Under the Knife – A Kiss of the Blade

The 2004 facelift of Alfa’s 147 was of the light-touch variety. We check for residual scarring.

2004 Alfa Romeo 147. Image: bipedia.info via occasion-automobile.fr

It wasn’t possible to know it at the time, but the immediate pre and post-Millennium period would represent the final creative and commercial flowering of FIAT Auto (as then known), a statement which is particularly apt when it comes to matters surrounding the fabled Biscione of Milan.

Part of FIAT’s sprawling auto group since 1986 and in the wake of a somewhat chequered start in product terms, a cohesive and (from a purely design perspective at least) credible strategy had been formulated for Alfa Romeo; matters taking a decidedly more upbeat tone with the Enrico Fumia-helmed 1993 Spider and related GTV models.

First introduced in the summer of 2000 at the Turin motor show, the Alfa Romeo 147, arriving on the heels of the critically and stylistically acclaimed 156 witnessed the continuance of the carmaker’s stylistic Renaissance. Its predecessor, while well received initially, dated quickly, despite having been in receipt of the contractually-obligated retrograde centro stile mid-life facelift.

In direct contrast to the 145/6’s angular Fumia-inspired lines, the 147, credited to Walter de Silva’s centro stile team which included Wolfgang Egger and Andreas Zapatinas (the latter being responsible for the tail treatment it was reported*) was modelled more closely on the 156’s softer, more voluptuous forms.

2000 Alfa 147. (c) autoevolution

As characterised by most of the contemporary output under the immodest Mr. de Silva’s supervision, the 147 was defined by a strong theme, muscular proportions, clean, unadorned surfaces and well-judged detailing, much of the latter intended to reflect upon the marque’s illustrious past.

Critically acclaimed (it was in receipt of that year’s European Car of the Year award, and Germany’s Golden Steering Wheel, the 147 also won a number of awards for design. Commercially, the 147 made a lot of friends (Alfa Romeo’s aftersales less so) proving a comparatively strong seller and a credible contender in the upmarket C-segment. By 2004 however, it was due a refresh.

Image: The RAC

This too was a centro stile job, involving a new more upright nose treatment, intended to align more closely with the upcoming Ital Design-inspired 159 and Brera models. Cosmetic changes were confined to the bumper/aprons front and rear, with revised head and tail lamp units and a removal of rubbing strips at the extremities.

There were other changes too; to the cabin, and of a technical nature, but for such a perfunctory suite of alterations, the result, while subtle was profound. Given the degree of subjectivity attributed to all matters of a visual nature, it is a matter of opinion as to whether it can be described as an improvement, but as facelifts (and especially Alfa Romeo facelifts) go, it can certainly be described as a success – considerably more so than the rather ham-fisted (Ital Design credited) liftjob carried out on the 156 a year earlier.

Just as well really, since it was required, owing the FIAT group’s spiralling woes, to carry out a good deal more heavy lifting than that of its immediate forebear. For six years more, the 147 held the fort, the last of the line emerging from Alfa Romeo’s Naples plant in 2010, with close to 600,000 being built over a ten year lifespan.

Image: favcars

Isn’t it remarkable how fresh the 147 looks in that photo immediately above, illustrating not only how accomplished the original design was, but also underlining how tepid and unimaginative its bloated looking Giulietta replacement (itself now left rotting on the vine) was by comparison.

No facelift for the ages then, but one worth applauding nonetheless. Sometimes the mere kiss of the blade is enough.

* Author’s note: While most sources credit the two designers mentioned above, DTW has since learned that the designer who carried out most of the work on 147 was Fillipo Perini, later to become chief designer at Lamborghini. Thanks CB, for this additional information.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

35 thoughts on “Under the Knife – A Kiss of the Blade”

  1. Good morning Eóin and thanks for the reminder of a car I had almost forgotten about. I’m ambivalent about the facelift but the design really was rather accomplished, especially when viewed from the rear three-quarter angle as in your final photo. That’s a lovely, unusual colour too.

    The Giulietta that followed really was a frumpy thing, with its droopy and morose looking front end:

    In either iteration, the 147 was much better looking.

