Since its launch in 1998 the hot-blooded 2.5-litre V6 156 has always put performance before economy and, while the previous company car tax system would not have penalised drivers of this car, the emissions-based rules do.
It should not surprise anyone that a higher performance version would immediately fall into the 35% bracket for benefit- in-kind tax. CO2 emissions were never going to be the car's strongest point.
Having established this ground rule, it is easier to take a look at the new Alfa Romeo 156 GTA. It heralds the emergence of high-performance variants across the Alfa range and harks back to the company's golden era of saloon car racing in the 1960s when GTA versions of the Giulia dominated the European Touring Car Championships and stole the thunder of the Lotus Cortinas.
The 156 is Alfa's strongest fleet seller, and although the GTA dabbles at the fringes of the fleet sector and will be low volume, the company hopes it will have a halo effect on the rest of the range.
Giving the 156 the GTA treatment involves adding a 3.2-litre V6 engine, new suspension and a more powerful braking system, more direct steering, new gearbox and new 17-inch alloy wheels.
Although GTA stands for Gran Turismo Alleggerita (alleggerita meaning lightened), the new GTAs are slightly heavier than the standard 156 V6, mainly due to the heavier engine.
Engineers have made sure modifications to the suspension along with advanced electronic systems ensure the car's 250bhp reaches the road smoothly and accessibly. The GTA also benefits from interior revisions across the 156 range including a redesigned centre console, window airbags, ISOFIX child seat mountings, a dual-zone climate control system and new Bose audio system (standard on new JTD, JTS, V6 and GTA).
The range will also have the option of the Connect information and telematics system. In June the 156 will also become available with a direct injection 165bhp 2.0 JTS, replacing the 150bhp 2.0-litre Twin Spark, along with an uprated 2.4 JTD common rail diesel with a 10bhp power hike to 150bhp.
The 2.0 JTS will eventually replace the 2.0 Twin Spark across the Alfa range with the 147 likely to be the next candidate for the direct injection petrol engine, possibly before the end of the year. The 156 GTA will be sold through a limited number of Alfa dealers in the UK and the company expects to sell about 400 for the remainder of 2002, with a 75/25 split in favour of the saloon over the Sportwagon.
Alfa says the 156 GTA will be priced at around the same level as the Audi A4 3.0 quattro Sport and BMW 330i Sport although it is more in the mould of the 330 Ci Clubsport. The company is banking on its overtly sporting character, as well as a handsome performance advantage, to win over hearts if not minds of drivers from rival marques.
Later this year a more powerful rear-wheel drive MG ZT will arrive, developing about 260bhp, so the competition for this niche in the sports saloon sector is about to become more intense.
Behind the wheel
THE Alfa 156 is still one of the most stunning shapes on the roads, although the GTA version sacrifices some of the exquisite detailing for a more aggressive stance thanks to lower suspension, wider tyres and a deeper front spoiler and side skirts.
However, the car certainly looks the part, especially with the optional (£250) multi-spoke alloy wheels.
The interior, although benefiting from a redesign, is still full of character, and like the 147, the 156 now has 'benzina' printed on the fuel gauge, 'acqua' on the water temperature gauge and 'giri x 1,000' in the rev-counter.
Little touches like these make the 156 more endearing to the driver and provide a sort of reward for the 35% benefit-in-kind tax band.
Like the rest of the 156 range, the cowled dials are only visible to the driver. Sat behind the wheel your speed is almost like a little secret between you and the car. Something your nearest and dearest, even when sat alongside you, will never find out. Before long you will probably feel like you are having a clandestine affair and have to buy your partner little gifts as you become consumed by guilt.
The car is made more seductive by the intoxicating nature of the new 3.2-litre V6. Its voice is a little deeper than the 3.0-litre unit, from which it is derived, already found in the 166 and GTV, but with the timbre of the finest Italian tenor it is the most glorious sound to be found in a car under £30,000.
The engine seems to endow the GTA with two different characters - it is quite happy to purr along at 20mph without the throttle acting like an on/off switch. In fact, the gearbox has a close set of ratios with the GTA travelling at 23.6mph at 1,000rpm in sixth, making it supremely flexible.
However, this is not to say the throttle is unresponsive. Squeeze a little harder and the GTA will burst forward with surprising speed. As the needle rises the GTA seems to gain its second wind around 4,000rpm, with maximum torque arriving 800rpm later.
The ride is firm, but not harsh - a little like the MG ZT but even more compliant and less brutish. And the Alfa handles superbly, with understeer kept to a minimum, and the traction control keeping wheelspin in check. The car is remarkably neutral and well balanced when cornering, while body roll is imperceptible.
Brakes are superb with excellent feel through the pedal and serious stopping power when needed, while the steering has a race-car like 1.75 turns between the locks, making it super-quick and making direction changes the work of minor wrist movements.
Although the driving position is excellent, in one of the cars I tried I needed to find the backrest adjustment - and couldn't.
As a driver, assuming you are a higher-rate taxpayer, you would either have to opt out of the company car for a cash allowance or grin and bear the £3,700 a year benefit-in-kind tax bill. However, from an enthusiast's point of view the GTA is one of the most seductive and rewarding sports saloons money can buy. If it's a driver's own money, the GTA driving experience will not disappoint. We hope the higher standards expected from Alfa GTA dealers ensure the owning experience will be just as good.