I’m sitting in an Alfa 147, about to fire her up. I cast my mind back to the Alfasud: a beautiful, mellifluous, affordable vehicle that introduced a generation of drivers to the joys of performance motoring. I remember summer evenings in an open Spider, a peerless pre-Miata combination of boulevardier and Lotus-like lane pilot; a car whose zingy note merged happily with the sound of estival insects. I also conjure-up a trip to France in a sonorous, serious, quick-steering Giulia, where I felt like a character in a Truffaut movie. So, will the 147 be another driver’s Alfa that rasps, bites and feels alive?
The 147 is one of those cars that look much better in person than in pictures. It has the heritage Milan chrome grill, squinty eyes, swoopy curves and some clever gimmicks (e.g. concealed rear door handles). The car appears sturdy and well-made in detail. Yet seen next to a Saturnopel Astra, the Alfa is ferociously feminine and feline. Only the Italian’s soft rear-end fails to impress. Still, is there a car in the small-hatchback class that looks better? The Euro-Civic is more space-age. The Citroen C4 rocks die Bauhaus. But the Alfa’s svelte figure has the edge in both aesthetics and athleticism.
The 147’s interior is also more sculpted and shapely than its competition. As in Bimmers of yore, the Italian’s instruments are oriented toward the driver. The dashboard design is more playful than a 3-Series, without the MINI’s overarching silliness. The 147 also offer some notable tactile delights: the grab handles are pleasantly rubbery (in a Teutonically tactile kinda way), the doors clothed in Alcantara and the steering wheel feels friggin’ fantastic.
The 147’s cabin is not without its demerits. The A-beams are hard, sad-looking and overly thick (low Cd is in, visibility is out). The silver plastic on the middle console is cheap, with a too-prominent cupholder for a car with sporty pretensions. Still, with seats that grip and support in equal measure, plenty of headroom in the front and more than merely adequate legroom for two in the rear, the 147 provides a pleasurable, Italianate place in which to savor la dolce vita.
At idle, the Alfa’s quiet. At low revs, 1.6-liter Twin Spark emits nice growly bass note and a pleasant singing high note. The 120-horse engine’s not as charismatic or aggressive as boxers of olde, yet it’s still a musical bit of mechanical artistry. Above 4000 rpm, it all goes a bit pear-shaped; the engine note becomes rough and slightly intrusive. That said…
Open road. Open throttle. Not to coin a phrase, WOHOO! Five thousand, six thousand, seven thousand– this engine can't get enough revs. It’s gone from singing to screaming and I've gone from smiling to grinning. Though the hungry 147 is slow in absolute turns– zero to sixty take a shade over ten seconds– and you have the rev the shit out of it to get there, it’s multo divertimento. Dammit.
The 147’s chassis ain't no killjoy either. The Alfa not only corners neutrally but provides great throttle-steer fun. Back off in a curve and your radius tightens. Or step on the gas to correct beginning lift-off oversteer. The suspension set-up is compliant and absorbs bumps pretty well; even potholes in town don't feel particularly crashy. The steering is communicative and exact, albeit very direct. Overall, you get that feeling of fluency through the twisties that’s the mark of a sophisticated driver’s car.
So, it's a good looking, involving drive; a highly interesting car amongst vapidity. In fact, the Alfa Romeo 147 could be a strong competitor to the Audi A3, at Ford Focus prices. The operative word being “could.”
Like many machines, the 147 tells the keen observer a story. Here, it's about a company that ran out of money and decided to focus on its brand values, rather than take on its rivals’ well-rounded maturity. In other words, this Alfa reeks of underdevelopment. The gearshift action is imprecise, and the middle arm rest is in the way. The key fob buttons are illegible and the climate controls inscrutable. The turning circle is gigantic. Tire noise is ever-present and the basic ride jiggly.
Worse, the Alfa has mediocre crash-test ratings, which it probably only met through last-minute structural reinforcements, which feel as if they’ve added weight. Underway, the 147 is a lively and willing beast, but it achieves that performance through short gear ratios. The engine screams at high speeds and parties (i.e. swallows fuel) like it’s 1999. I averaged 24 MPG, but 14 MPG is do-able.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m in love with this car. But I hate it too. Let's hope its successor (the 149, which will arrive later this year and might make it stateside), retains the 147's irresistible personality and banishes its bugbears.