Badge romanceAlfa Romeo's 147, a past Car of the Year (it won by just one point from the Mondeo), is one of the most attractive small family hatchbacks on the market. The romance of its Alfa Romeo badge enhances its appeal, and for the 2005 model year it gains a gentle, Giugiaro-guided facelift to bring it in line with Alfa's latest look. Most obvious are the broader front grille and the wider, pointier head- and tail-lights, while inside new colour schemes and fluted door panels give a visual lift. There are changes below the skin, too, in the form of a simplified Easy Speed version of the Selespeed sequential transmission - it loses the steering-wheel paddles - and a new 'Comfort' suspension option which proves rather more promising for the keen driver than it sounds.
A more glamorous alternative to a Ford Focus, and an Italian answer to the Audi A3, BMW Compact and Mercedes Sport Coupe, it is available in three- and five-door form with engines including a 105bhp 1.6 Twin Spark and a 2.0-litre version of the same engine developing 150bhp. Two turbodiesels are also offered - diesels account for 30 percent of total 147 sales across Europe - and there's also the highly sporty, 250bhp, 3.2-litre V6 GTA, which we review separately and which hasn't undergone the facelift. The JTD diesels, both of four cylinders and 1.9 litres, come in 115bhp and 150bhp forms, the latter replacing the former 140bhp unit. The Selespeed and Easy Speed transmissions come only with the 2.0 Twin Spark. You might wonder why the 2.0 isn't the direct-injection, 165bhp JTS unit used since 2002 in the larger Alfa 156 (whose platform, in shortened form, the 147 shares); the official answer is that 'the Twin Spark is good enough'.
UK sales start in March 2005, with - says Alfa Romeo - no price rises. RELIABILITY AND QUALITY RATING:**
Although the 147 is put together with high-quality materials and appears well made, its reliability record is unimpressive. Selespeed models seem particularly prone, but all models can suffer electrical problems and occasional mechanical trouble. Buying a 147 is a bit of a lottery - you'll probably get a good one, but you might get a very bad one. And back-up from the dealer network leaves much to be desired, although Alfa Romeo says it's taking steps to remedy this. IMAGE RATING:****
The 147 has always stood out as a car to make a statement, and in this revised guise with added svelteness it still looks alluring. You just know you'll have a good time in this car, and other road users appreciate that. The idea is that these cars are bought by those with a zest for life and a knowledge of what makes a satisfying car, and on the whole the reality matches the image. The cabin is very driver-centred with its recessed dials, and the new nose retains the retro, old-Alfa references while bringing it more in line with the new Alfa look as first portrayed by the Brera concept car. Lingering fears over dependability tarnish the image a little, though. DRIVING RATING:****
The driving position allows you to get comfortable; unlike most previous Alfas, the ergonomics and positioning of the major controls are excellent, but the main drawback is the poor rear-view vision through the small aft windscreen. New retractable rear headrests help here, though. The instruments' red graphics are hard to focus on at night if you're long-sighted.
The Selespeed semi-auto takes some time to get used to, though it's rewarding once you learn when to ease the throttle for a smooth shift, and it also has a sometimes-jerky fully automatic mode for more relaxed driving. You can shift manually either with the centre push-pull lever or with paddles on the steering wheel; the new Easy Speed is the same system but without the paddles, designed mainly with auto-mad Japan in mind.
Being derived from the 156 saloon, the 147 is on the heavy side, but it has a more sophisticated suspension set-up than most in its class and all the 156's finesse and verve. It doesn't quite feel like a real sports car, but it slices through bends with a zeal accentuated by the quick-acting steering, cornering even more tightly if you back off the accelerator. The new Ford Focus offers a slightly more satisfying steer for the keen driver, however, although the Alfa has the edge over Audi's A3. The standard suspension, fitted to all 147s to date apart from the GTA, remains fidgety over bumps, but the new Comfort system, with softer springs and recalibrated dampers but no change in ride height, smoothes the ride effectively without spoiling the sharp, eager steering responses. It's standard on the fastest, torquiest (GTA apart) 147, the 150bhp JTD, and optional on the others. It should be standard on all of them, because it transforms the car. PERFORMANCE RATING: ****
The enthusiastic noises issuing from the petrol engines are very pleasing, and the paddle-shift of the Selespeed can be a fun thing to use even if many will prefer the sweet-shifting manual - not least to avoid the first-to-second surge which still troubles the Selespeed even though it's better than it was. The JTD 150 diesel offers fun of a different flavour, with powerful yet effortless overtaking ability, not much turbocharger lag before the wave of pulling power rushes in, and an extra gear. Alfa Romeo claims it makes a sporty Alfa-type sound, too, but that is stretching the point even if the note is quite crisp for a turbodiesel. The JTD 115 stretches the point still further, but at least its manners are sophisticated enough to preserve the 147's aura of quality.
