26.10.1997

Alfa 156: Design


Introduction
The clean yet exciting line, the elegant yet safe look of the Alfa 156 reveals the genetic heritage handed down by a whole host of medium sized Alfa Romeo sports models that have entered automotive folklore: from the 1900 to the Giulietta, from the Giulia to the Alfetta.
The task of the designers who created the Alfa 156 was both easy and demanding at the same time. Easy because in designing a medium sized sports model for Alfa Romeo they could tap a great tradition - models recognised as milestones in automotive history and in this very class. Demanding because it was no small task to endow the new model with a personality both worthy of that tradition and able to reinterpret it in a way that was in tune with contemporary sensibilities and tastes. Front section

The Alfa Romeo Style Centre has found a way to integrate the requisite sporty characteristics with the body of an elegant saloon. The car flows from the front where the shield extends into the V-shape of the bonnet along the two convergent ribs that outline and highlight the central bulge of the bonnet.
Though it remains recognisably Alfa Romeo, the shield itself has been embellished by a series of minor alterations. It is now slightly bigger and its upper edge that tracks the bonnet rim swoops down to cut into the line of the bumper.
The badge hangs from the head of the 'comet', itself no more than the slightest bulge, a tiny hillock in the sheet steel that highlights the point where the bonnet encounters the upper edge of the shield. Against the black background of the grille, it is set in respectful isolation like the name plate, in a gesture that is both revealing and empowering.
In the lower section, the shield is strengthened by classic Alfa 'whiskers', two narrow slits that work with the line of the headlights to add extra impact to the look of the nose, on which the entire emphasis is horizontal, hinting at talons sunk into the road.
The bumpers are built into the body, while the lighting clusters feature classic circular sports car lamps.
So, lights, shield, V-shaped bonnet and 'whiskers': all it takes to endow the front of a car with a definite character and an instantly recognisable family identity.

Side view
In profile, the Alfa 156 is equally distinctive, its side view dominated by the two decisive lines over the wheelarches that fade at the mid-line to spotlight the front door handle which forms the core and the centre of gravity for the whole expanse of the side.
What with the dominance of metal over glass and the way the black-painted rear door handle is camouflaged inside the quarter light frame, the car looks in side view rather like a coupé. And it looks like a car that is sturdy, protective and safe.
Visually, the car packs a powerful punch that is underlined by the V-shaped swoop of the two crease lines that embrace the entire car. The V's tip sits on the bonnet as if pointing to the engine beneath, then its arms extend in a gently rising swoop to trace the front pillars and upper part of the passenger compartment, before descending along the rear pillars to end in the Alfa 156's broad back which enhances the feeling of a car anchored to the road.

Rear end
The back view is dominated by three main design themes. The pillars clutch the wheelarches in a powerful grip. The short, sloping tail brings the broad shoulders to an ideal conclusion, evoking the image of a car crouched to spring lithely into sinuous action. The small, separate light clusters are sunk into the bodywork.

Aerodynamics
This clean-cut, pleasing shape was designed to meet a number of functional and styling requirements. The softly moulded look of the Alfa 156 responds to specific aerodynamic criteria. The success of the exercise is confirmed by the car's Cd (0.31) and Cd-S or front section drag coefficient (0.639). These figures have been achieved by the careful shaping of items like the windscreen which is set at a 62º angle and blends smoothly into side pillars and roof front. The side windows are set almost flush with the body and the rear window is wrapped round the rear end; the tail is tapered into the sides and the snug fit between roof, rear window and boot lid at the rear of the car all help to optimise aerodynamic flows along the body. The door mirrors have been shaped and sited with equal care to eliminate wind noise when the car is in motion.
The wind tunnel was also used in refining certain unseen parts of the car that nevertheless have a major impact on its aerodynamic behaviour. Examples include the engine bay floor guard and the guard that shields the fuel tank on the 1.8 and 2.0 T. Spark versions, as well as the radiator and intercooler pipes and the rubber seal between bonnet and engine cross-member.

