Alfa Romeo drivers, who call themselves the Alfisti are very passionate about their cars. Oops, pardon me of the sacrilege I just committed calling Alfas mere cars, as the Alfisti refer to their Italian beasts as their Bellas, which is basically Italian for something curvy and sexy that you’d like to spend the whole night with, awake.

Which isn’t exactly untrue – I was dead tired after a long day which stretched to 4am, and I should have really gone back to get some shut eye – but I still wanted to take the Alfa Romeo 147 on a few spins around the empty roads of my neighbourhood. And that’s exactly what I did. The sound of the TwinSpark engine roaring in the silence of the night – you really have to experience it for yourself.

Here’s my take on the Alfa Romeo 147 2.0 Twinspark Selespeed. [UPDATED!]

At the expense of risking being pounced on by the many Alfisti out there, I am going to say that the Alfa Romeo design cues are a love it or hate it affair. I mentioned Alfa Romeo to 2 car enthusiasts – one said he loved the design while the other said all Alfas are ugly. When the same question was posed to 3 non-enthusiast folks, all of them said they hated Alfa Romeo designs. Personally, I like Alfa Romeos. But there seems to be no middle ground on one’s opinion on the Alfa’s aesthetics.

The Alfa Romeo 147 began as a concept car called Project 937 back in the year 1998. Making it’s world debut in the year 2000, the Alfa Romeo 147 is available in both 3-door and 5-door hatchback bodies. I test drove the 5-door hatchback model, with a 2.0 TwinSpark engine and a 5-speed Selespeed gearbox under the hood. At first glance you might think the 5-door car is actually a 3-door, because of the absence of door handles at the normal position. Instead, the door handles have been blended into the car design between the rear door mirror and the C pillar. I love the design of the car, but wished my short term test drive unit came in red for even better photos.

Alfa touts the car as a rival to the BMW 1-series and the Audi A3, but in most parts the Alfa brand doesn’t really share the prestigious recognition that it’s German rivals get. It was voted the European Car of the Year for 2001, repeating the success of it’s older brother the Alfa Romeo 156 in clinching the 1998 title, though only by a 1 point margin.

The Alfa Romeo Twinspark 2.0 litre inline-4 DOHC engine with a compression ratio of 10:1 like it’s namesake uses two spark plugs per cylinder. If you look at the engine cover above, you will see a series of domes embossed on it, two domes per cylinder, one larger and one smaller. This is because the new 16 valve Twinspark engine’s two spark plugs per cylinder are sized differently, one is a larger spark plug (14mm diameter) and one is a smaller spark plug (10mm diameter). The older 8 valve engines have 8 identical spark plugs. Twinspark operation helps reduce unburnt fuel in the combustion process. Alfa found that under normal conditions, a single plug could ignite an air/fuel ratio of 17:1, whereas twin plugs could ignite a mixture as lean as 20.8:1.

The engine also features Variator – Alfa Romeo’s variable valve timing application. Alfa Romeo’s Variator operates on the intake camshaft via hydraulics, retarding timing by 25 degrees at engine speeds up to the 3,000 to 4,000rpm range. As the revs pick up, oil is pumped into a chamber in the Variator which alters the relationship between the camshaft and the pulley. At a certain point between 3,000 and 4,000rpm, the Variator deactivates and engine runs at the original advanced timing.

The Alfa Romeo TwinSpark engine also features a variable geometry intake plenum, which alternates between a short intake path and a long intake path depending on engine RPM. You want a longer intake path with a limited capacity at low engine RPMs to increase air flow speed, and a shorter but wider intake path at high RPMs so that more air can enter the combustion chamber.

There is apparent lack of torque at engine speeds of below 3,000rpm but anything after that the engine surges forward in a thrilling VTEC-like manner. And the sound is AMAZING. The trademark Alfa engine note clearly shouts out to you – “I am a performance engine. Rev me hard. NOW!” – and is very very addictive. The Selespeed gearbox does some fancy throttle blipping footwork for you when you downshift – to keep things simple, let’s just say I found myself getting up to speed on stretches where I know I have to stop soon just so I can downshift and make use of engine braking – just to hear the sound of the engine downshifting!

Let’s hear some numbers – 150bhp at 6,300rpm with a redline of 7,000rpm and peak torque of 181Nm at 3,800rpm, which is a reasonable low engine speed to achieve peak torque for a normally aspirated engine. The engine feels very revvy and has no problems going all the way up to it’s redline. There were certain situations where I wished the car had more power, but I supposed that’s what the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA is for – it has a 250hp, 300Nm 3.2 V6 under the hood.

The above is the Alfa Romeo 147 interior. No suprises or wonders on the interior space here – the interior space is exactly how you would imagine it to be when you look at the car from the outside. There is sufficient headroom for the front passangers, and the rear passangers might feel abit tight if you’re really tall, but if you’re just of average height to moderately tall you will be fine. There’s no weird sloping roof like certain cars with curvy rooflines. I love the feel of the interior, the plastics are even better than some luxury German marques I’ve tested. This car has by far the best plastics I’ve ever felt so far! Top notch material quality. Build quality was a different story, there was one panel which was slightly loose, it wobbled in and out when I pushed it.

The meter panel is a dual pod design, with 2 more tiny meters (temp and fuel) positioned between the two main meters (RPM and speed), above the multi-function LCD panel. The LCD panel shows you useful information like the time, radio station, temperature, Selespeed gear position, and others. If you press the button on the wiper control, you can switch through additional information displays on the LCD panel. A useful feature is actual fuel consumption – this allows you to see how much fuel you’re using in real time. Starting off from a standstill can take up to over 30 litres per 100km sometimes, but gradually goes down as the car begins to speed. There’s also an average fuel consumption calculation, which came up to 13.5 litre per 100km on my test car. This would mean it’s 60 litre full fuel tank would take you about 445km before you’ll need to cough up RM115.20 of RON97 to refill the fuel tank up to the brim. Remember, the 13.5 litre figure is a mix of highway driving and often very spirited driving with the revs kept up high.

