Andrew Frankel

Bravo, Alfa Romeo

As the rebirth of this magazine in recent years has shown, certain brands have an ability to defy logic. They can be run almost into the ground yet with a little investment, a lot of clear thinking and a whole heap of enthusiasm, up they pop again long after cold common sense says they should have been abandoned for good by their supporters. It’s the same with car companies: it happened to Lotus in the mid-90s when it launched the Elise, and I believe it’s happening to Jaguar now.

Yet perhaps the marque most overdue for a turnaround is Alfa Romeo. As someone brought up on the back seat of an apparently endless succession of ’Suds, Alfettas and second-generation Giuliettas, the bemusement with which I started to watch Alfa’s decline all those years ago has long turned to grim resignation. It wasn’t the bad ones that rankled so much, it was the dull ones I really minded. And, sadly, that’s been most of them.

But maybe, just maybe, Alfa Romeo has turned the corner. Of course it could yet prove that its new Giulietta (above) is a mere oasis in a desert of fair-to-middling product – there is precedent here as in 1988 when Alfa failed to build on the promise of the 164 – but I don’t think so. The 164 was a collaborative effort and, engines aside, was the same under the skin as the Saab 900, Lancia Thema and, lest we forget, the Fiat Croma. The Giulietta is all Alfa and sits on an all-new platform, albeit built with Fiat’s Euros.

And it is terrific. Driving across Italy I found myself thumping the dashboard with relief and excitement that here was a mainstream Alfa that’s not going to be apologising to anyone. Better still, this was not the hot 235bhp ‘Quadrifoglio Verde’ model (the least convincing of the range) but a standard mid-range 1.4tb model.

A little ‘compare and contrast’ can help us here: it has a tiny 1.4-litre petrol engine yet it develops 170bhp. But despite this power it’s capable of nearly 50mpg, and class-busting emissions. It’s all possible not because its engine is new – in fact it’s ancient – but because it’s been fitted with Alfa’s ‘Multi-Air’ cylinder head which is a work of pure genius. By opening the inlet valves not by the direct action of a camshaft but by infinitely variable hydraulic pressure meted out by computer-controlled solenoid valves, an unprecedented level of control over valve timing, lift and duration has been achieved. Under certain circumstances the inlet valves can even open twice in a single combustion cycle.

Moreover unlike such horrors as Alfas 33, 6, 90, 145, 146, 155 and others, this is not a great engine in an otherwise unworthy car. The chassis is as sophisticated as anything in the class, offering world-class ride quality with crisp handling and excellent steering. Even quality, Alfa’s Achilles heel, has taken a huge stride forward.

What, then, can Alfa Romeo do with such promising raw material? Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne has big plans, including the reintroduction of the marque to the crucial US market as soon as 2012 and tripling sales volumes from their current low of little more than 100,000 units, which is half what they were less than 10 years ago. There are rumours of a ‘crossover’ SUV, which strikes me as a strange kind of creature to wear an Alfa Romeo badge.

What Alfa needs to do is what Lotus has done and what Jaguar is doing today: and that is simply remember what made it great in the first place. I’m not talking about P2s and Tipo Bs here, but good-looking, technologically advanced family cars with an unrivalled focus on the driving experience. It is my great pleasure currently to have at my disposal a 1964 Giulia Ti, a car that came equipped with a twin-cam engine, five speed gearbox, four-wheel disc brakes, and independent front and De Dion rear suspension long before the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition was born.

But the evidence of this new Giulietta with its world-class engine and superb chassis is that this message may have got through. Let us all hope that, for Alfa Romeo at least, the darkest hour was indeed just before the dawn.