The interior
The cabin features flowing, seamless lines. As was to be expected of a sports saloon designed for exuberant performance, the focus of attention was the cockpit area around which the entire cabin was built. The aim here was to offer the driver a layout that guaranteed total control over the car in all situations. So the gear lever is set high, and not upright but angled slightly towards the driver, just as it was on the best known Alfa Romeos of the past.
The on-board instrument panel also marks a return to the classic era, with its two main dials tilted in the driver's direction, as are all the secondary instruments. Dials have been kept to the essential minimum: classic round speedometer and rev counter and between them the ABS, airbag, Alfa CODE, brake fluid and door-and-boot-lock check panel. Just beyond, on the central console, we find three similar dials, also round: fuel gauge, water temperature gauge and analogue clock. Below them, the glove compartment with flap, the built-in sound system (when present), the heating and ventilation controls (easily reached and pleasant to the touch, these controls incorporate micrometric mechanisms that allow for ultra-precise adjustments) and the ashtray.
The cabin of the Alfa 156 has been designed with the utmost attention to ergonomics, acoustics and climate control. Its regular shape also creates an impression of highly exploitable space. The steering wheel is adjustable for rake and reach. Driver's seat height adjustment is also standard. This seat features a 40 mm travel regulated by a practical jack-type lever. The seat back on the other hand, is self-adaptive to allow for minute alterations. A lot of good work has also gone into making the cabin as quiet as possible in a noise limitation exercise that has minimised engine noise and eliminated wind noise.
Just as much attention has gone into the details; from the non-slip sound-deadening lining of the storage compartments, to the dampened glove box opening; window buttons which prevent their accidental activation and to the soft textured facia cladding. The entire cabin has also been 'glare-proofed': among other measures, facia and door panels have been treated using laser technology that minutely roughens the surface to modulate the way it refracts the light.
In other words, an interior with Alfa Romeo's traditional clean-cut look, as required of a fast, powerful sports car. But also an environment that provides all the comfort we expect of a saloon in terms of climate control, ergonomic layout, space available to driver and passengers and quiet running (the articulation index, namely the measurement of how easy it is to hold a normal conversation, is excellent).

Driveability
The Alfa 156 is a beautiful, comfortable car which is quiet and safe. But this description alone cannot define the character of the new Alfa Romeo. To understand its temperament and 'personality' we have to go further, to discover the qualities that emerge from the car's dynamic behaviour. And on the road the Alfa 156 immediately reveals the exceptional driveability that is its real strong point, its truly distinctive feature.
This quality is difficult to put into words (in fact a neologism had to be invented to define it); 'driveability' is a car's capacity to respond to the driver's commands promptly and naturally, quickly but easily, giving the driver the sense of security that the car will always do what he expects of it.
Alfa Romeo has been building cars that are exciting to drive since the days of he Alfa 1900 and Giulietta, when few cars were able to establish a lively rapport with the driver. Today, when the dynamic behaviour of all cars is correct, Alfa Romeo proposes the agility and promptness of a coupé in a car with all the comfort of a refined mid-sized car.
The result is the Alfa 156, a saloon that behaves superbly on the road, on which Alfa designers have grafted the great sporty temperament of models like the Alfa Spider and GTV, adding that extra personality which makes the difference and has distinguished all the great Alfas.
Which brings us back to driveability, the feature that enables the Alfa 156 to respond smoothly and naturally to any steering change or manoeuvre. The car never refuses, it is always prompt and responsive, guaranteeing maximum stability always so that the driver is always in control, regardless of his driving skill. This behaviour is the outcome of a combination of different technical and constructive features.
First of all, steering the Alfa 156 is very direct, so the driver always knows just what the car's front axle is doing, what grip is like, and what should be done to take the front wheels where he wants them to go. The steering is so direct that just a little more than two turns of the wheel take you from total right lock to total left lock (the best cars from the competition need three turns). The layout of the weights and centring of the bars on the Alfa 156 ensure maximum traction in all situations, in other words the possibility of transmitting all the engine power to the wheels, even with very powerful engines. The horsepower is there, but does not cause a problem for the driver: he puts his foot down and the car speeds up without hesitation and without unexpected reactions. And finally the car never reacts brusquely to vertical or transversal acceleration, but always smoothly and fast. A jerk on the steering wheel, or an unseen pothole taken at speed certainly product a reaction, but this is usually dampened and neutral.
A prompt, harmonious predictable response to all commands, from the accelerator to the brakes and steering, this is the main secret of the Alfa 156's driveability.
Other features on the car also contribute to this result, such as the close gear ratios (which mean the engine is always 'pulling'), short stroke brakes, and the easily activated clutch which requires very little effort. But also the driving position, with a wrapround seat, vertical steering wheel with two-way adjustment, a low H point like a coupé and all the information on the instrument panel directed towards the driver.


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