Tested : Alfa Romeo 156 vs MG ZT

Sporting pretenders?


YOU’RE enjoying a B-Road thrash behind the wheel of your favourite MG – the steering is sharp, the roadholding accurate, and driver involvement, high. Britain’s back roads are twisty and demanding – the perfect playground for a well set-up sporting saloon, and not the kind of place you’d expect a diesel-powered car to excel in.

The truth is, diesels have come a massive way in recent years, and the time when cars fuelled by the black pump are slow, noisy and smelly have long since passed – and if you’re still of this opinion, prepare to have your eyes opened. It has been a while coming, but the era of the sporting diesel is upon us, and this fact is underlined by the fact that Alfa Romeo and MG – two of the car industry’s sporting protagonists happily sold diesels for years.

Alfa Romeo has been selling diesels in Europe since the early ’80s, but it wasn’t until the emergence of the pretty 156 that the UK was considered an attractive enough market. MG was even later to the party, and the oil burners to wear an octagon badge hit the scene in 2001, when the wraps came off the MG ZR, ZS and ZT.

Traditionalists might blanch at the prospect of oil powered sporting saloons, but in the era of £1.20/litre fuel, we reckon these 40mpg hotshots are here to stay for the foreseeable future. But just because these cars can deliver at the fuel pumps is no excuse to accept second best on the road – so are the Alfa 156 JTD and MG ZT CDTi good enough for skeptics to finally stop using the qualifier, ‘for a diesel…’ after any sentence that involves performance or driving appeal?

The cars

WHEN the Rover 75 was first unveiled at the Birmingham Motor Show in 1998, few would have predicted the rocky road it was about to travel. Developed by Rover at Gaydon, its conception was eased along nicely by the company’s former owner, BMW’s, insistence on signing large cheques.

It looked stunning and was received well by the press, and for a while it looked like the 75 had the world at its feet. However, we know the outcome, and in 2000 following BMW’s sale of Rover and Longbridge to the Phoenix Consortium, many of those engineers who worked on the original were tasked with turning the ‘Auntie’ Rover 75 into a sleek and sporting MG – for little money and in the shortest possible time.

The front wheel drive car may have majored on ride comfort and refinement, but the stiff bodyshell, intelligent suspension design and strong mix of engines meant that when it came to developing a sporting version, engineers started with a major advantage. Badge engineering is a term used far too often in the motor industry – and in 2000, when the MG ‘Zed’ cars were initially shown to the public, many people cried ‘not again’. Despite clever styling tweaks, which undid much of Rover’s twee retro styling, they looked like the same cars underneath the bright paint and big alloy wheels.

These preconceptions were blown out of the water once the cars were available for people to drive – not only did the ZT look fantastic, but it also drove superbly. Although the ZT 190 attracted the most attention, it was the diesel ZT CDTi that enticed the majority of buyers. Powered by the state-of-the-art 1951cc BMW M47 common-rail turbo diesel engine – uprated to 131bhp, thanks to the XPower ECU re-map – and married to a sweet-shifting Getrag gearbox, the CDTi went on to become the quiet achiever of the ZT range, selling strongly until the car went out of production last April.

Like MG, Alfa Romeo is a name that conjures up images of beautiful saloons and Coupes. And in the classic car scene, there aren’t many marques to match its rich heritage. However, following the launch of the Alfasud in 1971 – and weakening export sales – the company plunged into deep financial crisis, and ended up being bailed out by the government.

The 1970s and ’80s will be remembered for a string of rusting under-achievers – average cars powered by great engines. But the beautiful Pininfarina-styled 164 of 1987 proved the company could build cracking cars – and from that point on, each successive new car launch upped Alfa’s game just that little bit more.

The point when Alfa Romeo hit the big time – again – was marked with the arrival of the 156 in 1997. Styled with breathtaking attention to detail, and featuring an impressive front wheel drive chassis, it went on to be crowned the 1998 European Car of the Year award – and the plaudits soon came to the conclusion that here was an Alfa you could buy without needing to make excuses.

Two years later, the award winning 136bhp common-rail in-line five-cylinder JTD engine was added to the range – and with it, Alfa’s establishment shake-up was just about complete. A few years earlier, the idea of a diesel powered MG or Alfa Romeo might have seemed laughable, but with the arrival of the CDTi and JTD, everything changed overnight.


