BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Few thought that Alfa Romeo could follow on from the success of the mould-breaking 156 saloon. The 166 executive saloon was a nice try, but it never threatened the class establishment. With the 147 hatch, however, the company scored its biggest hit to date, scooping the European Car of The Year award in 2000 and signing up thousands of converts to the Alfa way of doing things. The Italian marque has been on an upward curve ever since. As a used purchase the 147 is no different to the 156 - it's no Toyota Corolla as far as reliability goes but it's certainly class competitive.
Models Covered: (3/5dr [1.6, 2.0, 3.2 petrol, 1.9JTD diesel - Twin Spark, Lusso, Turismo, Selespeed, GTA])
The fickle hand of fate must be attached to a brain that loves modern Alfas. The 156 only scooped the1998 Car of the Year title due to the last-minute elk-induced mishaps of Mercedes' more innovative little A-class and the 147 had a similar shoo-in when the pre-event favourite Ford Mondeos supplied to the judging panel were suspected of having non-standard suspension parts. Still, a win's a win whatever way you look at it, and nobody begrudged Alfa their second victory in two years. At the November 2000 launch of the 147, customers could either choose a 1.6-litre manual or a 2.0-litre Selespeed gearboxed model in three-door form with Turismo or Lusso trim. Great car as it was, this choice frustrated the keen driver who wanted the control of a manual gearbox with the added poke of the 150bhp 2.0-litre engine. They didn't have to wait too long. In June of the same year Alfa expanded the 147 range by offering not only the manual gearbox with the 2.0-litre car but also five-door models across the range. These five door cars borrowed the 156's trick of concealing the rear doors by hiding the door handles in the window frame surround and proved very popular with family-oriented buyers who didn't want to sacrifice style for a modicum of practicality. Early 2003 saw the introduction of two very different 147 variants, a 247bhp GTA ripsnorter and the 115bhp JTD diesel sipper which was closely followed by a punchier 140bhp JTD 16v version. An entry-level TS model was introduced in early 2004 powered by a 105bhp version of the 1.6-litre petrol engine. The facelifted cars emerged in early 2005. They're distinguishable by their pointier front headlamps, their reshaped bumpers and their larger rear light clusters. More salient was the JTD 16v engine's increase from 140bhp to 150bhp and some comfort-orientated tweaks to the suspension settings.
What You Get
Those who had been gravitating towards an Audi A3, Volkswagen Golf GTi, BMW Compact or Renaultsport Clio 172 should take time out to run the rule over a used 147. If you put a premium on value for money, the 147 appears to hold all of the aces. Bearing in mind the pricing, it delivers a knockout punch at the opening bell to all of the aforementioned rivals. If they expect the 147 to fall down in the area of quality, they're likely to be similarly snookered. Fact is that since the 156 was launched at the end of 1997, Alfa's understanding of how to screw together a decent quality car had come on leaps and bounds. Anybody exiting a Mercedes E-class and then entering the 166 executive saloon could attest to this. The 147 takes took foundation and reinforced it further. Sit inside the car and the memories of Italianate driving positions that we grew up with in Alfasuds and Giuliettas are banished forever. Seat, pedals, steering wheel, gearstick and mirrors all appear to be positioned around an anthropomorphic figure of a human being rather than a gibbon (as was the case with the 145). The rest of the interior has other such considerate touches too. Alfa hasn't forgotten its heritage and has built upon the inherent romantic appeal of Italian cars. Whereas the 156 brought back the classic cowled fascia dials, the 147 went a step further by squeezing in two additional dials, evocatively labelled 'benzina' and 'aqua'. The tachometer bears the legend 'giri' making you feel if not like Nuvolari, then at least distantly following in his wheeltracks. It's not all dewy-eyed nostalgia, however. Elsewhere in the relentlessly well-finished cabin are some determinedly high-tech touches. Six airbags come as standard, as does dual-zone climate controlled air conditioning. State-of-the-art multiplex wiring made possible the option of a full-screen voice activated satellite navigation system with an inbuilt Bose stereo and GSM telephone system.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The 147 feels well built and for those who do know how to wield a spanner, it isn't the nightmare to work on the Alfa's of yore were. The Selespeed model has an appetite for clutches if used predominantly as an urban scoot and you should also check wheels for kerbing. The interior trim is generally of good quality although the metallic paint on some of the plastic surfaces isn't too durable. Otherwise there have been few niggling problems with the 147.
(based on a manual 2.0 Lusso) A clutch assembly is around £138. Front and rear brakepads are around £50 per set of each, a rear exhaust box about £143 (excluding catalyst), a starter motor around £190. A replacement headlamp is about £145.
On the Road
Alfa has gone to great lengths to make huge steps forward over the 145/146 generation of hatches. That much is evident as soon as you drop into the driver's seat and thunk the door shut. It's a completely different prospect, with some resolutely high tech touches like its Vehicle Dynamic Control, a stability control system which aims to prevent the 147 spinning. It's on a par with the PSM program used by Porsche in the way that it credits the driver with some leeway before gently stepping in to restore equilibrium if progress is overenthusiastic. Whilst it always seems such a great idea in principle, driving a Selespeed-equipped clutchless 156 often leaves one wondering whether the handbrake is sticking. Not so in the 147. The system has been optimised for smoother full-throttle gear changes and a cleverer full-automatic mode, though it still helps to lift off the gas whilst changing up through the box. The way the engine blips the throttle for you on downchanges is one of the enduring pleasures of using Selespeed, and you'll be enjoying it even more in the 147. Unlike the 156, which has relied on some rather unappealing buttons mounted on the face of the steering wheel, the 147 opts for proper paddles located behind the wheel, much as you'll find in a Ferrari 360 Modena. These move when you spin the wheel, making it far easier to snick up and down the box, and the car's telepathically quick steering means you'll rarely have to lift your hands from that optimum quarter-to-three position. Unfortunately it also means a turning circle visible from space. The manual car is still the most popular option for keen drivers and the rest of the 147's chassis is well up to par with the slick gearbox. The Ford Focus and the Peugeot 307 are probably as good as the 147 over a twisty road course, but neither gives you that buzz when your garage door whirrs up. That sort of emotional twang is what kept people buying Alfa Romeos when they were, frankly, pretty poor. Now that they're as good as the 147 you may find yourself rapidly running out of excuses. The GTA version is an astonishing drive. Capable of sprinting to 60mph in 6.3 seconds and then on to a top speed of 153mph, the GTA is certainly quick. The bald figures give little indication as to the nature of its performance, however. Here is one of the world's great engines, one of the few powerplants that are as good to listen to and look at as they are to prod into life with a long stab at the throttle pedal. The diesel JTD115 may not be quite so tuneful, but when it will return nearly 48mpg and yet still reserve the capability to hit 60mph in 9.7 seconds, nobody's complaining.
It looks great, it drives beautifully, it's reasonably practical and used bargains are starting to appear. What more incentive do you need?