I've owned one Selespeed car before - a FIAT Stilo Abarth - when it had only 25,000km on the clock (it was like new). I got used to it pretty quick and the lilting five-cylinder engine note was delicious, but I never used CITY mode at all, as it felt like a learner driver was at the wheel.
Now I have Selespeed in the 156 pre-facelift-but-post-interior-facelift 2003 model.
It's a tough one to answer. I think it comes down to whether you ever need to use the car as an appliance - if so, then a regular auto is better. Crawling in a traffic jam, parking, etc. the 'real' auto is always going to be smoother than a Selespeed. On the other hand, if you only ever drive in a sporting and fully-involved manner, then you want the manual transmission.
I'd probably have gone for the manual except that almost all the 2L models are Selespeed in this part of the world. I found a couple of manual V6s but they were more expensive and I decided that I wanted a TS rather than a V6 (after years of happy 164 V6 motoring, I wanted to try the TS for practicality. And so far I'm very impressed.)
So, about the selespeed. It's quite satisfying to get in tune with it, to the point where you can drive it smoothly, more smoothly than a manual most of the time... at first you get many frustrating moments in town when it changes to 2nd JUST as you put your foot down a bit, you put your foot down a bit more, and there's a horrid lurch as it finishes its gearchanging and opens the throttle wide, something you just wouldn't be doing in a manual (who opens the throttle while they are changing gears?). In CITY mode, Selespeed generally make far too many gearchanges, not my usual relaxed style (it was probably developed for Italian stop-go-stop-go!-Go!-GO! conditions. Never think that it's going to be just another auto - it's more eerie than that... Provided you don't mind trying something new and getting used to it, it's really not that bad. I think it's great to have the benefits of a manual most of the time, plus the convenience of not having to operate the gear lever if your left hand is tuning the stereo, opening a drink, etc.
And as far as 'mechanical sympathy' goes, I would say it's a better choice than the manual - one of the aims of Alfa Romeo was to prevent abuse of the conventional transmission/clutch. I wouldn't expect any of us on this forum to be an 'abusive' driver
But the fact remains, you really can't mis-treat a Selespeed. The way it forces the gears through is really quite unsympathetic itself, but the benefit is that it will never be 'lazy' with the clutch (go on, admit it, we've all done it at some time, been a bit slow with the clutch foot?
) and it will never get the wrong gear and redline the engine.
Even in manual mode, it always changes down for you as you come to a stop, but fortunately, I don't think the later ones do this as aggressively as the earlier version. It only selects 1st when you are moving at walking pace, for instance, which mirrors what I would do in a manual (actually, I'd probably leave it in 2nd, but at least being in 1st means it's ready to go again). Eventually you get used to the idea of changing down from 3rd to 2nd before it wants to, and that helps with the smoothness around town. On the way up, I often double-click to go from 2nd to 4th (once I've finished accelerating and when the engine is warm). So it can do all the things that a manual transmission can do.
Coming from a CVT auto to the Selespeed, I'm instantly aware of rather more gearchanging and driver involvement, but at the same time, that brings you the benefits of a manual gearbox - efficiency, the feeling of the engine actually being connected to the wheels (unlike a CVT), etc. What you don't have to face is a sticky/vague gearchange and an obstinate clutch, so in some ways it's better than having an actual manual transmission.
When driven hard, the Selespeed works perfectly - quick changes, smooth... At the other end of the driving spectrum, I do have a bit of difficulty reversing down my driveway when the engine is cold, as Selespeed engages the clutch with quite a few revs, so you end up going rather faster than you want, or bunnyhopping (mine probably needs a clutch adjustment).
But once on the move, gearchanges seem clash-free, no crunching, no whines, and mine has 238,000km on the clock, so it's getting up there. That's nearly 150,000 miles - seems a lot for six years in Singapore!
Reliability may be poor, but long-term durability seems all right to me, if that makes sense (try driving an older FIAT with 238,000km and you might know what I mean; their manual gearboxes are usually getting crunchy/noisy by then). No-one knows how many replacement parts my car may have had, but on the whole I'm happy with it.