    1. I’ve spent two days intermittently trying to recall what the Giulietta above reminds me of. Got it at last:

    2. If I interrogate myself, I discover it´s the nasty chrome trim around the DLO that bothers me most. There is a break at the back where it starts to rise with the C-pillar. And there is a gap under the mirror. I noticed the Ford Galaxy Mk2 has the same “missing” bit and I wonder if the designers really think it looks better without chrome there.
      The vertical front lamps are as bad an idea as a sideways hinged toilet seat. Different but different bad.
      The car´s a bit bloated. There´s no way I´d want one of these over a similarly priced Focus or Astra. The Focus will be a decent drive (and has succulent paint) and the Astra will be comfortable and looks lovely. I expect both to run for a decade without complaint.

  2. To atone for posting the above image, here are a couple more of the delicious burnt orange 147:

    1. I’ll stick my neck out and express the view that the Giulietta, infinitely less charming than the 147 though it is, constitutes an exception to the Fiat Charter in that its facelift improved its looks far beyond its modest scope: https://www.meinauto.de/pics/wpimages/2016/03/Alfa-Romeo-Giulietta-2016-außen-vorne-dynamisch.jpg

      A neighbour runs a car very similar to the one pictured, which I find quite appealing. That facelift is really just a colour & trim upgrade, but it makes a significant difference to my eyes – it doesn’t turn the Giulietta into a stunner, but it adds some much-needed fizz.

    2. (Why is the link shown, rather than the bloody photo? First I wasn’t allowed to log into WordPress & hence comment at all, now I’m not allowed to post images…)

    3. Good morning Christopher. I’ve embedded the photo in your comment above. (not sure I can see the improvement in the Giulietta, however!)

    4. That front overhang! You could get a flat-eight in there!

    5. Daniel,

      thanks for fixing the image.

      The changes were minimal indeed: different paint choices (such as this attractive – to my eyes – matte grey), different wheels and changes to the front end, including the addition of that red accent around the lower air intake (again: attractive to my eyes), a different mesh pattern and, most crucially, the absence of the hideous ‘suspended grille’ design.

      Does the sum of these changes make for a completely different car? Of course not. But they make the Giulietta appear an awful lot more contemporary and quite a bit more cheeky, as suits an Alfa. Certain commendable aspects, such as the very competently done surfacing, were highlighted too, thanks to those new paint choices and the absence of distracting brightwork (on the grille and elsewhere).

      Even in this spec, the Giulietta doesn’t set my heart aflutter, but next to all other cars in its class, bar the Mazda3, it cuts a rather fine figure.

  3. Hmm. This is a tricky one: Whilst by the low standards of facelifts in general (certainly Fiat Group ones) this is undeniably a successful exercise and did significantly refresh the visual design without ruining it, I can’t help feeling it was still to the car’s detriment. The original version is ‘just right’ and a substantial portion of that rightness is attributable to how well the rounded forms and well-judged decoration of the frontal aspect tone with the car’s flanks. The facelift introduces a slight pointy-ness that doesn’t quite gel visually and the headlights always look uncomfortably elongated to me, having seen many examples of both versions in the metal.

    Alternatively, I haven’t had quite enough coffee this morning and may have slightly overdone the Primitivo yesterday evening, leading to a case of overly-judgemental crankiness. Who can say?

    1. Hi Chris. You’re not alone. I see what you mean about ‘pointiness’ which is why I’m ambivalent about the facelift. The original was more unusual too, which is a plus in my book. That said, it was an entirely competent facelift, so highly unusual for Fiat group cars.

      Robertas, yes, that front overhang is epic! My sister-in-law has a Mito and it suffers the same issue, causing the front end to ground out on even mild inclines, which is an annoyance.

  4. I’ve never liked the facelifted version because the new light units didn’t fit the rest of the car.
    The front lights were too large and looked bland and the rear ones robbed the bootlid of its beatiful sculpting.

  5. I am with Dave. There are worse facelifts, but the changes don’t fit with the mixture of robust forms and delicate details – they also blandify the original. The latter was a wonderful looking car, almost as nice as the original 156. People rave about the Giulia of today, but it’s nothing on the 156 and 159 that preceded it.