IT might seem odd that we start with performance when the main strength of these cars is fuel consumption, but this test is all about living with these cars day to day, and whether they deliver a driving experience true to the sporting heritage of their manufacturers. In the case of the Alfa Romeo 156 2.4 JTD, the answer is a definite yes. As with all diesels, you need to move away from the idea that revs-equals-acceleration, and learn to change gear early – and let it torque the talk.

With 136bhp on tap, you’re not going to slingshot away from the lights, but with a 0-60mph time of 9.9 seconds, and very impressive fourth gear flexibility, real world performance is more than adequate – and not just ‘for a diesel…’ Take the Alfa down a typical British B-Road, you can leave it in fourth gear and still achieve devastating cross-country times without breaking into a sweat – so don’t be fooled into thinking this car is built only for motorways.

Being Italian, it’s more about how the results are achieved – and it’s here the Alfa really scores. In short it sounds wonderful – yes, it clatters at idle, but once moving, it sings lustily, with a lovely warbling engine note typical of in-line fives. However, don’t imagine for a moment that the Alfa’s brio leaves the MG ZT trailing in its wake.

Thanks to the smoothness of the BMW engine in the ZT, rapid progress can be made effortlessly – and although its soundtrack is softer and more cultured than the Italian, don’t confuse civility with sluggishness. The 131bhp power unit in the ZT performs just as well as the Alfa, and although there’s a lot of weight to haul, it goes well, and never feels underpowered.

Accelerating hard from rest, 60mph comes up in 10 seconds, but it’s the mid-range flexibility of this car that will have you moving along rather quicker than you’d rightfully expect to. Just like the Alfa, you’ll happily leave the ZT in fourth gear for a give-and-take B-Road, and as long as there’s more than 2000rpm dialled in, it punches effectively exiting corners.

Being more refined than the Alfa, the onset of speed is more effectively achieved in the ZT, and that means you’ll be watching the speedo more often than you would in the petrol equivalent. It also means that if you were to jump back into the equivalent 1.8-litre ZT120, you’ll be left frustrated by its lack of pulling power.

Handling and ride

IF the test came down to performance alone, the result would come down to the wire – with the Alfa just nosing ahead. However, straight-line grunt is one thing – enjoying your car in the bends is another matter entirely. Unsurprisingly, the MG ZT cleans up here. Although the MG ZT is fitted with sports suspension and low-profile 18-inch rubber, its chassis continues to astound. Although the Rover 75’s legendary ride quality is lost in translation to MG spec, it is effective enough on smooth roads, especially considering its sporting aspirations.

On the motorway, the ZT always feels planted, and its firm ride is a positive boon. Around town or on less well-surfaced B-Roads, the bony ride can be irksome, with poor insulation from sharp irregularities being the main criticism, even though they are never judderingly bad thanks to the strong body and tight build quality.

Unfortunately, there’s a trace of understeer when you really push the MG, but this is exacerbated by the lack of feel through the steering – which although well weighted, does not inspire confidence in extreme situations. Thankfully, the understeer is slight, and if you deliberately provoke the ZT, it will poke its tail out, but it’s all easy to control.

In other words, it’s a masterful effort.

As for the Alfa, it’s a good effort, but ultimately outclassed. The prime criticism would be a lack of body control (in relation to the ZT), and copious amounts of plough-on understeer. The JTD engine might be soulful and grunty, but it’s also heavy, and that upsets the handling balance. Despite having 16-inch wheels and higher profile tyres, the Alfa’s ride can’t beat the MG. The less solid structure of the Alfa, and the firm damping leave the car struggling with potholes and fidgeting over imperfections.

The steering is excellent though – 2.1 turns from lock to lock means there’s excellent response and more feel than the ZT. It’s not perfect though, and the poor turning circle is irritating.

The inside story

THE Alfa’s interior will leave you feeling special. From the embossed seats, and podded dials, to the way the instrument panel wraps round favouring the driver, there’s a real feeling that enthusiasts designed the Alfa.

It’s a stylish cabin and the red dials look fantastic, creating a superb atmosphere, even if they’re not as legible as they could be thanks to the low-set steering wheel. There’s more than enough equipment to leave you feeling you’ve had your money’s worth, and the simple, yet effective three-knob interface for the climate control is particularly impressive.

The seating position is fine, and although it’s been criticised for being Italianate, there’s more than adjustment to disguise this. The seats themselves are firm and supportive, and the wheel, pedals and gear knob are nicely positioned. Head and legroom up front are more than adequate, although the dramatic roofline will leave lanky passengers feeling cramped in the back.

Again, the Alfa is shaded, though. Although it has more visual appeal than the ZT, it’s left behind in terms of quality and usability.

