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Alfa Romeo 147 GTA | The Brave Pill

Alfa's hot hatch won more jeers than cheers when new, but it's aging impressively well

By Mike Duff / Saturday, January 18, 2020

Brace yourself, because Brave Pill is going to start this week with a scandalous use of what is almost certainly the most controversial "c" word of them all. That's right: classic. Beyond the sort of hardened Alfisti who bleed ragu few would argue that the 147 GTA has acquired right to use the term. But look to the not-too-distant future and this charismatic oddball looks to have nailed-on collectable status.

It's hard not to love the combination of a small car with a big engine, and the GTA was a hot hatch with a heart designed to power a much bigger car. The standard 147 came from one of the several eras when Alfa was being forced to make modest development spend go a very long way, and sits on what is effectively a cut-down version of the 156 saloon platform. The GTA follows similar logic, cramming the snarling 3.2-litre V6 from the range-topping 156 into the far dinkier 147.

Offering a naturally aspirated V6 in a hatchback wasn't unique; this was the era of peak cylinder count and early 'noughties buyers could choose several others, including the mk4 Golf R32 and the closely related - and now largely forgotten - Audi A3 V6. But neither of the Germans sounded anything like as good as the 147 GTA, and also came with the sensible, Germanic fitment of all-wheel drive. The Alfa didn't, rather sending all 247hp and 221 lb ft through the front wheels - and without a limited-slip differential as standard. Something that, on low grip surfaces, was often handled with the poise and discipline of an Italian military retreat.

Focus was lacking, a point made most forcefully by the similar-vintage mk1 Focus RS and its far better controlled front-drive chassis . Yet although the 147 GT often felt wayward, and sometimes downright disobedient, it also had huge character. This was one of the final applications for the long-running 'Busso' V6, the 60-degree engine - informally named after engineer Giuseppe Busso - had been launched as long ago as 1979, and its various incarnations remain, even now, pretty much the only acceptable answers to the challenge "name a nice-sounding V6." The GTA's 24-valve 3.2-litre was one of the best, muscular low down and with an operatic zing when extended. Popping the bonnet also revealed six gleaming induction pipes and the legend "GTA 3.2" on the proper metal plenum chamber. It was one of those cars you could buy for the engine alone.

Chassis composure wasn't great under hard use - I remember the GTA having a particular talent for turning passengers green over rough roads - and faster progress through twisties soon turned into an exercise in managing understeer. But at a more respectful pace, the GTA was actually pretty good, with a more relaxed ride than the segment norm, on smoother roads at least, and steering that never stopped chatting even when there wasn't much to say. It was one of those cars that wouldn't win on straight A-to-B pace compared to obvious rivals, but which would produce bigger grins when drivers compared notes later.

Not that the Great British car-buying public felt much love for the GTA when it was new. Only around 350 were sold here in the two years it was on sale, actually fewer than the more expensive 156 GTA managed between its saloon and Sportwagon estates, and a total that makes the hot 147 considerably rarer than practically anything else in its segment; indeed there are fewer out there than there are of the two generations of Clio V6. Prices slid to little more than banger money in the early teens, but the GTA has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years and these days the best and most cherished cars are wearing five-figure price tags.

You'll notice our Pill isn't. At £6,000 it is the cheapest of the three currently to be found in the classifieds, four grand below the car in second place. That reflects both a 129,000 mileage, but also a less-than-perfect status that the private seller is honest enough to detail in the advert. Some will regard the fact this car has already had a full engine rebuild at 98,000 miles as evidence of a life lived hard, it could equally fairly be seen as proof it has been given what it needs, when it needs it.

Obscured plates deny us a look at the MOT history, though the vendor details all major servicing and a list of what has been replaced since 2016: that including the radiator, timing belt, water pump and a driveshaft. It had new front discs and pads in March last year, and two new Goodyear Eagles in July. Some sympathetic mods include an earlier switch to bigger front discs, Eibach coil-overs, a raspier sports exhaust, a front strut brace and the Q2 limited-slip differential which dramatically improves front-end poise. In short, a sizeable, ongoing and reassuring level of spend.

The downsides include some electrical gremlins, a temporarily repaired gear selector that will need replacing and that old favourite: non-functioning aircon. (Credit to the vendor for not saying "probably just needs a re-gas.") Like most Alfas of the period, the 147 GTA is maintenance intensive and tends to punish neglect quickly. But despite the acknowledged risk of pricey borkage many owners seem able to keep GTAs in fettle for relatively modest cost, something helped by a good ecosystem of specialists. 147 GTA buyers also tend to hold on to their cars for a long time, our seller has had this one for 11 years, which is also a good indication of the car's greater than the sum of its parts appeal.

By Brave Pill standards a six-grand front driven hatchback might seem like ordering an omelette at an Indian restaurant; last week's Phall grade 911 Turbo having been regarded as a bit cautious and sensible by a fair percentage of those writing comments. But we like to provide for all tastes, and while the cost might be relatively modest the emotional journey that comes with owning any middle-aged Alfa is likely to be intense. The GTA is one of those cars that didn't win many tests or plaudits when new, but which is starting to look like a compelling alternative as time goes on.

See the original advert here

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