  6. My wife ran a 2003 147 for 6 years. We definitely liked it a lot even though it was only the 1.6 Tspark. It was a black 3 door with a nice spec. Surprisingly the service from the main dealer was quite good (the principal was a guy called Ambrose Glass who sold Alfas and Fiats since the 60s I think and was very well known in Dublin). The only major fault we had with it was when the gear linkage broke and it got stuck in reverse. Despite the good service Ambrose provided we had to wait almost 2 weeks to get a part and the car was off the road almost 3 weeks. The car drove really well, it had a curious mix of feeling light and chuckable yet also well planted and confidence inspiring. Great seats and a lovely driver focused binnacle as well.
    I really didn’t like the facelift though. Those squinty headlights didn’t suit the car’s curves and gave it a mean, aggressive mien I didn’t really get.

  7. For me, it was always the pre-facelift. I like the villa d’est quote on the front. I never liked the facelift, especially because of the headlights.
    Unfortunately, Alfa Romeo also went the way into the coal-cellar interior during that time, which is why the 147 never made it onto the wish list – despite its beautiful exterior.

    1. Maybe there’s something wrong with my spectacles but I can’t see a coal mine here:

      or here:

    2. Yes, there were bright colours. But only in leather. We don’t like leather seats, we like to sit on fabric seats.

      (In our Alfa Spider, the sites are partly in leather, and I never liked that, too slippery – well, that’s not the case with these seats -and too sweaty. I’ve thought about having the seats covered in fabric for the last 30 years, but the wife decided that we should spend our money on the important things in life: Handbags and shoes – well, one have to prioritise).

    3. You got an Alfa Spider with leather interior, not Alfatex? That would be a very rare example as at least pre-‘aerodinamica’ form cars with leather were almost exclusively for US export.
      You can’t compare the leather in a 147/156/166 to the nasty plasticised stuff used by solely US export oriented manufacturers. Alfa used Momo leather first, Poltrona Frau later. The leather is of the open pore variety without any plastic (poly urethane) coating that is so excessively used by German and even more by Japanese manufacturers to meet the demands of the US market and makes you feel as if you were sitting on a plastic shopping bag.
      The Alfa leather does not make you sweat in summer nor is it cold in winter – but it is extremely sensitive to staining from denim trousers and the like.
      My wife always said that she would be happy to have a handbag made from leather as soft and supple as the one in our Alfas.

  8. Having owned all generations from 146 to Giulietta, with the 147 being a facelifted Collezione “limited edition” example, I would have to attest that the 146 (1.6 TS, not that underpowered and by then obsolete 8v boxer 1.6) was the more engaging dynamically. Quality was typical ’90s FIAT (read: mediocre) with hard grey plastic everywhere, but it was well-mannered and spirited. The 147 was much more mature if only slower (same engine, 150kg heavier), but with much more precise steering and rear axle control. It also had the most efficient A/C I’ve ever used (big deal in the Cyprus desert)! The Giulietta was not really improved in interior quality and material, with squeaks and fragile plastics. Handling was compromized with the heavy diesel up front, but overall much more fun from a Golf. Main problem was the odd front-end styling (pre-facelift version) and the outdated tech.

  9. As a perennial reserved Alfa enthusiast (never owning) the 147 never quite did it for me with its slightly geeky looks in both iterations . Pinned with AR’s awful embodiment of reliability and customer after care never led me into a showroom.
    However, that burnt orange example really does look the Bees Knees – did the U.K. receive such a hue? Models I see (not at all regularly even at the height of its popularity) always seem to be red, black or grey. So I’m not sure about a kiss of the blade inasmuch a change of rattle can. Throw in an interior other than black and I might, even now, be tempted.