The ZT scores heavily here because the dials and switchgear both look and feel good (Germanic, in fact), and they operate with a well engineered feel. The Alcantara seat facings are simply superb – and far nicer than leather – and we wonder why the material isn’t used more widely. The dual-zone climate control is a joy to use, and the dashboard colour-keying leaves the driver in no doubt that this is a no-nonsense car.

Shorter drivers may feel intimidated by the high dashboard and huge steering wheel, but the rest of us will find it very easy to obtain the perfect driving position in a ZT. It isn’t perfect though – and for a car so large and heavy, it’s laughably cramped in the rear.

It’s also hard to see out of – and although the limited rearward visibility can be forgiven, the enormous A-posts can’t, as it affects vehicle safety.

Living with them

THE objective of this test is to see whether Alfa Romeo and MG have managed to produce effective sporting diesels – and the answer would seem to be ‘yes’. They cover ground rapidly, handle well and feel special inside. However, the major issue is fuel consumption, and the news is good for both cars. Our year-2000 Alfa Romeo and 2003 MG ZT will both comfortably beat 40mpg when driven with verve, and although that might not sound impressive compared with the 32mpg of their petrol fuelled counterparts, the difference certainly adds up for higher mileage drivers.

There’s also the pleasant prospect of nearly 500 miles between refuels in both cars – a positive point given the fact you’ll be using the smelly pump.

We also think that the styling of the 156 and ZT set them apart from all of their contemporaries, as real effort has been expended in both. The Alfa’s curved flanks, fantastic frontal aspect and concealed are obviously the efforts of one impassioned individual – Walter Da Silva. However, the MG ZT scores equally well on style – it’s a Richard Woolley masterclass of restrained taste and clever detailing. Both, therefore, are already timeless classical pieces of design.

Other than that, both cars serve to remind you how much equipment we take for granted in modern cars – both come with electric windows, climate control, and decent sound systems and are easy to live with as a result. Because of their bodykits and alloy wheels, they will also look good on your driveway, and will mark you out as an ‘enthusiast driver’ as opposed to a mere ‘car user’.


THE bottom line is both these cars can wear their nameplates with pride – they are true to their heritage, and are fuelled not only by diesel, but passion, too. However, there’s only one winner here.

The Alfa 156 JTD is a brilliant engine in an attractive body held back by an average chassis and less than perfect build quality. It’s still up there among the best cars of its type you can buy for the money, and for many Alfa Romeo fans, that will be good news indeed, as they will be spending less time than ever justifying their addiction.

There’s no doubt it goes well, and its styling remains breathtaking after all these years, but faced with the onslaught of the MG ZT, it wilts.

We’re going to be controversial here, but the MG ZT CDTi is among the best cars ever to wear an octagon badge on its snout. It’s so complete, so accomplished and so easy to live with that we’d struggle to find a more effective all-rounder for the money. Yes, it has its faults, but overall, its keen handling, no-penalty diesel engine, and strong performance will leave any potential buyer struggling to justify the more expensive V6-engined MG ZT 190.

The Alfa Romeo hits the target with laser-guided accuracy for those who buy cars with their heart – but the MG wins because it’s the only head and heart choice…

It’s a great car. Period.


How they compare
Alfa Romeo 156JTD MG ZT CDTi
Top speed 126mph 121mph
0-60mph (secs) 9.9 10.0
Economy 36-45mpg 38-47mpg
Engine 2387cc, ohc, 5-cylinder 1951cc, DOHC, 4-cylinder
Power 136bhp, 4200rpm 131bhp, 4000rpm
Torque 224lb/ft, 2000rpm 221lb/ft, 1900rpm
Gearbox 5-speed manual 5-speed manual
Brakes Disc/disc Disc/disc
Steering Rack and pinion Rack and pinion
Weight 1400kg 1535kg

Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and watched it steadily grow into AROnline. Is the Editor of Classic Car Weekly, and has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, Classic Car Weekly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

22 Comments on "Tested : Alfa Romeo 156 vs MG ZT"

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  1. Triple AAA says:

    MG represent! The MG Z-Series were the best MGs – great undercover, somber but with a killer punch. Take that Alfa!

  2. Stewart says:

    Sorry, but diesels are still slow and noisy compared with petrol engines. Compare like with like, do these have turbochargers? Yes, when compared with a petrol engine of similar size, which is also turbocharged, the tractor engine is still SLLLOOOOOOWWWWW!

  3. Keith Adams Keith Adams says:

    Economics – that’s why we do it.

