Car reviews - Alfa Romeo - 147 - 5-dr hatch
Alfa Romeo models
Beautiful appearance, excellent ride and handling combination, smooth engine
Room for improvement
Instrument cluster design, no rear airbags, steering rattle
30 Oct 2001
By TERRY MARTIN
JUST as the badge adorning the shield grille of its cars harks back to medieval Europe and Milanese soldiers fighting in the First Crusade, Alfa Romeo in these modern times is conducting itself as a pilgrim and warrior, aiming to recapture countries and extend its trade into places dominated by different ideals.
Up until now, the campaigners in its latest crusade have been in the form of a coupe, convertible, station wagon and a small and large sedan. But a new aggressor has arrived in the form of a compact three-door and five-door hatch.
Dressed for battle with trademark Alfa cues - a broad stance, sports coupe roofline and the classic front shield topped with the Visconti coat of arms - the 147 is at once a member of the Italian marque's armed forces and like no other chariot we have seen.
A spiritual successor to the Alfasud, the 147 has a small, muscular shape with the shield grille plunging through the front end, distinctive flute lines running across the doors and a pentagonal window - a subtle reference to the shield - soaking up the main portion of the tailgate.
Even as a five-door, as we have tested here, it is a car only a cold-hearted soul could fail to admire. The rear doorhandles remain hidden in the rear pillar. Conspicuous wheels fill the arches. And the interior is itself a work of modern art.
Of course, the Italian manufacturer is well known for its inspired motorsport-themed cockpits - as well as its occasional disregard for driver comfort and convenience.
Yet we were delighted to find that the 147 is as functional and soothing as it is appealing - with a couple of exceptions.
The most obvious of these is the instrument cluster. More at home at modern art museum than behind the wheel, the instruments are set deep within a trio of hooded binnacles using a combination of conventional gauges and a large central panel for various items of information.
Difficulties for the driver include an enormous hurdle required from speedo to tacho, the darkness these gauges are plunged into with a storm cloud or forest canopy overhead, temperature gauges positioned too close together and red lettering and graphics on the LCD panel which do not respond well to direct sunlight.
These disturbances aside, the driver is quite well catered for.
Consider a three-spoke, leather-clad steering wheel that is divine to hold, has a series of buttons for stereo control and which can adjust for reach as well as height.
The seat, meanwhile, does an admirable job of keeping the driver rooted in position. It adjusts for height and lumbar and uses a wide, thick lever in the front of the seat cushion for fore/aft movement. The amount of seat travel is generous, too.
Stalks mounted on the steering column deal with most of the important roles. The dual-zone climate system is simple to operate - after a few lessons - and small-item and map storage solutions are plentiful. The stereo sounds great.
Excellent attention to detail is also evident, including auto up and down on all windows, a rear window lock for the driver and a large button on the front headrests that makes height adjustment refreshingly easy.
Not surprisingly, access to the rear can be somewhat difficult with the pillar-mounted vertical doorhandles but once inside the occupants will appreciate the use of high and comfortable seatbacks, excellent door grabhandles, a centre armrest, a full complement of head restraints and three-point harnesses and - in a first for this class - a vent.
The owner/s will also welcome a practical and neat 60/40 split-fold (for seat and seatback) plus excellent positioning of child seat anchorage points. All that's missing in the rear are door pockets, map lights and, more importantly, airbags.
The rear hatch is in dire need of an external handle while the luggage compartment is tight - maximum floor width is little more than the 960mm minimum and height to the parcel shelf a mere 460mm. The split-fold makes amends to a degree and the cargo area includes a shopping bag holder and luggage tie-down points.
There's no storage space, though, and no chance of a full-size spare wheel.
But we digress.
Let us be mindful of the reason, besides body and badge, aficionados flock to this marque - the drive.
Based on the 156's proven chassis, the 147 provides a front-drive experience to savour.
There are few vices to be found in either the ride or handling package. Indeed, the ride quality is nothing short of superb considering the work that has gone into ensuring the 147 rewards its driver with balance, control and composure.
The handling is accomplished, the car tracking faithfully through turns without wanting to steer straight on - and without untoward intervention from the various electronic handling aids, which exist to correct gross errors of judgment rather than wrest control from the driver.
The one chink in the 147's armour comes when it meets with mid-corner bumps, a situation that will cause the steering rack to rattle and suspension noise to rise up into the cabin. Otherwise, refinement is good and the steering is agreeably weighted, communicative and, above all else, accurate. Just 2.2 turns are required lock to lock.
As for performance, in 100kW Twin Spark form the 1270kg 147 is no thunderbolt - Alfa claims the sprint from rest to 100 clicks will take 9.3 seconds - however the engine feels quicker and more fulsome than the figures suggest.
Its charm comes with a fat mid-range, a lavish top end, great smoothness throughout the rev range and an intriguing note - and it is well supported by a positive manual gearshift and nicely weighted clutch.
A restriction in the flow of cars to these shores means the Alfa Crusade (1998-onward) is destined to be a long campaign.
But with the 147 proving to be a formidable assailant, its western European and Japanese rivals should be preparing for the worst.
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