Alfa 156

14 Jul, 2004 3:54pm Richard Aucock

It seems no model range is complete these days without a 'crossover' variant - a car that combines the traits of two different market sectors in order to broaden its appeal.


The Crosswagon is a promising showcase for future Alfas. The four-wheel-drive system is entertaining and utterly secure, eliminating torque steer and understeer in one sweep. Alfa's famous driving purity is back, but whether we'll be able to enjoy it in Britain is a question that hangs in the balance...
It seems no model range is complete these days without a 'crossover' variant - a car that combines the traits of two different market sectors in order to broaden its appeal.

This so-called 'soft-roader' concept isn't new. Audi and Volvo have been doing it for years, but it may be a shock to find sporting marque Alfa Romeo joining the fray with the 156 Crosswagon Q4. The model is only available with a torquey diesel engine, too - so it's clear it marks a dramatic change of direction for the Italian firm.

The transmission of the Q4 is all-new, and features the latest technology. Instead of using the 'occasional' Haldex system seen on cars such as Volvo's XC70, Alfa insisted that the Q4 used full-time four-wheel-drive.

With a series of clever differentials to split the power between front and rear axles, the Q4 is more driver-focused than its Swedish rival, and pushes most of its 150bhp to the rear wheels. It also promises to be more capable off-road too, thanks to the new 'VDC' Vehicle Dynamic Control feature.

The system is controlled by the engine's electronic brain, and allows individual braking on each wheel. As well as boosting security on the road, this means power isn't spun away when one of the 17-inch wheels is dangling in the air - a common oc-currence when off-roading. On our challenging test course the ABS-backed system worked overtime, yet no situation seemed to overwhelm it.

To match the off-road ability of the transmission, the Crosswagon also gets beefier body mouldings and a raised ride height for traversing pitted mountain roads. The suspension performed well on our route, keeping the Alfa's underbelly away from rocks and ruts.

Equipped with the jointly developed GM-Fiat 1.9-litre Multijet turbodiesel, the Crosswagon drives very well. On the road, the suspension is softer than a standard 156's; the ride is more yielding, while weightier steering is reassuring.

But the best news is in bends, for this Alfa is very stable. Naturally it rolls more than standard, but the levels of grip are amazing, and its balance is completely neutral. There's no torque steer exiting corners either, addressing a familiar Alfa flaw of the past 15 years. What's more, the rearwards transmission split gives the Crosswagon an agile balance that keen drivers will love. And all this on a platform that's starting to feel its age, too; the still-secret 157 Q4 is likely to be some machine.

Inside, the Crosswagon is plusher than the standard 156, with a leather-covered dash and polished metal trim. However, the driving position isn't the most comfortable, with the pedals offset from the steering wheel.

The Crosswagon's styling and all-road ability are appealing, but Alfa isn't convinced there would be enough UK sales to bring it to these shores. Lobby your dealer hard to change its mind!

Key specs

* New four-wheel-drive system biased toward rear wheels
* Vehicle Dynamic Control applies individual brakes to aid traction