volvo 940 Polar, which was costing a lot of money each week in petrol (I was commuting about 45 minutes each way every day). I figured that the most sensible option would be to purchase an old, high mileage, dubious service history Alfa Romeo … what could possibly go wrong?
As with my other owner’s reviews, I’m not going to fixate on facts, figures and statistics, but instead provide a general insight into my ownership history with this car.
Over a decent period of ownership with the car, here’s what I liked and disliked:
What I Liked
Attractive, Timeless Styling
The Alfa Romeo 156 was a stunningly good looking car in its day, and it still looks superb all these years later. From the front, from the back, from the side, it just looks so “right”.
As lame as it sounds, I’d look forward to walking out my front door in the morning to see it parked on the street.
Despite being a car of dubious ownership history and high mileage, it had great body and paintwork and I made sure to keep it cleaned and waxed (using my favourite, Meguiar’s Ultimate Liquid Wax). When the sun hit the paintwork on that distinctive front end … it just looked so good.
Even non-petrolheads liked the styling. The first time I pulled up at work in it, my boss came out to admire the car based on its looks (and he was a very wealthy man for whom the purchase price would be considered loose change). My old housemate who knew nothing about cars thought it was the best looking car she’d seen, no word of a lie.
The styling is timeless – I feel this car will still look great in another twenty years.
Excellent Steering Feel
In my 5th generation Subaru Legacy review, I complained about the poor steering feel of that car (vague and “wooly”). The Alfa Romeo was the total opposite – very communicative through the wheel, and with excellent precision. The steering was fast – some complain too fast but I didn’t mind it – but the whole package was thoroughly enjoyable, and the handling was sharp enough to keep up too.
Power Delivery & Sound
Although the Twin Spark engine is generally seen as the more desirable four cylinder Alfa petrol offering (owing to its “classic” nature) the JTS engine was great.
Economy was decent when driving gently, but then there was plenty of power on tap. It loved to rev, and sounded superb when doing so.
I imagine V6 Alfas are a lot quicker, but the overall package of the 156 JTS was excellent.
The Way It Made Me Feel
Forgive me for going all Top Gear on you (I’m referencing here the OG Top Gear trio’s love for Alfa Romeos, and belief that you cannot be a true petrolhead unless you’ve owned one because of the way they make you feel).
The thing is, that is 100% true.
It’s totally esoteric and subjective, but the Alfa Romeo 156 made me feel special. There’s no other way to put it.
Every time I climbed in and saw the beautiful gauge cluster, and driver-centric middle console all angled towards me, and then started the growling engine, I felt a million bucks.
That little Alfa had soul and passion built into it, and you could feel it every time you turned the key.
Sure, it had problems (more on that later) but any concerns melted away the first time you stretched its legs on an open piece of road.
I’ve owned and driven “superior” cars, but I truly mean it when I say that no vehicle has ever made me feel the way the Alfa did.
What I Disliked
Cramped Rear Seating
The ‘compact sedan’ nature of the Alfa Romeo 156 is great in the sense that it never felt too big around town or in car parks. The driver and front passenger were accommodated well. However rear seating was fairly cramped and uncomfortable – not a place you’d want to spend too much time.
Mediocre Build Quality
Everything creaked, rattled, or fell off from time to time (one key exception – the actual leather on the seats held up incredibly well and was in beautiful condition).
Compared to a Japanese car of the same era, you could really note the poor workmanship.
Expensive Servicing & Repairs
The Alfa Romeo 156 is not the cheapest car to keep on the road, with parts and servicing being pricey (NB I believe the situation is better in Europe where many more of these were sold). It’s also not the easiest car to work on, meaning you’ll either need to be a skilled home mechanic with good equipment or pay a professional.
For example, before I collected the car, the previous owner had just spend $1500 NZD on new brake pads and discs – on a car he sold to me for $3500 NZD.
I treated it to a cambelt replacement and full service at $1750, and I only got $3000 for it when I sold it.
The car was sold to me with only one key fob (plus the essential ‘red’ emergency key) – and the fob fell apart about a month after I bought the car. The main Alfa dealer wanted about $2000 to get a new key, but in the end I found a locksmith who was able to clone the transponder chip in the original fob (which he repaired) and pair the cloned chip to a new physical key. It meant that you couldn’t use remote locking/unlocking with that key, but you could still drive the car with it.
Basically, any time you do anything involving fixing or repairing an Alfa Romeo, somebody is going to try and hose you down for your money.
You do the math …. it doesn’t stack up.
I know what you’re thinking – ‘how stereotypical, a story about an Alfa Romeo being unreliable’ – and it’s true.
The Alfa was probably one of the most unreliable cars I ever owned, but not in a “left me stranded” sense.
Not once did the Alfa fail to start, or suffer some kind of catastrophic breakdown.
It’s just that lots of niggly things went wrong with it. Here’s a short list of some of the highlights:
- An exhaust O2 sensor failed, resulting in a check engine light. A trusty OBD2 scanner allowed me to switch it off, which I’d do periodically (it would stay off for a week or two and then come back – FYI I disclosed the CEL in the sale listing when I flogged the car)
- The JTS engine developed an unhealthy appetite for 10w-60 oil. By the end of my ownership it was using approximately 1L of oil per 1000km of driving. The car didn’t leak, so must have been burning it. Apparently some owners refer to the JTS as ‘Just a Two Stroke’ in reference to its oil consumption tendencies. I’d always keep a fresh 1L bottle of oil in the boot.
- There were all sorts of funny electrical gremlins. My particular favourite is that one day the switches for the AC system simply did the opposite of what they were meant to, e.g. pressing up for temperature lowered it, down for fan speed raised it and so on.
- Sometimes the alarm would go on and stay on for a period of time while driving.
- The air conditioning struggled on hot days, and I wasn’t brave (or rich) enough to try and get it fixed.
As I said, there was never a single ‘failure to start’ issue. The car worked for me every single time, and was a loyal companion. It just had a lot of “quirks and features”, as a certain YouTuber might say.
Alfa Romeo 156 JTS Review Recap – Would I Buy Another One?
A million times yes, I would buy another one.
However, I’d pay more and buy a better example with a less questionable ownership and service history and lower mileage. I’d also want it as a special weekend/fun car, rather than as a daily driver.
The later 159 never did it for me in the same way the 156 still does.
It was such a special car, only let down by the fact that some of its previous owners clearly hadn’t cared that much and treated it a mere machine … what a travesty.
Of course I’d love a 156 GTA, but they are getting pricey now (you can read our Alfa Romeo 156 GTA buyer’s guide here for more information).
The 156 JTS offers a superb blend of usable performance, and then much lower running and buying costs than the champion V6 cars. Its compact size also means you could easily fit it in a smaller garage or parking space.
Why did I sell the Alfa if I loved it so much? Unfortunately, I lost my job at the time and struck out into the world of freelancing. A family member had a spare car (a Fiat Stilo Abarth, which I’ve featured on this site in the past) and it made financial sense to sell the Alfa Romeo and take the lower mileage, newer and better-maintained Fiat. Although I loved the Alfa, I needed the money more, and also it wasn’t ever going to be an example that you’d keep as a future classic.
If I saw a nice, clean example for sale, then I definitely would consider it.
Feel free to ask me any questions about my experience, I’d love to answer them.