The first car I drove after receiving my driver's license was my mothers brand new 1985 Opel Kadett 1.3. That thing could fly. Or, I thought it could, because my experiences with regard to motoring up until that point had been with a Honda 50CE half-wreck. Slightly downhill, carrying two persons, the little Honda could attain the breackneck speed of 55 km/h. I only tried it once, because the brakes weren't too hot.
The next car was another Opel1. A 1975 Rekord 1700 I used to borrow off my grandfather now and then. "Be careful" he told me. "That thing will fall apart on you before you know it." I saw it again 20 years after it was new, so it must've had nine lives or something.
In 1988 I bought a 1981 Talbot Simca 1510. You can say a lot about the French, but they make cars you don't really want to get out of. They're like having a steering wheel and pedals in front of your sofa and a supersize ashtray. I don't know whether that had anything to do with the fact that I spent about 14 hours a day in it, driving aimlessly around with Judas Priest blasting from the speakers on the hat rack. My girlfriend's father refused me to park it in their driveway since it leaked so much oil. I sold it, left to do other things and ended up spending the next two years without personal transportation. Last time I heard, it was scrapped.
After that I owned a Nissan Micra with a monstrous 1.2 litre 57 bhp engine, a Nissan Primera station wagon with no engine to speak of and a 1.4 litre, 90 bhp Peugeot 206XL. What a bland, sensible collection of cars.
In January this year - after two months of internal negotiations - I put in an order for a new mount. An Alfa Romeo 147. The salesman demonstratingly rolled his eyes when I opted out of having automatic transmission on it. Yep, I opted out of having a self-gearing Italian car. Next thing you know, they ban grappa down there.
"Sorry. I'm a grown man. I can handle my own gear shifting."
"With all due respect, you simply cannot consider the Selespeed transmission an automatic gearbox!"
The factory's Selespeed kick-off must have been pretty lavish. And he didn't say "sir" because continental europeans don't. After trying to persuade me into having that unholy thing on my car, I would not have lifted an eyebrow had he addressed me as mein Herr.
"I don't care."
The salesman grudgingly accepted the transmission option from the curmudgeon standing in front of him and ticked a little box on his clipboard. I half expected to find pink leather upholstery in the car after pissing off the salesman and rejecting what is arguably a very good semi-automatic transmission.
After agreeing on all the other stuff that decides just what kind of car you're going to get, I went home to wait six months. Yes sir. If you want an Alfa Romeo around here, you will have to wait up to six months for it. At least if you decide to be as difficult as possible about engine and transmission options. On top of that, only a handful (and by that I mean less than a few hundred) of new Alfa Romeos are sold every year in Norway, so I guess they don't turn out batches of Alfas destined for Scandinavia all that often. They aren't exactly identical to the Alfas driving around in the slightly more pleasant mediterranean climate.
The Alfa Romeo 147 2.0 Twin Spark
On the 1st of June I hitched a three hour ride to go pick it up at the dealer, inspect it, sign a bunch of papers, receive a quick checkout on the type and drive it back home. I had become one of the Alfisti. Its colour is Azzurro Gabbiano2. I don't know what it means, but it looks good.
Once the engine was warm, I geared down and revved it a bit. As soon as the rpm needle floated past the fiver on the dial marked "Giri x1000", amidst uncontrolled blushing and tenseness, I went something like this:
I'm not joking.
What the fuck had I been doing all these years?
The drive home made me fully understand just how bland and just how sensible all my other cars had been. Before, my cars more or less drove themselves. You occasionally steered, braked a little and changed gears to end up at whatever destination or not you had. An Alfa Romeo 147, on the other hand, is like a beautiful woman in a ballgown, wearing a spiked bra and a leather whip hidden behind her back. For the duration of your slow dance she holds a cocked Derringer to your right temple. You watch what you do around this one.
On paper, it's nothing sensational. The dry facts are simply "2.0 T.Spark." It's a straight four, transversely mounted DOHC, 16 valve, fuel injection engine with two spark plugs in each cylinder. At 6300 rpm, it produces 150 bhp, and torque is 182 Nm at 3800 rpm. It redlines at 7000, and when you reach that it cuts off by way of engine control. Yes, I've tried. You can buy the 147 with lots of different engines, but up here you'll see only the 1.6 and 2.0 petrol variants.
The TwinSpark engine is subtly different from "normal" engines in that you need a bit more rpm to get all the power out of it due to the variable valve timing. Max power is across a fairly narrow rpm range. Because of that you tend to keep above 4000 rpm at all times when you want to drive agressively. I never do that of course.
When you open the hood to take a look at the engine, you half expect to see a plastic thing covering everything but the holes where you put wiper fluid and engine oil in, plus a dipstick protruding from somewhere. After all, most cars give you the plastic cover stare. In an Alfa you don't. You get the whole deal. Every tube, every cable and every pipe is in plain sight, like - you know - a real engine. I like to think the engineers didn't want to hide it after working so for long making it become what it is. I don't know. It serves no conceivable purpose, just like spending fifteen minutes preparing a cup of tea serves no purpose. But then again, Italians are probably not programmed quite the way the rest of us are when it comes to dreaming up stuff that serves no real protestant purpose.