The seats which are manually adjustable are comfortable enough for daily driving but I found they did not really offer much support during hard cornering, which is basically what the Alfa begs you to do. Then again, I am pretty wide. That’s a politically correct choice of word for fat. I’m not sure if there’s a sport seat package but if there is and you want to do some crazy cornering – get it! [UPDATE:] There are power windows for all four doors, but the driver only has two power window controls. You have to press a button to toggle whether the controls operate the front or rear set of windows. I like the door handles for the front doors, it’s not of the flushed design so it’s more ergonomic, you can grasp it from either below or above, no issues there!

This is how you operate the Selespeed gearbox. You can’t exactly call this a gear shift lever as there’s no gear positions for you to actually shift it in. This is more of a joystick with functions associated with which direction you move it. Push up to engage into first gear, and subsequently shift up, and pull down to downshift. Pull right to shift to neutral. Pull right, then from the right position, pull down to engage reverse gear. Press up down up down A B A B to activate God mode. Just kidding.

But what is this Selespeed that I’m talking about? Selespeed is basically Alfa Romeo’s version of a robotised clutch manual transmission, very much like the gearbox we can find in our local Proton Savvy AMT. It was developed by Alfa Romeo and gearbox designer/manufacturer Magneti Marelli. If you’re expecting DSG performance, you won’t find it here. A computer controlled hydraulic system automatically cuts torque regardless of throttle position, changes the gears, and applies the clutch again. Everything sounds dandy on paper, but in reality shifting can be quite jerky if you don’t know how to work the throttle properly. You have to treat this car like a manual car. Lift off the throttle abit when you shift. I took about half an hour to an hour or so to learn how to make the car go smoothly.

The car starts up in manual mode by default, echoing it’s sporty intentions. If you want the computer to take care of the shifting, press the City button which is right next to the button that turns off the electronic stability control. I found that amusing, one button for “tame” city driving and the other typically used for mad trashing sessions right next to each other. This duo of buttons are locate right below the gear console. I would have preferred that the automatic shifting selection be somehow integrated into the joystick control, but once you’re used to it it’s fine.

As with a manual transmission, when rolling off from an uphill road you either need fast footwork in switching from the brake pedal to the accelerator pedal or you need to use the handbrake, otherwise the car will roll backwards. The Selespeed transmission can also be quite tiring in traffic jams. This is because in city mode, the car tends to stay in 1st gear for a longer than desired time, and the jerk from 1st to 2nd gear is always the worst. However, once it gets past the 2nd gear, when your speed reduces it shifts down to 2nd gear at most. There is also no creep function. I was wishing the Selespeed transmission had a Snow/Winter mode to start it off on 2nd gear so that my crawling through traffic jams would be smoother. There seems to be two shifting behaviours with the Selespeed, one is a relatively normal humanlike shift when you’re driving normally which takes more than a second but nothing too draggy. When you’re really driving the car hard and revving high the shifts are much faster, less than a second.

Aesthetics wise, the car looks like it could do with either some lowering or bigger wheels. The suspension feels like it’s tuned smack in between ride comfort and handling, but gravitating slightly towards the handling pole. Took it around for a spin at my favourite “similiar to racetrack, abandoned road” and I must say it performed well. The Alfa tells you to keep pushing it even though the tyres are already screeching. The sound of the engine, the screeching tyres, the high revs, all part of the experience. With the Alfa Romeo 147, you can never say a car is only for you to get from point A to point B. It’s never about the destination anymore, but the journey itself is the main activity, the main highlight! I had completely forgot to try out the sound system that came with the car because of this. No kidding, I am not exaggerating or saying nice things here!

[UPDATE: ] Due to the roads I was driving on, I did not push the car enough to feel any sort of understeer. I took a lap with the City mode as well as a lap with the manual mode. In City mode, sometimes it would upshift during a corner and the weight balance of the car would be disrupted slightly, alarming you for a while but the car quickly regains it’s composure. But on other corners, the revs would hold between 6,000 to 7,000rpm without upshifting. So I’m not sure how the Selespeed City mode shifting logic works, i.e. what factors it takes into consideration. It did demonstrate some form of intelligence, sensing you’re driving hard, but not all the time.

0-100km/h takes 9.3 seconds, and the car has a top speed of 208km/h, though the meter goes up to 240km/h. The car can be limited to a top speed of 180km/h electronically – this can be switched on and off via a buttons on the bottom right of the meter panel which lets you control a menu on the LCD display.

Retailing at RM191,096.40 on the road, this will be a good car for the highly paid executive who loves driving, or a good car for the wifey which you can take out for spins on the weekends. But truth be told, she would hate the Selespeed gearbox. It is not refined enough. For the car enthusiast, the driving experience that the car gives you when you’re pushing it hard will make up for the jerkiness in just about everything other motoring activity. Auto Italia provides a 2-year unlimited mileage warranty and a free 2-year or 60,000km maintenance package. There’s also a balloon-payment promotion in partnership with Sime Credit Sdn Bhd running right now which lets you own the Alfa Romeo 147 at only RM788 a month. More details on this later.

All images have larger versions which can be viewed by clicking on the image.

Video: Alfa Romeo 147 Drive-by

Video: Alfa Romeo 147 Meter Panel