Italian Panache and Power
In a market segment dominated by German machines, the Alfa Romeo Giulia needs to perform – especially to help drive a fresh dawn for the esteemed marque in the UK. It does – in spades
Review by Marc Stickley
I arrived at the lovely setting for the Alfa Giulia launch – the Whatley Manor Hotel near Malmesbury – and on walking through a stone archway into a courtyard, I was greeted by a classic ‘60s Giulia, followed by its contemporary namesake. This is Alfa’s push into the premium saloon segment, an area it’s hovered around in the past, but perhaps fallen just short of the undisputed king – the BMW 3 series. More than that, this is Alfa’s brand relaunch in the UK – a serious car, to consider with head and heart, rather than mostly the latter as with previous Alfas.
The concept and design sketches on display show that Alfa has considered this carefully. How to break into a market dominated by German offerings, rear drive from BMW (3 series) and Mercedes (C Class) and front drive by Audi (the A4). If you’re the archetypal mid-level business man, looking for a premium executive saloon, it’s mostly to Germany you’ve had to look. Jaguar are on the scene now, muscling in with the XE and Maserati have staked Italy’s first ground for a while with the Ghibli, so you’re spoilt for choice. This is where Alfa previously pitched in with the slightly left field 75, 156 and later 159. They always looked good and often went well, but there was a stigma of rusting and unreliability which meant they were never a serious contender to the top of the class. Well, the Giulia aims to rectify this. My aim at the launch is to find out if they have a chance…
The Giulia, like the usual suspects from Munich and Stuttgart, will be offered on a rear-drive platform, with the range topping (and mouthful) Quadrifoglio (that’s Italian for four leaf – as in Clover – Alfa Romeo’s eponymous performance symbol) fitted with a carbon fibre drive shaft to achieve 50:50 weight distribution and a trick torque vector system, all the better to get the 504bhp from the V6 bi-turbo motor on to the tarmac without cumbersome 4wd. Beneath the Quadrifoglio rocketship at launch will sit the 200bhp 2.0 petrol and the 150 or 180bhp 2.2 diesel. There’s a 280bhp petrol on the way later and there are five trim levels, plus the Quadrifoglio.
On the route from the hotel to Kemble Airfield, I was in a 2.0 petrol 200bhp Super. This particular model starts at £31,000, which seems on par for the class, but the launch car had been loaded with £11,000 of extras!! So, whilst it probably isn’t overly representative of what most will buy, it certainly made for a nice place to drive from. The petrol engine is good – responsive and with enough power – and as with all Giulias it is matched to the ZF 8 speed auto gearbox. Pick up is quick enough, the ride is smooth and it handled most of what our A and B road route had to throw at it with aplomb. I wouldn’t particularly hanker after one more than any of its key rivals, so it may come down to brand preference, or even wanting to be different from the usual fleet crowd. Most of the money on the test car’s extras went on the leather trim and infotainment upgrades, so it would be interesting to see the standard equipment.
When I arrived at Kemble, the anticipation built, not least because we were told by airfield security that the event had moved from the converted Boeing 747 restaurant to the Air Traffic Control tower – the wind was too strong for use of the former cargo plane. Over lunch iPads loaded with videos displaying the best driving roads in the world in use played as we munched on delicious Italian inspired food. In talking to Alfa’s UK Execs, it was clear that they are all genuinely excited by this new model and the fresh chance it gives the brand to woo the UK market. Alfa’s UK CEO and Head Designer handled the launch info at the hotel and espoused about the car over lunch. But the main event was yet to come…
The 504bhp Quadrifoglio (I’ll call it Qf) will head the Giulia range, weighing in at £61,000, but likely to get specced up some. In fact one of the launch cars was weighed down with over £12,000 of extras… This is prime M3 (£57,000) and C63 (£61,000) territory, so the newcomer is going to need to perform. And so was I. I climbed in to the Qf with a pro-driver in the passenger seat (to help me accelerate further and brake later). We waited for the runway to be called clear, then I cruised down to the turnaround point…and pinned the throttle. Sweet. Beans. That was shifting. The noise was incredible. That V6 bi-turbo really came to life. “Keep it pinned, I know it’s blind, but there’s plenty left”. Great, I was approaching 140mph and I couldn’t see where I was going over the crest of the runway! But sure enough, as I crested the rise and I was still accelerating, I saw 163mph flash up before I got the “Brake!” Command. “No, really stand on it” the ABS cut in, the hazards come on and we squirmed to a sensible enough speed to exit the runway. But the fun wasn’t over. That’s the fastest I’ve ever driven and I wanted more. But before the next runway blast I needed to do some high speed manoeuvring.
On the perimeter track and one of the dispersal areas, the Alfa team had set up a coned driving course. My objective was to progressively step up the pace through a slalom course, then power around a long curve, before moving to the doughnut circle in the centre. There I would attempt to get the back end out and drift around the ring, before exiting the course and going again, but with a different mode set (the Qf, unlike normal models also has a Race setting, as well as the usual Dynamic, Natural and Advanced Efficiency). I started in dynamic mode and the slalom was pretty straightforward, with the Giulia slicing through with little fuss – solid and confidence building. I built the speed around the big curve and headed towards the doughnut. I tipped in a little quick, so wasn’t surprised to begin to understeer. My helpful pro-driver told me to back off a bit, then pin the throttle to get the tyres to unstick. I span. Rather embarrassing. After a few more times around, I was able to begin to get a drift on the go. We moved back to the start of the track and clicked it in to Race mode. Things were about to get even better.
In race mode the noise from the V6 got louder (a good thing) and as I steered in to the slalom, the differences were obvious, but difficult to comprehend. In Dynamic, the Qf had felt good – tight, easy to place, composed. In race, it was all that and more. In the long curve, it wanted to let go. In the central doughnut, I could now make the tyres smoke without really trying…wowzers. I rolled back towards the runway with the smell of burned rubber in the cabin and a target – 163mph, but into a headwind, so not likely – even with the trick active aero. We went back in Race mode and again, that extra noise was incredible – I’d buy one for that alone. I made 140mph, but the wind got the better of my efforts. Rolling off the runway and back to the holding area, I was keen to try this on the road. Would the composure I felt on the artificial smoothness of the runway and the manoeuvring area be translated on to the road?
In short yes. The Giulia Quadrifoglio is one of the best handling cars I have ever driven. The performance on tap is practically limitless on the confines of UK roads and the suspension smoothed out the worst of the A and B road route back to the Whatley Manor Hotel. The interior is the special kind of place reserved for you by the Italians. I’m sold. If in the market for a super-saloon, I’d move past the benchmark BMW, bypass the Mercedes (even with that V8 rumble) and head to Alfa Romeo. They’ve launched a new era for the marque and a new class leader. The regular models will be aimed at private buyers, not company fleets, so are projected to hold their value as well as, if not better than the competition. Again, you could be in something a little different and this time, with the Giulia – in particular the Qf – there isn’t really a flaw in the plan.