The 1.6 petrol 147 is willing, but has to be worked quite hard. You tend to rev the 2.0 quite vigorously, too, but that's more because it's such a smooth, free-revving unit than through any serious deficiency in low-speed pull. It becomes considerably livelier once past 3000rpm, though, the opposite of the JTD 150 with its ample low-speed urge and long-legged gearing. Its thrust suits the Alfa Romeo badge well - it reaches 62mph in just 8.8 seconds, which is faster even than the 2.0 Twin Spark. The 115bhp JTD feels less sporty than the other cars in this zestful range, but is a fair compromise between performance and economy. SAFETY AND SECURITY RATING: ***
The 147 may have been the first car in this class to have six airbags as standard, including 'curtain' airbags from the roof for head protection, but that hasn't stopped it scoring a disappointing three stars in EuroNCAP crash tests. Three rear headrests are optional (and now retractable), while ABS and traction control are standard. The 2.0-litre versions and the JTD 150 have anti-skid dynamic stability control as well. The lack of deadlocks heightens the 147's exposure to a break-in. RUNNING COSTS RATING: ***
The 147 holds its value better than small Alfas of old, but frankly, that isn't saying much. Against modern competition the 147 is a little disappointing in this respect, especially considering it is an upmarket model - such animals tend to hold their value better. Instead, it's on a par with the Ford Focus - which makes it average - and well adrift of the Audi A3 and BMW Compact. Servicing costs are significantly higher than for a Focus and slightly higher than for its German rivals, with which its insurance premiums are on a par. Fuel consumption isn't bad, considering the performance, and the JTD 150 averages 47.9mpg on the official 'combined' test cycle, while the JTD 115 turns in 48.7mpg. The 147's CO2 emissions are no better than average. The 147 makes an interesting used buy, though that may not be the word you use if it keeps giving trouble. And that's the problem with buying a second-hand 147 - it may be reliable and niggle-free, but equally it may not. Best try to buy with the balance of the maker's three-year warranty or a watertight dealer warranty. Reliability apart, the 147 makes an attractive, practical and endearing used buy. It 147 looks great, drives well and has enough power for all but the most dedicated speed freaks.
It is also very well-equipped, especially with safety kit, and is competitively priced. All models come with six airbags, ABS anti-lock brakes, a leather-covered wheel, a trip computer, air conditioning, alloy wheels, as well as electric windows and mirrors. The Lusso trim adds bigger alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, a CD player and wheel-mounted stereo controls to the list. Options include leather upholstery and sports seats, and an integrated multimedia, climate, stereo and sat-nav system. Check out car supermarket prices too - they can be very attractive. COMFORT AND EQUIPMENT RATING: ***
The driving position is well sorted, the cabin has a quality feel and the 147 feels altogether civilised. The standard suspension's ride is fairly comfortable on the smallest tyres, but gets a little lumpier the bigger you go with the wheel and tyre size - so it's best to go for the Comfort option. (Wouldn't it make more sense to make Comfort standard and call the other one Sport?) Road noise increases with bigger tyres, too, unacceptably in the case of the optional 17-inch Super Sport alloys with 215/40/17 Pirelli P7000 tyres. There is some wind roar at speed, and the 1.6 engine gets boomy when pushed, but the engines are generally quiet, and all the petrol engines pleasingly tuneful. Cruising is most relaxed in the six-speed JTD 150 turbodiesel, although both diesels are impressively quiet for their type. Versions with all-black trim feel a little claustrophobic - the facelift includes some lighter colourways - but the 147 is actually pretty roomy with a decent-sized boot, and there's a fair amount of dumping space for junk. That said, it offers less space, most notably in the rear, than the Ford Focus, the Peugeot 307, the Honda Civic and its distant cousin the Fiat Stilo - the Alfa is intended as a snugger-fitting, sportier car than these more practical models.
The stereos and sat-navs are pretty sophisticated, but get more fiddly to use as they get more advanced. The ultimate set-up, featuring CONNECT, is not terribly intuitive to use and time-consuming even when you've mastered it. CONNECT, for which you must pay an annual fee after the first year, enables you to dial up or e-mail a call centre providing extensive travel advice. Sound quality from the stereo is pretty good.