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First Drive

Retro review: the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA

Published: 12 Jul 2021
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This review first appeared in Issue 111 of Top Gear magazine (2002)

If only no-one had been around to see. It just needed to be around the next corner and I would have been out of sight. Then I could have gone storming back to our base for the day at the Fiat Group’s expansive Balocco test track, face all red and fingers prodding accusingly into engineers’ chests, blaming them for my misfortune. 

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After all, who’s foolish idea was it to try and shoehorn, no, make that hammer and crowbar, a 3.2-litre engine into the nose of Alfa’s delicate little 147 hatchback? 

Not only that, but rather than split up the 250 horses and send one herd to the back wheels and the other to the fronts, someone thought it would be a bit of a giggle to have the whole darned lot up front. 

Alfa Romeo 147 GTA burnout

Somewhat embarrassingly, however, my visit to a ditch on the outskirts of Milan could not be passed off as being down to the torque steering antics of the new 147 GTA. Even without black box examination, this was clearly pilot error to all onlookers. A driving test-failing three-point turn executed with expert ineptness one mile into our road route led to the passenger-side wheel hanging traction free in the air. 

Experienced old hands tittered away. A shoulder barge and quick check underneath later and we were back in business. And boy does this thing sound the business. Red lining all the way up the road, the twin cam, 32-valve V6 delivers the sort of on-board, easy listening entertainment that’s all too obviously missing from the likes of an Audi S3, Ford Focus RS or Subaru Impreza WRX. 

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In many other ways, too, the circa £23,000 GTA makes an appealing alternative. For some, it could be because they can’t stomach the looks of the Impreza. And let’s face it, the regular 147 was already a looker.

Then there’s the badge. Show me a red-blooded car enthusiast who wouldn’t rather have an Alfa Romeo keyring in their pocket in place of an Audi, Ford or Honda fob and I’ll show you their certificate of dullness from the Institute of Advanced Motorists, complete with matching IAM branded golfing jacket and driving gloves. 

As for the Impreza fan club, surely it’s shedding numbers faster than Jeffrey Archer’s cosy collective? The DIY interior and the all-or-nothing driving experience are reason enough. But above all this, ever since the WRX version started to make small children cry, buyers have been turning away in search of an alternative adrenalin rush. 

And here it is. A new breed of pint sized, pumped up, sports car-hassling shopping trolley. A 1,360kg, 250bhp (183bhp per tonne) 221Ib ft hatchback with the obligatory six speeds of fun and some smart electronic trickery to make sure share prices in the tyre companies don’t spiral out of control. 

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Apply heavy right foot to throttle, and in place of expected lairy wheelspin, nasty axle tramp and torturous torque steer comes smooth, unfussed and very rapid progress towards the 60 miles an hour mark. Just 6.2 seconds later and you’ll be there. Keep your foot in and the GTA won’t run out of steam until 153mph. Pretty impressive stuff. And certainly right up there with TG’s current flavour of the month, the Focus RS. 

But in this case more than any other, the bare figures really don’t tell the whole story. The GTA may take off like an adulterer caught playing the field, but the melodic howl that fills the cabin and filters out across surrounding countryside is as good as it gets this side of Italy’s other houses of royalty – Ferrari and Lamborghini. Now that has to be value for money. 

Of course, all this means that the six-speed ’box sees plenty of action. So it’s a good job that the shift quality is reasonably accurate and slick, if not quite in the same rapid-fire league of a four-cylinder Focus RS or Civic Type-R. Neither of these, however, offers the option of an automated manual, whereas the 147 GTA does, in the form of Selespeed. 

There’s no need to drive the Alfa like a local all of the time, though. While the V6 puts in the most effort above 5,000rpm, you can leave it in a higher gear and trickle around town on the torque that’s there, or even haul past slower traffic without shifting down. 

Naturally, I tried to properly drop the Alfa into a ditch in full view of colleagues. But a general lack of time behind the wheel and a sure-footed chassis frustrated efforts.

Alfa Romeo 147 GTA interior

With ultra-quick steering, uprated double wishbone front suspension and retuned geometry for the rear MacPherson struts, the 147 GTA is alert and agile. But that’s driving it in isolation. I get the impression that it’s a little more lead footed than some, as the suspension doesn’t soak up bumps like a Focus RS, nor shrug off unsettled B-roads like an Impreza. There’s noticeable pitch over mid-bend lumps, but it manages to keep the driver amused and involved all the same.

For added tomfoolery, you can chuck it around with surprising abandon, flicking the nose into bends as you come off the brakes and powering through the corner to straighten the tail on the exit. Just remember to turn off the extremely effective VDC and ASR systems first, otherwise it will reign in such misbehaviour, but rightly so. 

A shame then that the stopping power doesn’t live up to the forward motion. Despite a big-disc Brembo set-up with ABS and EBD, the pedal felt disconcertingly soft and mushy. 

Still, the rest of the car won’t leave you feeling uncomfortable. The interior is well built, snug – especially the bucket sports seats – and much more tactile than any of the German or Japanese competition. Whether or not it will stand the test of time remains to be seen. But with dedicated, hand-picked GTA dealers in the UK, there’s every chance it will. 

Not having had the chance to sample the VW Golf R32 yet, in many ways the 147 GTA reminds me most of the Renaultsport Clio V6. Only without any of the crap bits. There’s just something about a big engine in a small package that really hits the mark. 

The GTA has a genuine lust for life. It’s not perfect, but then if it was, it probably wouldn’t be half as barmy to drive. And in this class, it’s refreshing to find something that’s a bit of a live wire, but not quite enough to throw you into the nearest ditch…

3.2-litre V6
250bhp, FWD
0-60mph in 6.2secs, max speed 153mph
1,360kg
Circa £23,000

Photography: Paul Debois

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