    1. It’s a pity you never entered an Alfa showroom because the experiences to be had there are pretty unique in the industry. And that’s before you want their mechanics to do something on your car.
      Before we bought our Golf I shortly considered a 147 with the yet-to-be-announced 16V diesel that was only a couple of weeks away.
      I walked into the showroom of the importer’s HQ and met two salesmen totally occupied by their new LaCimbali espresso machine. It took me several attempts to get their attention (the new machine, Sir…). ‘I want to buy an Alfa 147 with the new 16V diesel that will be available in a couple of weeks.’ ‘There will be no 16V diesel and the 8V is fast enough anyway.’ ‘Could you please leave it to me to judge whether or not a car is fast enough. I know for sure there will be a 16V diesel in six to eight weeks and I want to buy one.’ ‘There will be no such product and the 8V is all you need anyway.’ ‘If you’d look in your internal sales announcements you will find that there will be a 16V and you can sell one of them to me here and now.’ ‘I don’t need to look because there will be no such product but I can sell you an 8V but only after we managed this espresso machine.’ ‘May I sum up: you are not willing to find out whether you can sell me the product I want to buy and you tell me I should make do with the product I don’t want?’ ‘More or less, that’s it, Sir.’
      Just for the record – the 147 16V JTD went on sale five weeks later.

  10. So many new cars appear at such a clip these days, it´s hard to keep a track of them. When the 147 appeared it was an event though and it offered a meaningful alternative to the Astra/Golf/Focus trio and possibly the Audi A3 too. The Giulietta seems to be an okay car (TG like it, for example) but it´s landed with a thud. I think in part it´s because not many people care much about Alfa any more -it´s getting like late stage Chrysler or Rover. Alfa presents spasms not new new products – much like a twitching animal after the bolt-gun has been deployed. The 147 also struck me as an accessible car whereas the Giulietta is too big and too costly without even being a proper saloon. It´s a bit late in the day for ICE-based cars to get back to basics. Perhaps in the switch to electric power trains someone can scale it all back so you get something of the litheness of the best of 1980s cars. I reported sitting in a 1970s Alfetta – haptically it felt so amenable and useable. When I sit in a modern car I feel like I am perched in a bank vault with windows. I suppose if I want something light I´ll have to get a Hyundai i20. The 147 is the right kind of size and weight. The Giulietta is 4.3 metres long and, crucially, a bit too wide.
    I just had a look at the Hyundai i20 and if they sold a higher powered GTi-type car it´d be a proper handy, sporty car. They miss out by selling it with just two engines of one litre capacity. A 1.4 would be ideal. We´ve written about the passing of peak-engine choice already, haven´t we?

    1. That N-series i20 looks very appealing and the engineering upgrades make it quite serious. Hyundai really have their act together.
      Robertas: is the MiTo so bad?

    2. Over the years, my family has run a couple of 156s (2.0 Twin Sparks, one with standard suspension, one with the factory-fit Eibach springs and 20mm ride height drop), a 147 (also 2.0 TS), and a Giulietta QV 1.8. Of the lot, I preferred the standard-spec 156 the most.

      I don’t think the Giulietta is anything to write home about, really. Having been away from home for a couple of years owing to Covid-enforced travel restrictions, I must confess to not having a strong recent memory of it, but my abiding memory is of quite a heavy-feeling car – the steering is nothing special in my opinion and not remotely close to the lovely feel in the 156. The engine is a strong enough performer, but quite characterless. Overall, the interior (both plastics and seat upholstery) feels cheaper than that in the 147, which is unacceptable. The ride is good, though, even/especially on the QV. (I would still take a QV over a Mk6 Golf GTI, which I found monumentally underwhelming when I borrowed a friend’s example to drive the length of Massachusetts a few years ago.)

      There are a lot of people who prefer the Twin Spark installation in the 147 to that in the 156. I’m not one of them. They look the same from the outside, but aren’t – the 147 head has smaller valves and ports, a more compact combustion chamber, lighter internals (including pistons), and an updated Motronic – but I suspect the biggest difference one feels is the fly-by-wire throttle the 147 has versus the physical setup on the 156. Whether it’s these changes or the installation itself, I have always found the Twin Spark less refined in the 147 than in a 156 – it’s not gruff, exactly, but there’s no mistaking the difference in character. In isolation, it wouldn’t be an issue; driven back-to-back, you can’t help but notice and be a bit disappointed.

      With all that said, I don’t want to come across like I have a downer on the 147, because I don’t. Overall, I liked it a lot. Richard is right that it was a big deal when it came out in 2000, and I remember the launch well – it was a seriously appealing prospect at the time. But the styling did a lot of the convincing in my opinion – it really hit the bullseye so a few minor shortcomings could be overlooked. The Giulietta just doesn’t have the same aesthetic appeal (plus the crowd who had been enticed by the 147 had been burnt by the dealer network, inter alia), so there’s no real reason from a customer’s perspective to cut it any slack.

