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Alfa Romeo 147 manual 2003 review

The Holden Adventra is a signpost car and so is the new BMW 5-Series.

The Holden Adventra is a signpost car and so is the new BMW 5-Series.

There were more than a dozen at the Frankfurt and Tokyo motor shows last month, but it's hard to know where they are pointing until you see them on the road.

There is no waiting with the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA. This is a signpost car that points to a future with passion, driving enjoyment and Italian style. And it points to the history of the sports car brand for the inspiration.

The GTA is, without a doubt, the best Alfa we've driven in an age. It's not the most practical, or the cheapest, or the most luxurious, but it is the one if you want to distil the brand down into a single car.

Alfa also has the Spider and Coupe, but they don't have the passion or the driving enjoyment of the GTA.

The GTA takes its name from the 1970s, when Alfa's compact quick cars were upgraded for track use and racing, and adds the quick-car extras which make it much more than a starting-price 147.

The difference between the starting prices, $38,500 for a basic 147 and $59,990, shows much has been changed.

The heart transplant is the obvious start, as the GTA gets a barking 3.2-litre V6 with variable valve timing, 184kW of power and 300Nm of torque on premium unleaded.

The next step is a six-speed manual gearbox driving the front wheels, with anti-skid four-wheel discs and 17-inch alloy wheels with 225-series tyres.

The engine comes from the 156 GTA, so it was developed for performance, and it's much more effective in the compact 147.

Alfa admits that it's going to add all- wheel drive to each of its performance cars from the second half of 2004, which will make the GTA even better, but it's the only shortcoming at the moment.

The suspension has been tweaked for a sportier feel, with wheels pushed right to the edges of the flared arches, and there are electronic tweaks including brake-force distribution, and traction control which – a smart move by Alfa – works at speeds up to 40km/h.

Bottom line? The GTA will sprint to 100km/h in 6.3 seconds and has a top speed of 246km/h.

It also has body bits which make it look much more aggressive, but still stylishly Italian, with sporty front bucket seats, electric assists, and alloy grips on the foot pedals.

We believe the 147 lines up strongly against the Mini Cooper S, Subaru WRX, Mazda RX-8 and Nissan 350Z.

On the road

We had great fun in the hot new Alfa GTA. We have always liked the look and quality of Alfa's baby 147, and the GTA really stirs the pot.

We drove it for the first time at a sodden press preview in Albury and, despite miserable weather and poor roads, it's quality shone through.

The first sound of the throbbing, muscular exhaust was a highlight of 2003.

And the 147 GTA delivered, just as strongly as the earlier 156 GTA had disappointed. It was tight, it was quick and it responded.

We weren't sure about the practicality – everything from getting into the back seats to the potential for squeaks and rattles – but we rated the car. And that's in a year when the RX-8 and 350Z have set a new high-tide mark for true sports cars and the Cooper S proved that front-wheel-drive cars can still be fun.

The GTA is a very quick car that feels even quicker than its on-paper performance. That's because it always seems to respond when you tickle the throttle, and it has massive overtaking power.

You only have to get the tacho turning at more than 2500 revs to find a sweet spot of some sort, which means it's easy to have fun on twisty roads, zap past a slow truck, or find a hole in suburban traffic. And the sound, intake and exhaust encourage you to work the engine.

The six-speed gearbox has closely set ratios and the shift is good, but not great.

We had a bit of trouble at times, usually when muddling up the gears and not when trying for a slick downshift.

The GTA has a firm feel, as you'd expect, but it won't rattle your dental work. It crashes a bit in potholes, and you need to be gentle on the throttle over corrugations, but otherwise it copes easily with most road conditions and has the grip at the tyres – and feel at the wheel – you expect in a car with a GTA badge.

Parking can be a bit tough, but that's down to the 225 tyres and the pinched view out of the back window.

The 147 has never been a car for four adults and the GTA is much more of a 2-plus-2, with slightly limited luggage space and wraparound seat shapes which mean its great to be inside but less great to get there.

We enjoyed the chance for a revision test on the 147's classy design, and the car's solid feel, but there were a couple of squeaks and we still can't help wondering how a stiffly sprung Italian-built car will feel after 60,000km on Australian roads.

But we have to rate what we drove, and so we rate the 147 GTA very highly. It looks good, sounds great and is really enjoyable to drive.

The Subaru WRX is still the benchmark car for cost-effective performance with plenty of practicality, but we reckon the new GTA is worth a look if you want something different – or a bit more brio and passione.

Pricing guides

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Range and Specs

2.0 Twin Spark 2.0L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $2,400 – 4,070 2003 Alfa Romeo 147 2003 2.0 Twin Spark Pricing and Specs
GTA 3.2L, PULP, 6 SP MAN $4,500 – 7,260 2003 Alfa Romeo 147 2003 GTA Pricing and Specs
Selespeed 2.0L, PULP, 5 SP $2,400 – 4,070 2003 Alfa Romeo 147 2003 Selespeed Pricing and Specs
Ti 2.0L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $2,800 – 4,840 2003 Alfa Romeo 147 2003 Ti Pricing and Specs