Cover story: Test: Jeremy Clarkson: Alfa Romeo 147 GTA
Alfa males can be hard to handle
Two or three hundred years ago I tried to make a living selling soft toys. Imagine Graham Norton working on a building site as a hod carrier and youíll have some idea of just how bad I was.
God it was a lonely existence. All day I was in the car on my own with nothing to look forward to except a lonesome dinner and then bed in some godforsaken provincial hotel, electrocuting myself on the sheets while watching a regional news programme from a region Iíd never head of.
I actually looked forward to asking people for directions just so I could talk to someone. And at night, in the hotel bar, Iíd contravene every fibre of my Englishness and chat with other reps, even though most of them were overweight psychotics with sample bags full of severed heads.
As for the job itself, well, it was hell. We all know that the biggest problem with asking a girl out is that she might say no. Weíve all been there when the prettiest girl at school says sheíd rather go to the pictures with a sack of manure. Well, thatís what itís like being a salesman: you lead a Billy No-mates existence, being rejected eight or 10 times every single day.
Oh, I went on lots of Close that Deal! selling courses run by Americans in white suits, and I read books on human behaviour, learning that someoneís eyes are a window to their soul. Breathing is important, too: in order to build a rapport with the customer you need to match his respiratory patterns.
And so, armed all this psychobabble, Iíd drive hundreds of miles to a toyshop in Swansea where the conversation would go like this:
ďHello, would you like to buy some of these soft dogs?Ē ďNo.Ē
And then I would check into the Ivy Bush hotel and watch Welsh news with 4m volts coursing through my legs.
I know there are good salesmen who really can sell coals to Newcastle. I read just the other day about a car dealer who invited two Jehovahís Witnesses into his house; they left 20 minutes later with a P-reg Ford Mondeo.
And who can forget Swiss Toni from The Fast Show? His philosophy was sublime. ďYou have to make the customer think that his is bigger. But, in order to sell a car to him, you have to know that yours is bigger. You have to keep telling yourself, ĎIíve got the biggest todger in the worldí.Ē
But I couldnít do it. Iíd walk into a shop knowing, with absolute certainty, that the proprietor had wanted to spend the morning selling clackers and space hoppers, not shooting the breeze with a gawky teenager who was breathing strangely and looking at his crotch.
Most importantly, though, I knew he wouldnít want the soft dog, partly because it was too expensive and partly because it wasnít soft enough, but mostly because Iíd tucked him up with half a dozen Captain Beakies the previous year that were still sitting there gathering dust.
This brings me on to the biggest asset a salesman can have. Itís more important than a Mondeo ST220, a chunky watch and big genitals. Itís more important than a one-size-fits-all minibar master key or a road map with no page folds. The single most devastating weapon in a salesmanís armoury is a decent product.
Selling BMWs, for instance, is the easiest job in the world. Whenever someone walks through the door of the showroom you know for sure that he isnít considering any other make of car.
You know he wonít want a test-drive (itís said 87% of BMW buyers donít bother). And you know that, since heís buying a Bee Em, your todger is bigger.
All you have to do is offer a better discount than the BMW dealer in the next town and the sale is yours.
If youíre selling Audis, however, things are never so clear cut. When a customer walks through the door his mind is not made up. You need to reassure him that itís okay to drive an A4, that his friends wonít laugh or pull his hair at the squash club.
Whatís more, he will want a test-drive. And something on that drive, will annoy him. Itíll be different in some small way from the car he normally drives. The clutch will bite at a different point. The indicator stalk will be on the wrong side. Heíll find the radio fiddly. There will be something.
So youíre not only competing for his business with other Audi dealers. Youíre competing with the enormous pull of that magnetic north known as the BMW 3-series.
Imagine, then, what it must be like for an Alfa Romeo salesman. Heís sitting there with his dead pot plant in a showroom with the heat turned off to save money, knowing that nobody will walk through the door. Ever.
If he wants to feed his children on anything more nutritious than butt ends and stuff from the waste disposal unit he must go out there into the world and spread the word, knowing full well that nobody will listen.
Thereís a given with Alfas: they melt our hearts and our souls, but only the very foolish will actually spend £25,000 on a car that will go wrong every day and suffer from supersonic depreciation. They are like Russian hookers: insanely pretty and willing beyond the ken of man, but youíre going to get a rash.
The new 147 GTA is a case in point. To sell one thereís no point talking about finance deals and equipment levels because if anyoneís being rational about their new car theyíre going to buy a Ford Focus RS or, more likely, a VW Golf R32.
If I were charged with the task of selling Alfas I would offer free coffee, free money, a free Cameron Diaz, free anything I could think of to get people into the showroom. Because once they were there, behind the wheel, theyíd succumb. Nothing is more certain.
Itís the padded and stitched tan leather, the drilled pedals, the huge, body-hugging seats. When you sit in a Focus RS or a Golf R32 itís like sitting in a commercial for Lynx aftershave. When you sit in an 147 GTA itís like sitting in a Venetianís hand-made suitcase.
Then, when the customer had had five minutes in there, poking at switches and changing gear, Iíd pull him out, show him the chromed engine and give him the order form that, if he had even half a heart, heíd sign straight away.
However, Iím not an Alfa salesman, which is why Iím telling you here and now to stay out of the showroom. Do not climb inside one of these cars. Do not look at the engine. Put your hands in the air and stay away from the order form.
The 147 GTA is a mad car. Alfa has taken something that was designed to be a fun little hatchback buzz bomb and hammered a 3.2 litre V6 under the bonnet. Only, unlike Volkswagen and Ford, it hasnít bothered with four-wheel drive or a clever differential. All the power, all 250bhp of it, is sent directly to the front wheels.
Now managing 250 overenthusiastic and sporty Italian horses is a hard enough job on its own, but when you have to do the steering as well itís impossible.
So while the bald figures tell you that the GTA can go from 0 to 62mph in 6.3sec, what they donít tell you is where you end up. Which is back where you started, having spent the time fighting a losing wrestling match with the wheel. I thought the Focus RS torque-steered but this is something else.
Eventually, if youíre lucky, the car can be coaxed to go in roughly your chosen direction of travel, but encounter any bump or dip in the road and, whoa, youíre back on a wild mustang that has inadvertently spilled some wasabi on its testicles.
This is one of those cars that can never be persuaded to settle down. It shouts and waves its arms about and generally behaves like its shirtís on fire. Even in sixth, on the motorway with Classic FM on the stereo, youíre constantly aware of a finger tapping you on the shoulder urging you to drop it into fourth and live a little.
For 10 minutes itís a riot but then you start to notice that it doesnít handle, ride or grip like a Ford or a VW. And over time it would wear you out. I donít know why but it puts me in mind of Sven-Goran Erikssonís girlfriend; the one with the red dress and the plunging neckline.
Itís fast, really fast, and £22,500 wonít buy you a better white-knuckle ride. It also makes a tremendous noise. Itís lovely to behold and inside itís genuinely beautiful. But trust me on this ó Iím not a salesman. You donít want one.
Model Alfa Romeo 147 GTA
Engine type V6, 3197cc
Power 250bhp @ 6200rpm
Torque 221 lb ft @ 4800 rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual
Suspension (front) double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar; (rear) MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Tyres 225/45 R17W
Fuel 23.3mpg (combined)
Top speed 153 mph
Acceleration 0 to 62mph 6.3sec
Insurance Group 19
Dimensions 4213mm length, 1764mm width, 1412mm height
Verdict A riotous white-knuckle ride, exciting for a while but exhausting to live with