  4. Stewart says:

    I know that was, and still is, the only reason to have a diesel, but they are still not fast and quiet though!. I don’t know why we don’t have petrol engines which have the economy of a diesel? They achieved this in the 1970s but abandoned the technology because that required what was, at that time, an unprofitable level of processing power to make it work.

  5. Hilton Davis says:

    I’ve never fancied buying a diesel up to now due to the well-documented stories of noise and lesser performance. However, these days, I keep hearing of the diesel virtues (in turbo form) and my brother now owns a Jaguar XF Diesel so I may be tempted to change to an oil burner – eventually.

  6. Will says:

    Technology is catching up in some ways – the VW Group is, for example, offering Skoda Octavia 1.4 Turbos and the Hybrid drivetrains are offering close-to-diesel economy whilst drinking the good stuff!

    Actually, for some models, petrols may be worth considering as they now often have lower servicing and repair costs than the comparable diesel, which offsets the cost of fuelling it!

  7. John says:

    Well, I went from an MG ZT 260SE to a Vectra SRi 1.9 CDTi 150 and, I have to say, I’m not too disappointed. Yes, it’s 90bhp down on the MG and the interior is rubbish but, once you get used to driving a diesel, they are not all bad. Oh, and I’ve gone from 10mpg to 40mpg!

  8. Jo Karley says:

    Well, I just love my sporty MG – it’s great fun with a wonderfully loud exhaust, which sets alarms off as I’m whizzing past, and beats loads of cars off the mark.

    She’s getting a bit into her golden years and, although my wonderful trusty oily rag – whoops mechanic – has recommended that I get a new car, I’m loathed to get rid of her as she purrs along the road as a trusty friend to Rover.

    Sorry, Alfa you are not for me… Well, not yet anyway!

  9. chris says:

    own a 156 and a zt .alfa great looking car.but zt blows it in to the weeds in every other respect it just does.and its still a handsome car in its own right.

  10. Alex says:

    LOL couldnt stop laughing at the guy who sold a MG ZT 260 (4,6 mustang engined v8 zt) for a 1.9 diesel vectra lol .

    Any way the BMW powerd diesel engine isnt slow and pulls better than any small petrol power car ,and it has the room and comfort to go . The MG ZT was also the test bed for the jaguar x type (yes realy ) it was also designed by the guy who designed the mclaren F1. It was also good to see that Bentley also copied the front styling for the continental .

    In short the mk1 ZT is the one to go for as the build quality isnt the same in the mk2

  11. francis brett francis brett says:

    The MG looks far more substantial and majestic compared to the alfa,i find the bmw engined car quite lacking in power and torque,as if bmw de-rated it for rover somehow.The jet thrust diesel five cylinder alfa is somewhat smoother and throbby a bit like an old audi 5D engine,but as the figures show you would be splitting hairs in terms of performance.
    Setting that aside,alfas like renaults of the same era are shagged out after a few years and miles in terms of trim and other components notably engine drive pullies,clutches and front and rear suspension componentry.

  12. francis brett francis brett says:

    @10 you mean the mondeo based x-type?why?

  13. Will M says:

    Like the MG, you can’t buy a big Alfa saloon these days.
    (Though hopefully both marques will rectify the situation in the coming years!)

  14. Will M says:

    “Traditionalists might blanch at the prospect of oil powered sporting saloons, but in the era of £1.20/litre fuel, we reckon these 40mpg hotshots are here to stay for the foreseeable future.”

    Only £1.20? I remember those halcyon days.

  15. Simon says:

    @Francis Brett – Oh really? My ’05 156 JTDM is still good as new, nothing rattles, or has fallen off, it still pulls like a train, and gives 56 average MPG. The internal trim is as good as it was when it left the factory. Mileage – approaching 80k – I currently drive 24k per year for business. My earlier 145 was still going strong on its original engine, clutch, steering & suspension components, with no major failures, and no trim fallen off after 114k hard driving. The 156 & 166s the Alfa garage loan me when my car is in for servicing are all on 130k plus, and are still fully functioning, and all go like stink, with all trim and electrics intact and working. No HGF, and provided the drive-belts and water-pumps are attended to at the required service intervals, cambelt failures can be avoided.
    I agree though that upper wishbones are a weak spot……

  16. francis brett francis brett says:

    @15 arnt you lucky,ive had the misfortune of working on these vehicles and quite a lot of them too,from cam variators coming loose,same failing on V6 to almost impossible to get to starter motor bolts again on the V6,thats why alfa technicians are on a £1 more hourly rate than thier fiat counterparts,im one of alfa engines biggest fans especially the V6 petrols,the 156 was aons away from alfas of old but ive had this experience from the workshop floor,they are no means the worst but they will never ever top a JD power survey for reliability,im very pleased that your experience differs from mine and customers i have had,especially the one with a 147 twin spark which snapped its cambelt unannounced at 23k (18 months old)some years ago all because of a defective afforementioned cam variator working loose and the dealer told him to piss off its not covered under warranty-thats the attitude what put him in a focus!