    3. Richard, if you dislike the claustrophobic feeling of contemporary cars, you will hate the MiTo. It’s small inside but feels even more cramped than it is due to an ill-judged attempt to give it the feel of a sports car.

      Awful little car, sadly.

      My neighbour has recently acquired a Giulietta and he says it’s tremendous. But then he is a huge Alfa Romeo fan.

  11. Out on my evening constitutional, I passed by the neighbourhood Giulietta. Probably distressed merchandise from Arnold, but low and sinuous in the manner of a proper Alfa and quite distinct from the generality of C-segment hatchbacks from the early years of the last decade.

    My armchair product planner moment of despair is that the Giulietta effectively also replaced the 159, peremptorily dropped in 2011 and not replaced until 2016. Fiat Charter? More likely a GM IP issue, I’ve been told.

    It wouldn’t have been beyond the wit of FCA to derive a Guilietta-plus from the 108mm longer Chrysler 200 version of the platform. A sedan and a wagon would do nicely, add a coupe if you can be bothered. Call it Alfetta or 1750.

    Instead we got the fatuous MiTo, and the irrelevant 4C and 8C. Even the MX-5 based Duetto (after Mitsuoka) would have done better to keep the Alfa flame, and dealer network alive.

    I’m not sure if such a thing even exists in my nation. Probably just small enclaves in Arnold’s Jeep outlets.

  12. One mildly interesting facet of the 147 facelift is that it made visible the notion of ‘running changes’. As the shot of the burnt orange car in the article attests, the facelift launched with an entirely pointless and unspeakably cheap-looking chrome strip along the bottom of the tailgate. Alfa realised its mistake after a few weeks of production and dropped it, so the overwhelming majority of post-facelift cars you see fortunately lack said strip, per here:

  13. Hi Eóin, sorry for the late reaction: nice article about a lovely car. I remember it being quite a bit larger than the average c-segment model when it was introduced, owing to it being based around the 156. That car was, conversely, rather small – at least visually – for its segment but that fell nicely in line with that segment’s “premium” cars (the German big three) which were also smaller than more mundane offerings.

    It turned out to be fortuitous timing, since I remember that during the 147’s life time c-segment cars received a growth spurt (I remember once seeing a Peugeot 306 absolutely dwarfed by its 307 successor parked next to it – I couldn’t help chuckling a little). Throughout its life, it fell nicely in line size-wise. I think the pre-facelift version is a little more coherent, but as you say, the facelift is far from the worst ever perpetrated.

    I’m with Christopher in having a sneaking admiration for the Giulietta – it’s nothing spectacular, but it’s a nice car next to many of its competitors with just enough “motorway presence”, methinks. I’ve always found it a shame that they didn’t produce a 147 successor more in the style of the 159, though. Deeply flawed though that car was, I found it beautiful. Deeply flawed though my sketching is (it’s been quite a while), it might have been something along these lines:

    1. Tom V: Agreed on the 159 template. It was a hugely retrograde step to abandon this style. Only today I was admiring a 159 for its elegance and subtlety. It has aged with a good deal of grace in my view. A Guilietta in this idiom is indeed a tantalising thought experiment. Thanks for the render. Nice work.

    2. Thanks, Eóin, I’ve been working on that render for a few days (in my spare time). The first iteration was based on the Giulietta, but simply grafting the 159-style nose did not do enough to offset that car’s frumpy appearance, so I based it on a 159 instead – shortened and narrowed a bit.

    3. Inspired by Tom’s sketch, I thought I would try to produce an alternative reality Giulietta based on the 159 style. Here’s what I came up with:

  14. Great article and comments. For me the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA seemed like the perfect version both visually and engineering wise. That glorious Busso V6 mated to a sporting body kit and aggressive stance suited the car perfectly. I adore seeing them out and about although it is a rare occurrence these days.

    Am I correct in saying the 147 GTA model never received the facelift?

    1. Hi ckracer. Yes, you’re right: sadly, the GTA was discontinued in 2005, when the facelift was introduced.

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