MOTOR MOUTH: Beauty's imperfections

MOTOR MOUTH: Beauty's imperfections - I have just undertaken the world's most gruelling journey: the school run through London SW postcodes. A foreign-plated Saab nudges with hesitant purposefulness out of a tiny mews. A Mercedes wagon is triple-parked, a

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I have just undertaken the world's most gruelling journey: the school run through London SW postcodes. A foreign-plated Saab nudges with hesitant purposefulness out of a tiny mews. A Mercedes wagon is triple-parked, a Transit load of weenies surges up the inside. It's driving that requires nerve and skill and patience and I wouldn't choose the Alfa Romeo 147 for the task.

The 147 is the new Alfa, competing one notch above the popular class that makes the Ford Focus the world's best-selling car. Although Alfa Romeo has made some terrible mistakes (including a joint venture with Nissan that combined the worst of Italian and the worst of Japanese characterisics in one melancholy package), you can't eradicate a natural inclination for beauty, and the 147 is a strikingly handsome car.

Especially from the front, where an expressive radiator grille exploits to the absolute maximo memories of Alfa's heritage. This famous motif was debased to a humble triangular patch in Alfa's grim years, but the 147's grille is heroically bold. I'm not enough of a car-spotter to say whether the precise source is the 1955 1900 Super Sport Zagato or the 1947 32006C (probably neither, as I've just made them up), but inherited characteristics are an explicit part of the package. The gauges are marked 'Benzina', 'Acqua', 'Giri' - enough to make me sob into my ristretto.

Moving back from the nose, bold and strong curves accumulate towards the tail in a dynamic-looking dart effect. The rear is a little bland, but the road wheels fill the arches nicely and the car has a firm stance.

I drove the five-door, which includes a nice aesthetic conceit first seen on the 156 saloon: in order that thrusting Alfa types of legend may avoid the stigma of appearing to drive a family car, the rear door-handle is camouflaged in the matt black surround of the 'C' pillar. Add the counterpoint of a front door-handle in retroid chrome and, from a distance, this five-door hatch looks like a coupe. It looks very good indeed.

So why would I not want this charming, attractive car for the school run? The reason is gears. The one I tried was fitted with Alfa's optional-extra Selespeed transmission, a clutchless semi-automatic powered by enough electronics to run the Gulf War. This provides three ways of changing gear: there is a stubby little thing on the floor where you expect a gear lever to be. This is spring-loaded fore and aft and you push-push-push to change up and pull-pull-pull to change down. You get reverse by putting your foot on the brake and banging the lever right and back. Alternatively, if you are travelling above 10mph there are little paddles behind the steering wheel, just like a Formula One car: down on the left, up on the right. If this all gets a bit wearing, there's a button called 'City'. Press this and it does it all for you.

This sounds ingenious and it is, but I had difficulty making it work well in urban conditions. I dare say on that lovely sweeping road between Cetona and Sarteano it is pure joy, but around town at urban engine speeds it was impossibly jerky and awkward, like a tenor with the CD skipping. This was made worse by very grabby brakes and an occasional reluctance to engage reverse.

I love Alfas but find it hard to forgive a car that makes me do bunny-hops while negotiating a parking space outside my daughter's school, witnessed by 20 grinning and knowing 14-year-olds. But wait, there's more. In full automatic mode you proceed in spurts, but there is one delightful Selespeed feature: on the downchanges the engine automatically blips so you get a bit of Giancarlo Baghetti exhaust rasp. Still, I'd choose a manual.

Alfa Romeo seems almost to have solved its quality problems. You can no longer actually hear the cars rust, and most of the components seem to be well attached. Designer Andreas Zapatinis has achieved an almost Audi level of finish inside, although the exterior colours disappoint.

Cars like this, with a lovely twin cam, Twinspark engine and that gorgeous snout, should be in a period palette: cream with burgundy, sky blue with red, pistachio with brown.

I say 'almost' because five minutes into my first journey a warning sign told me 'ABS system failure'. Oh yes, the boot wouldn't close and there was a noise from the front passenger door as if someone was frothing for a macchiato inside. Still, for an Alfista these are small prices to pay for beauty.

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