Idling on 800 rpm, it lets out a pleasant buzz, no more threatening than a family Toyota. Hitting 5000 rpm, the demure buzzing is replaced by an intense 16 valve growl, making your skin crawl and your pants bulge. This is when the lady cocks her Derringer and everything becomes dangerous. When the red rpm needle points straight up and the stick is in four, you have 2000 rpm left until the engine reds out and the speedometer shows you 180. It's terrifying, completely crazy and tickles parts of your system you didn't realize you had. Don't ask me how I know this.
The Alfa Romeo 147 has a solid feel to it. Solid as in the doors don't give out that hollow clank when you close them like on recent BMWs, solid as in nothing in the cockpit creaks despite obviously being made from some kind of plastic. The interior is sufficiently silenced to still hear the TwinSpark, even when idling, but still silent enough so you don't mind the engine noise on the straight and level motorways. Sitting down in the leather seats is comfortable for long hauls and tight enough for wild cornering. And yes, the seats give out a leathery creak when your ass weighs them down. Put a dead cow in a car and it'll creak for sure. Cockpit layout was a bit unconventional to me, especially the tachometer having the right hand position on the instrument panel. Driving a car with a TwinSpark engine demands some attention to rpm, and for some strange reason it's easier to focus on it when it's to the right. My Peugeot had the tachometer to the left, and it never meant anything to me there. Could be a just a habit though.
This is where the front wheel driven car really stands out. You get a pretty good idea of just how many impossible curves and what driving style this car was made to adhere to when you negotiate turns way faster than you ever dared before. Steering is precise throughout the curve and at all speeds, and while I don't have the kind of experience you need to say that it "slightly oversteers at the apex" or shit like that, I do however have the experience needed to say that it's bloody fun to drive. It's stiff enough to handle well in sporty situations (like imagining being late for something) and soft enough to not be annoying when you drive like your old neighbour. Technically speaking, the front suspension is a double wishbone with telescopic dampers, coil springs with an anti-roll bar. The rear suspension is a MacPherson setup, otherwise the same as the front.
Gear shifting is somewhat tight, but after 6000 kms I'm getting used to that, not missing second gear quite as often as I used to. When you find yourself driving hard you must religiously watch your shifting and clutching or you'll end up with more metal shavings in your precious gear box than is good. It's the Derringer again. But nevertheless, after some getting used to it's rather forgiving. This is a street car and you rarely need to redline every gear shift.
The 147 was introduced in 2000 at the Turin Motorshow, or 68° Salone Internazionale dell'Automobile as it's called in Italy. Initially it was a three dor car, but in 2001 a five door model was introduced alongside a 147 turbo diesel variant and the aforementioned stick shift option. Designed in-house by Walter daSilva, the 147 took some clues from classic Alfas, namely the 1949 6C 2500 Villa d'Este. In late 2002 at the Paris Motorshow, the completely insane 147 GTA was shown to the gaping audience. Sporting a 3.2 litre V6 24-valve yielding 250bhp, it's the world's fastest production car in its class. Apart from a slightly more agressive styling it looks the same as the regular 147. Under its skin it's a different story though.
A Super Production model is also available, but this is a homologated car and will likely end up as a rarely driven garage queen with collectors.
As with all other cars, the brochure is full of TLAs like ABS, EBD, VDC and ASR. ABS is easy: it's the system that lets you brake and steer at the same time. Most cars have those now. EBD means Electronic Brake Distribution and is supposed to distribute stopping power between the rear and front axles according to some magic rules embedded in the car's tiny brain.
VDC is Vehicle Dynamic Control and is the umbrella system for antispin, speed sensoring, temperature monitoring, air flow, wheel yaw and all the other things you need command and control of while driving. In layman's terms VDC is the system that let you drive this hot little hatchback like a maniac and get away with it. I never do that either of course. Most of the VDC is automatic, but the ASR (anti spin recovery) subsystem can be turned off with a conveniently placed button next to the gear lever. Other safety gadgets include six airbags, seat belt tensioners and side-impact bars.
For the 2005 models, the 147 have received a facelift. Generally hailed as a completely unnecessary thing, the Alfa designers appears to have made its features more subtle while adding a couple of chrome lists. The interior is largely untouched.
You can not buy a new Alfa Romeo anywhere in the United States today (the 164 and the 75/Milano was available in the late 80's though), probably because it is everything they don't want in a car; it looks good, accelerates like a cat with a splatter of spicy mustard up its ass, it's easy to park and it crumples like a leaf when confronted with a contender in the eleven-ton ugliest-cars-in-the-world SUV arms race. There are rumours about Alfa doing a comeback in the US, but apart from Ferrari perhaps, Italian cars have the wrong kind of reputation to be any sort of big seller.
Plus, an Alfa is nowhere near maintenance free.
Like a woman.
I named mine Zaphod out of the simple fact that it has two spark plugs per cylinder and is cocky as hell. But it's still a woman.
1The Opel Kadett is known as Vauxhall Chevette by the guys who never mention the war. Aussies call Opel Holden.
2Vorbis tells me Azzurro Gabbiano means "seagull sky blue" in Italian.
More info at http://www.carsfromitaly.com/alfaromeo/147.html
A car identical to mine is at http://www.varln.nl/history/147hist.htm