Crucial car with the potential to win buyers away from Germany | by Andrew Frankel
I have recently driven two cars reputed to be the most important in their company’s history. One, the Aston Martin DB11, is clearly not and I’ll explain why on these pages next month. The other is the Alfa Romeo Giulia and it unquestionably is.
To Alfa Romeo in 2016, the Giulia is as was the Elise to Lotus in 1994, or the DB7 to Aston Martin two years earlier. For the Elise and DB7 the outcome was not so much success or failure as life or death for their proud brands: the same is true for Alfa Romeo today. After decades of product that unerringly failed to live up to its on-paper promise and for reasons explained on the preceding news page the Giulia simply has to work. It also has a near impossible act to follow in the form of the original Giulia which advanced the art of the three-box saloon so far past the class norm as to barely be in sight. As early as 1962, here was a family car offering a twin-cam engine, a disc brake at all four corners and a five-speed gearbox. It was also brilliantly set up to offer endless driving pleasure.
Essentially two Giulias are coming to the UK and I’ll cover them both because one is important, the other exciting and both therefore deserve a fair hearing here.
The important one is the 2.2-litre diesel version almost everyone will buy. It’s a good-looking car with an interior that’s at least sufficiently spacious in a category where expectations in this regard are not high. The cabin is attractive but let down in the detailing: much of the switchgear looks cheap, as do the dials. Hunt around below the eye line and you’ll find cheap, hard plastic at your first prod.
The engine is all-new, all-aluminium but only available with automatic gears, at least when UK sales begin this autumn. It’s a little noisy, especially relative to an Audi A4’s powertrain, but it’s willing enough for the very punchy performance figures claimed for it to seem only slightly ambitious.
Far more notable is the chassis, which provides quite the most exquisite ride quality of any car I’ve driven in this class. The car’s structure feels granite-strong and provides Alfa with a superbly stable platform from which to hang a pair of wishbones at each corner. It’s actually quite softly sprung and correctly so, for those spring rates come also with excellent damper control ensuring the body’s movements are always kept in close check.
Which should make the Giulia a wonderfully engaging sporting saloon to drive, as it would have been had Alfa Romeo not dropped the ball with its steering. Alfa proudly proclaims its rack is quicker than any other in the class, and this is precisely its problem. Trick front suspension geometry designed to make sure the car doesn’t feel darty and nervous has a calming influence but the car still steers too aggressively the moment you are off-centre, a trait not helped by there being very little real feel coming back through the wheel.
It’s a serious fault for those who have spent so long looking forward to once more savouring a traditional front-engined, rear-drive Alfa Romeo sports saloon on the open road, but in the interest of balance I’d say it’s the one truly disappointing aspect of the car, as opposed to minor annoyances of which there are plenty. Even so this Giulia pleased me far more than it bugged me and, for anyone looking for a change after too many years of German saloons, so long as you’re prepared for the caveats outlined above, it has my recommendation.
The other Giulia is called the Quadrifoglio and is a very different beast, not least thanks to the 503bhp twin-turbo, 2.9-litre V6 parked under its carbon fibre bonnet. More than anything, this is a colossally brave car and Alfa is to be respected and commended for simply having the balls to do it. For a company that has not launched a truly credible sports saloon in more than 30 years and never into a corner of the class as sharp as this, deciding to tackle the BMW M3 and Mercedes-AMG C63 head-on is gutsy to say the least.
But it’s all there, at least on paper: it has the power, the 190mph top speed, the sub 4sec 0-62mph time. The engine is brand new and described as ‘Ferrari-inspired’, which turns out to mean former Ferrari employees worked on it. What Alfa is less keen to talk about is the strong probability that it will also be a development of this engine that goes into Ferrari’s forthcoming new Dino.
The single most annoying aspect of my drive in the Quadrifoglio had nothing to do with the car but the fact that Alfa Romeo wouldn’t let us drive it on the road, and I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions as to why that might be. In the meantime don’t ask how it rides or how quiet it is at a steady cruise because I don’t know, nor does any other journalist, no matter what their words might suggest.
What I can tell you is that it is mightily fast. The 0-62mph claim is a little surprising, only because of the traction limitations inherent in having an engine in the nose and just two driven wheels – but the impression of real-world performance it provides is accurate. The engine itself is not without problems in its power delivery and very heavy flywheel effect, but happily both issues are neutralised by quite the best conventional automatic gearbox ever to be fitted to such a car. I didn’t like
the gearchange of the manual versionI briefly drove nor the clumsy way the power came in, but the auto shifts brilliantly, stacking its eight gears close enough to cover the engine’s inadequacies entirely. The noise is somewhat synthetic and less pleasing even than the M3’s straight six, let alone the C63’s V8, but does not lack purpose.
And the chassis is at least a match for it. Changes to the tyres, geometry, spring rates and steering calibration means there’s more feel through the helm than in the standard Giulia, though still less than I’d like, and it’s refreshingly easy to dose the rear tyres with just enough torque at the exit to either merely neutralise its natural inclination towards mild understeer or slide it around at will. Unlike the cooking Giulia, you can disable all electronic driver aids save the ABS.
Neither Giulia is a world-beater and you’ll not find designers scuttling back to their drawing boards in Munich, Ingolstadt or Stuttgart as a result of its arrival in the market place. But both are competitive cars for which no apology need be made. They will provide sound reasons to prick the interest of customers, beyond not being a BMW, Audi or Mercedes-Benz. In short, these are cars that deserve to succeed; but they need to be sensibly priced and better built than any Alfa in history, at least as good in this regard as the Germans. If Alfa Romeo can crack that, the Giulia has the talent to turn around the company and, even after all these years of mismanagement and inadequate offerings, set Alfa back on a course for success.
Price – £57,000
Engine – 2.9 litres, 6 cylinders, twin-turbocharged
Power – 503bhp @6500rpm
Torque – 442lb ft @2500rpm
Transmission – eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Weight – 1650kg (approx)
Power to Weight – 305bhp per tonne (approx)
0-62mph – 3.9 sec
Top speed – 191mph
Economy 34.5mpg – CO2 189g/km