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Alfa Romeo 147


The styling blends early-'150s retro with "hot-hatch" contemporary in a look something like Mille Miglia meets Playstation Gran Turismo.

And judging from the admiring glances and approving passer-by comments, there isn't a better-looking hatchback on the road.

Blood red and sitting on a very sharp-looking set of optional 17in alloys, the new Alfa 147 has enough styling "wow-factor" to provoke jealous glances from Audi TT and VW Beetle drivers.

The nose treatment provides the focal point. The shield-like grille (inspired by the 1949 Alfa 6C 2500 Villa d'Este) plunges deeply from the centre line of the bonnet and is unlike anything on other mainstream modern cars.

Either side of the grille, the bumper is merely a rubber strip, while the lights are an eye-catching teardrop dual-element design.

It's a shame a number plate must intrude, but Alfa stylists have achieved the least possible distraction by offsetting it to the right.

In profile, the 147 is a hatchback with an obvious coupe influence. It's high-waisted with a small glasshouse, fluted flanks and prominent wheel arches. The polished alloy door handles provide retro detailing for the side of the car and the rear end features a vee-shape rear window.

Both three and five-door body styles share the same profile, and the rear door handles on the five-door are disguised in the C-pillar in similar style to the 156.

Long wheelbase and minimal overhangs complete the assertive stance. The big wheels and tyres (16in diameter alloys are standard) plant the car on a broad footprint. The $2000 17in wheel option reinforces visual impact.

The cabin is equally stylish. The fit, finish and authenticity of materials aren't in Audi TT class, but the nicely textured plastics and metallic finish around the instrument dials, on the centre console and the polished door-sill kick panels achieve an elegant theme. The black leather upholstery has red stitching, which is a subtle highlight rather than a garish distraction.

But it's not all about style and the 147 2.0 Twin Spark didn't scoop European Car of the Years honours just because it looks great. The driving experience is all you'd hope for from a premium compact performance car wearing one of motoring's most famous badges.

During the Alfasud and Alfa 33 era, Alfa Romeo's point of difference under the bonnet was its flat-four engines. Now, its smallest model has an in-line four-cylinder unit but still departs from the norm with the Twin Spark concept, featuring two spark plugs inside each combustion chamber.

The 1970cc DOHC 16-valve unit mightn't have the crackling exhaust note of past Alfas, but it delivers a responsive mix of mid-range flexibility and eager-revving top-end performance.

With 110kW on top of 6300rpm, the Alfa engine is at the upper end of the scale for normally aspirated two-litre units. The spread of useable power is impressive, with peak torque of 181Nm at 3800rpm, and acceleration continues in a linear style as the tachometer sweeps toward a 7000rpm redline.

Fifth-gear uphill performance on the open road is impressively flexible and around the city, the 147 responds to throttle smoothly from little more than 1750rpm in fourth gear at just below 50kph.

On the highway at 100km/h, the Twin Spark unit uses 2900rpm in fifth gear or is making the most of its torque curve at 3600rpm in fourth to provide swift overtaking and the ability to take long hills with little loss of momentum.

On first acquaintance, the five-speed manual transmission doesn't have the short-throw accuracy expected of an Italian performance car, but the shift action is smooth and requires only light effort.

The 147 sweeps through twists and turns with the poise suggested by the wide-track, long-wheelbase stance, and the 17in wheels and 215 tyres on a small hatch.

The suspension layout is borrowed from the acclaimed 156 with double wishbones at the front and MacPherson struts at the rear. There's a high level of grip in sweeping corners with well-controlled body roll, and pleasing adjustability from small throttle and steering inputs.

It also turns-in with precision in tight corners and with just 2.2 turns lock-to-lock on the rack-and-pinion steering, you need only small, precise steering movements to guide the 147 through the twisting stretches of back roads it loves.

The move to 17in wheels and the 215//45 dimension Firestone Firehawk SZ50 radials has probably traded some grip against ride quality. The low-speed suspension response across corrugations and broken surfaces feels a little unsettled. It's not harsh or thumpy, but it seems some compliance has been sacrificed.

Along with its firm suspension and assured handling, the 147's dynamics also get some electronic assistance. The brakes are powerful 284mm vented front discs with solid 251mm discs at the rear. The anti-lock braking is the Bosch 5.7 generation with four-sensor, four-channel control and electronic brakeforce distribution.

The system offers the ASR (Anti-Slip Regulation) traction control, provide a limited slip differential-like function by automatically braking a wheel when it loses traction. There's also throttle intervention when both wheels slip and Alfa Romeo's VDC (Vehicle Dynamic Control) stability system.

While I enjoyed the spirited performance of earlier Alfa models like the 33 1.7QV, I never liked the driving position nor looked forward to longer journeys.

The 147 demands no such compromise - apart from a slightly cramped pedal layout - and the leather sports seats offer supportive side bolstering, plenty of height adjustment and the steering column is tilt and reach adjustable, allowing fine tuning of the driving position.

The 147 isn't a big car. At 4170mm long, it's 100mm shorter than a Toyota Corolla hatchback, but the wheelbase is 81mm longer. Rear-seat passenger accommodation is snug, although headroom is slightly better than the tapered roofline suggests.

There is limited kneeroom, but one clever aspect of the cabin partially overcomes this. The dash on the passenger side has been deeply scalloped to provide additional kneeroom and the front-seat passenger can slide their seat well forward to provide extra legroom in the left rear.

The rear seat has a folding armrest and three headrests, and the centre passenger gets a three-point seatbelt.

Load capacity is relatively small with 230 litres of space and a high-load lip to lift items over with a relatively small tailgate. Flip forward the 60/40 split rear-seat cushions and fold down the backrest, and up to 1030 litres becomes available with a luggage-securing net.

While load space and rear-passenger accommodation are limited, most drivers will forget them because the 147 looks sensational and delivers an entertaining drive on a twisting backroad.

Fresh, full-flavoured and just a little addictive, the Alfa 147 is hatchback espresso.

New Zealand Alfa Romeo importer Ateco Automotive launched five versions of the European Car of the Year-winning 147 in July.

The emphasis is firmly on high specification and 2.0-litre Twin Spark power. The three and five-door bodystyles have some minor specification differences.

In a slightly unusual move, the three-door versions are positioned higher than the five-door with the entry level being a cloth-trimmed five-door manual priced at $46,995.

The higher grade models with leather trim - in both three and five-door bodystyles - are $49,995 (sport leather on the three-door), while with Alfa's Formula One-derived Selespeed automated sequential manual transmission the 147 is $53,995.

Rivals include the Audi A3, Saab 9-3, BMW Compact and Volkswagen Golf VR5, while Japanese brands like the Toyota Celica TS, Honda Prelude or Nissan 200SX might be considered indirect competitors from the sports coupe sector.

The specification is high and a close look at the standard specifications resolved my initial thoughts about the price being too high.

There is automatic air conditioning, with dual temperature control for driver and passenger, a Blaupunkt CD audio system with steering wheel controls, remote central locking with alarm and immobiliser, power windows, electric and heated mirrors, front and rear fog lamps, headlight beam adjuster, cruise control and a trip computer with multi-function display.

Standard safety features include six air bags (frontal, seat-mounted side impact and window bags), anti-lock brakes, and the ASR traction control and VDC stability control dynamic systems.

Along with the 17in alloy wheels, options include headlight washers, an electric sunroof, heated front seats and a boot-mounted CD multichanger.

AutoPoint road test team: words and picture CM.

Auto Trader New Zealand