They might be unfashionable now, but diesel cars have been on a huge adventure in recent years. The time when cars fuelled by the black pump were slow, noisy and smelly have long since passed – even the most affordable secondhand examples can give you a great deal of pleasure if you buy well. The era of the sporting secondhand diesel is well and truly upon us, and this point is underlined by the fact that you can buy a sporting diesel from Alfa Romeo and MG – two of the car industry’s sporting protagonists – for very little money indeed.
Alfa Romeo has been selling diesels in Europe since the early 1980s, 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.
In the era of £1.20/litre fuel, we reckon these sub-£1000 40mpg hotshots are here to stay for the foreseeable future. However, 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?
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, the 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 in 2005.
Like MG, Alfa Romeo is a name that conjures up images of beautiful saloons and coupes – 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 Italian Government.
The 1970s and ’80s will be remembered for a string of rusting under-achievers – average cars powered by great engines. However, 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 pundits 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 Alfa Romeo or MG might have seemed laughable but, with the arrival of the CDTi and JTD, everything changed overnight.
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’d 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. The MG ZT is fitted with sports suspension and low-profile 18-inch rubber, but 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. That said, it’s not perfect as 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
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 Alfa 156 JTD has a brilliant engine in an attractive body but is 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|
|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|
|Steering||Rack and pinion||Rack and pinion|
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.