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New models - Alfa Romeo - 147 - hatch

Alfa's modern masterpiece

Impeccable breeding: Alfa Romeo's new 147 has several styling cues that hark back to the marque's racers of yesteryear.

Alfa Romeo is back with a zippy "hot hatch" priced within the realms of affordability

30 Aug 2001

THE Alfasud Ti lives again.

Well, not quite, but Alfa Romeo's new 147 is a worthy successor to the car that created the "hot hatch" segment.

The 1970s original was a pioneer in its day, offering zippy performance, crisp handling and bags of character in an eminently affordable package.

Enter the 147 - a car that captures the essence of its ancestor, but with performance and dynamics to eclipse its contemporary rivals. Its overall competence can be gauged from the fact it has already been voted the 2001 European Car of the Year against talented opposition.

Alfa Romeo Australia earlier this year said it would bring in the 147 only in five-door guise but a rethink was prompted by favourable public response to a pair of three-door cars brought in for display at the Melbourne motor show and Australian Grand Prix in March.

Consequently, the local 147 lineup comprises three- and five-door variants, both of which are powered by a 2.0-litre Twin Spark engine that generates 110kW at 6300rpm and 181Nm at 3800rpm.

Die-hard Alfisti will observe the power output is slightly down on the 114kW generated by the Twin Spark engine in the 156 sedan. Alfa Romeo says this is because the 147's powerplant is a cleaner-running unit that will meet all imminent emission standards.

Pricing starts at $38,500 for five-speed manual versions of the 147 - in three- and five-door form. Both variants come well equipped, with the three-door model fitted with 17-inch SuperSport wheels as standard.

Opting for Alfa Romeo's Selespeed system adds another $3000 to the price. This system is a clutchless manual transmission that can function in full auto mode or enable the driver to effect up and down changes via steering wheel-mounted buttons.

Alfa Romeo is confident the 147 will be a big hit with Australian buyers. The local importer has secured 500 examples for the remainder of this year - of which 415 are already spoken for. Five-door models account for about 70 per cent of the local quota.

Alfa Romeo says the 147 will be pitched against the likes of the VW Golf GTi ($41,290), BMW 3 Series Compact (from $41,750) and Audi A3 (from $35,400).

The company says the newcomer may also attract buyers moving up from lower categories, as well as "fickle coupe buyers".

The Italian marque has endured a chequered history in Australia - in fact, worldwide.

It created some stunning cars in the 1960s and early '70s but then seemingly lost its way - churning out a series of boxy offerings that offered unexceptional dynamics and were plagued by unreliability and a reputation for rusting prematurely.

The brand was discontinued here in 1992 before being revived in 1998 with the launch of the current Spider and GTV. The 156 and 166 followed in 1999.

"The 147 completes the revision of the Alfa range that was initiated by the takeover of Alfa by the Fiat Group and started with the Spider and GTV," Alfa Romeo Australia general manager Kevin Wall said.

The 147 promises to widen Alfa Romeo's appeal significantly, with female buyers being targeted in earnest for the first time. Until now the brand has attracted predominantly male buyers.

The newcomer is built on a development on the 156's chassis, boosted by a host of acronyms to aid the driver. Among these are ABS (anti-lock brakes), ASR (Anti Slip Regulator - or traction control), VDC (Vehicle Dynamic Control) and MSR (Motor Speed Regulator).

VDC works along similar lines to systems offered by other European manufacturers, keeping the vehicle on track under heavy cornering loads by applying braking force to individual wheels.

MSR is a novelty, designed as it is to prevent compression lock-up skids that occur when a lower gear is selected without matching engine and road speed.

The driver aids are complemented by a host of standard equipment that includes front, side and window airbags, climate-control air-conditioning, keyless entry, power windows and mirrors, eight-speaker CD stereo, cruise control, front fog lights, leather steering wheel and alloy wheels.

Five-door models ride on 16x6.5-inch wheels shod with 205/55WR16 tyres, while three-door variants are equipped with 17x6.5-inch wheels wrapped in low-profile 215/45WR17 tyres.

Alfa Romeo is confident its contender is a better value proposition than any of its European rivals - and with good reason. Spec for spec, it comfortably undercuts the Audi A3, VW Golf GTi and BMW 3 Series Compact.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS: THE 156 is not an easy act to follow. Clothed in a beautifully-sculpted body, Alfa Romeo's suave sedan boasts a cracking 2.0-litre engine and sharp dynamics courtesy of one of the best front-wheel drive chassis on the market.

But park a 147 next to the four-door and the latter starts to look almost pedestrian.

The 156 was a dramatic-looking car when it was first launched, but Alfa Romeo has gone a step further with the 147, which harks back to Alfas of a bygone era.

Its face is distinguished by a gaping triangular grille that houses the Alfa Romeo shield and large cooling ducts reminiscent of Maserati's trademark nostrils.

The teardrop-shaped headlights are also eye-catching - even though they bear more than a passing resemblance to the "eyes" on the VX Commodore.

The Alfa has a squat, muscular stance that clearly conveys its aspirations as a genuine hot-hatch.

Happily, the car delivers on its visual promise.

At its heart lies a development of the 2.0-litre Twin Spark engine that would be familiar to the majority of 156 and GTV owners.

It may have lost 4kW in order to meet more stringent emission regulations, but it has lost none of its zing. The free-revving unit spins effortlessly to 7000rpm, yet is flexible enough to tool around town in fifth gear.

Alfa Romeo claims the 147 can accelerate from standstill to 100km/h in 9.3 seconds - not spectacular, but the car feels quicker than the figures indicate. Top speed is quoted at 208km/h.

Perhaps part of the reason why it doesn't cut more rapid times for the 0-100km/h sprint is because it weighs upwards of 1250kg - not far shy of the larger 156.

Complementing the jewel of an engine is a chassis that shades even the accomplished 156.

Inputs to the precise, communicative steering are responded to with alacrity. The 147 turns in sharply and it is possible to hurtle into corners at alarming speeds - VDC cutting in relatively unobtrusively when you overstep the limits.

Its packaging is neat and efficient, with ample room for four adults - although really tall rear-seat passengers may find their heads brushing against the roof and knees against the front seats.

The dash layout is traditional Alfa with two large dials facing the driver. But the Italians still have a bit to learn from BMW and Audi when it comes to presenting information in an easy-to-read format.

Build quality is quite impressive - the doors closing with a "thunk" that seems more German than Italian. However, some of the cars at the media launch suffered from a few rattles emanating from within the cabin.

Refinement levels are generally good although loose stones thrown up by the wheels tend to clatter noisily against the underbody. Ride quality is very compliant considering the sporting tune of the suspension.

Overall, the 147 is an enticing proposition. It offers brisk performance, pin-sharp handling, oodles of character, generous equipment levels and ample practicality.

Its $38,500 starting price makes it all the more appealing.

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