One of the largest parts of the UK car market is the 'C segment'. This refers to compact saloons and hatchbacks such as the Ford Focus and VW Golf. This segment accounts for nearly one in three of all cars sold. Within the C segment category is what Alfa Romeo refer to as an 'Elite sub-C segment', consisting of smaller cars with executive and sporting aspirations (think BMW 3-series Compact and Audi A3). The Alfa Romeo 147 slots neatly into this group with a definite leaning towards being sporty rather than luxurious. Which suits us just nicely.
As you would suspect, buyers of sports hatches have style and performance at the top of their checklist. You will find few critics of the Alfa 147 shape. For that reason, it has become the template for new Alfa Romeos - witness the cars at Geneva - the new GT Coupe and facelifted GTV and Spider. We also know that the next 156 and 166 will use the same front grille treatment. That sharp grille, as much as it harks back to wonderful Alfas of old, is not my favourite view. The rear is. It is sharp and well defined and original, and unmistakably an Alfa. I like it lots. The downside unfortunately is the lack of over-the-shoulder visibility. Needless to say an owner would soon adjust to the inconvenience. It is easier for such a feature to be a problem during only a week of driving. The rear window, though small, allows an adequate view of the road directly behind. The A pillar though sometimes gets in the way on tight roundabouts etc. There is always a compromise between style and function in this way unfortunately.
As you would hope, the attention to design detail continues inside, where the styling is remarkably like the 156 GTA, including the unusual dash material which one of our testers likened to elephant leg! It is distinctive, but I'm not so sure it shouts quality. Most of the rest of the interior has a solid feel to make up for this, and we do applaud Alfa Romeo for not following the horde. The cloth-covered seats in the test car were comfortable, though of course we would all prefer leather. Alfa do a gorgeous range of Momo leather-covered seats after all, which would go well with the shapely (and nice to hold) steering wheel.
The 'Connect' system was fitted though, which includes satellite navigation and a built-in phone, as well as the all-important operator in Milan... It works well enough, and we would like to see more integrated phones such as this in cars in the future - especially with voice activation and the steering wheel controls. I suspect Alfa will sell more of these with forthcoming legislation on mobile phones. Alfa Romeo describes the Connect system as an on-board assistant. The basic functions are not new, though it is novel for a "text message received" icon to pop up on the dashboard. The innovation with the Connect system is that you have, at the touch of a button, access to a personal assistant based in a call centre near Milan. Unfortunately, when I tried to use the system I was told I would be called back. Alfa Romeo claim that the operator can perform a variety of tasks for the user; route planning, traffic jam avoidance, hotel booking, restaurant recommendation and even report sporting results. Perhaps of more use is the despatching of the emergency services if required. Fiat Auto have tied up (amongst others) with Michelin, CNN, Trafficmaster and Time Out to ensure the content is up to date and of high quality. I suspect we are to see much more of this sort of thing in the future. Considering the functionality, £1332 (including VAT) is not a bad price for the top-of-the-range system described here. The price includes the first year subscription.
Indeed, the 147 2.0-litre Twin Spark Lusso is well equipped in general. The niceties include 16" 'Elegant' alloy wheels (the alloys fitted to the test car in the pictures are 16" 'Sport' wheels which cosy an extra £250), dual-zone climate control, cruise control, Vehicle Dynamic Control with Anti-Slip Regulation, and remote audio controls. All 147s get anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, six airbags, an alarm and immobiliser and that leather steering wheel. That really is a lot of kit. The three-door car we drove is £16,100 on the road. Five door versions of the 147 command a £500 premium over their 3-door equivalents. However, if you are spending £16,000 on a sporty hatchback you may also want to consider the Ford Focus ST170, which is a little quicker, and the Honda Civic Type R, which blows them both away. Admittedly these three cars have very different characters and may not all appeal to the same buyer.
The difference between the three cars may be down to the actual driving experience as much as it is to the style. We are conducting a full road test on the Honda in May, though I have briefly driven the Type R. To drive it hard is a committed activity - it feeds on high revs. The Alfa is a different animal. For a start the 2.0-litre engine is tuned more for low-down torque rather than high-revving power. This makes for a more relaxing drive, though not necessarily one less sporty. The engine delivers a punch from low revs and makes a superb noise I can only describe as a bark. The power delivery itself is very smooth too. Alfa Romeo purists will certainly not be disappointed, even though the engine configuration is a basic inline four cylinder. The car feels high geared though, which may explain the less than spine tingling 0-62mph time of 9.3 seconds. Another explanation for that may be the gearchange - one of the only drawbacks of this 147's dynamics. There is no feedback whatsoever through the lever, which itself moves a long way between gears. A little more weight would be appreciated, especially given the car's sporting aspirations.
On the road, the Alfa does drive as well as it looks. Left-foot braking is a joy, though in the dry, fitted with Goodyear F1 tyres, it is usually unnecessary as the chassis is beautifully balanced. The brakes are capable and the pedal feel is good. The pedals themselves are well spaced for heel and toeing, though the throttle is not very responsive so the effort is rarely worth the reward. The rear of the car can be drifted on the limit in a similar manner to the much more stiffly sprung 156 GTA. Thankfully, the 147 also boasts a compliant ride, which makes for comfortable motorway cruising. The standard fit cruise control works well too (which is just as well, as 100mph feels like 70mph), with easy to use controls on the steering wheel. That wheel is connected to a quite direct steering rack, which is delightful when blowing away the cobwebs on a quiet Sunday morning, but a little too light on the motorway. Which brings me back to the reason for this car's existence.
Not so long ago, the company car of choice was something along the lines of the Ford Mondeo or BMW 3-series. In today's economy, the buzz phrase is 'cost down'. Along with diesels, I expect to see the C segment grow. Witness the many C segment based derivatives entering the market, such as the Ford Focus C-max and new Renault Scenic. The Alfa Romeo 147 offers the buyer a serious slice of Italian style, with competitive performance and a rewarding drive, which should appeal to a significant number of buyers bored with run of the mill cars.
Road test of the 2002 Alfa Romeo 156 GTA
Road test of the 2001 Alfa Romeo GTV Cup
Admittedly the car feels quicker than the numbers suggest, and the noise of the engine makes up for lack of outright grunt.
Other than a little more power, the Twin Spark unit is a peach - smooth, torquey and it emits a glorious noise which reminds the driver they are in an Alfa Romeo.
I really could not fault the front-wheel drive chassis. It manages to be serious fun as well as a capable motorway companion.
We rarely saw 30mpg, which is surprising given the relatively laid back nature of the 147.
The score of only three stars may be a surprise, but I'm afraid that the over sensitive steering and that awful gearchange are two significant flaws in a car that otherwise invites the driver to become one with it.
I am tempted to take a star off for the reduced rear visibility, but the styling over-compensates. The Germans could do with taking notes.
I loved the interior style of the 147, though some detailing is just a little too different, such as the 'elephant leg' material on the dash and doors.
The list of standard safety equipment across the 147 range is extensive.
Though the 147 counts such cars as the Audi A3 and BMW Compact as its rivals, it fares well in the standard equipment stakes. I also think that the Connect system is good value for money.
Road test: 2002 Alfa Romeo 147 2.0TS Lusso
Story by Shane O' Donoghue, photography by Adam Jefferson