  17. BobM BobM says:

    £1.20/litre. I wish – £138.9 for unleaded onight, the cars running on fumes but I didn’t bother filling ‘er up as the queues at every filling station are huuuuuge!

  18. Simon Hodgetts says:

    @16 Francis. I wouldn’t touch an Alfa main dealer with a mucky stick. I have always used the independents, from day one – knowledgeable, enthusiastic, friendly. Every car has it’s foibles – I’ve read tales of Fords blowing turbos, VWs doing the same, and the tales of woe I’ve encountered myself with SAAB, TBH, I’m bored of recounting myself. My 145 had the dreaded cam variator fault – I was told by Veloces to leave it alone – even if I had it replaced it would still rattle. As for cambelts, you name me one manufacturer who hasn’t had premature failures………..

  19. francis brett francis brett says:

    @18 so we agree all cars are crap!and we used to knock allegro’s! and applaud you for using independants because i strongly believe they are the best and have a “we care and it shows” attitude.Without being anal,the only cambelt i have not seen snapped is the VW PD engine- thats discounting oil contam etc,its very wide and ive seen some with 200k and was shocked,but i would not recommend it!

  20. Pete Thompson says:

    Well, Ive had both. I currently have the MG-ZT.
    whilst the Alfa is’fun’ and light in the corners, I think they’d be a fair match with the MG wanting to burn out of the corner like a big beemer, and the alfa like a poor mans prancing horse. Both have great traction, the MG is clearly bigger and heavier, but the speedo doesnt lie, they’re not far behind each other and the MG enjoys a remap, whereas the alfa chews clutches and driveshafts. The MG is clearly more refined and feels like its 10 years younger than the aging, facelifted ’80’s french’ feeling Alfa, the MG feels like an english car that germans made.. and it kind of is. Its bigger, more planted on the motorway (miles get eaten up) and you dont need to change the cam belt every 48k. Dont forget the alfas been designed in the 80’s, chrune dout int he 90’s, facelifted int he naughties, but its an old car udnerneath.
    The alfa, whilst looked fantastic every day of the week (and by the roadside) was a pain to own, everything snapped, broke, came loose, cost a fortune (that’ll be £500 sir…again, see you next month), so far the MG has just given me a few vibrational woes and has a cam chain that needs no replacement. It just feels like a different world.

    Overall, the MG is an upgrade, a clear step ahead and a modern car with cutting edge diesel. The Alfa, you’d be risky to bother picking one up – i got one withlow miles and it was hell for the 3 years until it left (left with lots of unfixed bodges i might add and i cleared the finance early to get me out of the pain!)

    If choosing, get the MG and spend the money on polish opposed to parts and labour every month!

  21. john c says:

    Both great cars as we have a rover 75 in the family and I have an alfa. A bit suprised though comparing a 2000 model alfa with a 2003 mg. The 2003 alfa 156 has a much nicer revised interior as well as the 150 bhp 2.4 engine as standard taking about 1 second off the 0 to 60. Also what suspension spec is the alfa as the Lusso is for comfort and the veloce for handling? Just some food for thought but I would be happy with either 🙂

  22. didierz65 Didier Ziane says:

    Funny, I have a 147JTD-8V (ok not a 156 but basics are the same) and since yesterday a 75 Conny CDTI 129bhp. The power delivery is a bit different, 75 seems slower off the mark, maybe the weight exacerbates this feeling, add a very harsh ride and a noisier/agricultural sounding JTD, the Alfa seems more alive on the road. The 75 is as capable and as fast as the 147 but does it with a level of refinement that my Jag X-type V6 would only dream off… Only my S-Types were on a par with that carpet ride quality, quite an achievement. Oh, Preston-Glasgow yesterday resulted in 53 mpg despite some peaks near 100 mph..same as the 147, I get 60 mpg with the 147 day in, day out commuting from one end of Glasqow to the other at peak times(it’s 18 miles and avg speed is never better than 35 mph) but the wee Sporty cars like the kind call her will have to go…There’s no denying the way the 75 makes you feel special.

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