Tuesday December 5, 2017
By Richard Bosselman
FOR once, even Google was stumped.
On entering what I thought were quite specific search terms, all I got was a page-load of owner and fan bulletin boards dedicated to negative thought about the subject. Which was all the more troubling.
Delving into those, I found the main complaint was one that started all this for me. Those folk, like me, had spent many precious minutes in a fruitlessly hunting before reverting to the handbook, only to find the advice held there to about as perplexing as a Dead Sea scroll would be to the average man, too.
So, anyway, for perhaps the first time in more than 30 years’ assessing motor vehicles, this week’s test car left me stumped on an operational fundamental.
So, how in **** do you open the damn bonnet? I’m still none the wiser.
There obviously has to be a release and it surely has to be a cable-pulled lever. But I’m seriously stuffed if I could find it. After two intensive but fruitless searches of the cabin, I’m starting to seriously wonder if it’s in the car at all. For all I know it could be a button within, I dunno, the right indicator lense.
You’re probably imagining that this kind of gripe about the Alfa Romeo Giulia is going to trigger a big rant about this epitomising all that is ‘wrong’ about Italian cars in general and why this marque in particular has something of a reputation for being one of the biggest clowns in the Fiat circus.
But I’m not going there. For sure, Alfa Romeo has had more misses than hits over the past few decades, but truly – this (admittedly pretty weird) quirk aside – the latest medium sports sedan from Milan (or is it Turin?) is, by and large, a better car than prejudice would paint it to be.
Loads of character, of course, but also very well engineered in respect, at least, the bits that matter most – that is, the powertrain and the chassis – and extremely palatable on the styling, equipment and presentation side of things. Apart, of course, for that one wee frustration.
And that’s just in its ‘entry’ Veloce format – I’ve no doubt that the headline-making QV V6 probably offer heaps more sensory envelopment still. Sadly, despite several’ firm’ promises about the Quadrifolgio being available for press drive – and, come to think of it, for track evaluation, too - that opportunity never quite came to pass. (yeah, I can hear all you dissenters now, ‘how Italian… etc, etc’). So, instead, the lesser car.
A pony rather than a stallion? It’s true that they are far more equals in look than in anything else.
Both models will measure against Lexus, Audi, Mercedes Benz and BMW medium cars but Quadrifolgio specifically zeroes in on two highly-rated elite exhilarators which tend to attract extreme enthusiast followers, the Benz C63 AMG and BMW M3 sedan.
As such, the QV scores a 375kW/600Nm twin-turbocharged 2.9-litre V6, while the Veloce makes do with 206kW of power and 400Nm of torque, compliments of a singularly-turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, and has a more specialist chassis tuning – including a track-specific setting on the DNA driving mode selector - and all sorts of other addenda requisite for making a 300kmh statement of intent, including carbon fibre bits and very specialist tyres.
But the QV also carries a price tag, that while undercutting its German rivals by $20k, is still rather heady by Alfa standards, so assuredly while every Alfisti will be delighted by its strengths and promise, when it comes to cashing in, most will steer for the $79,990 model on test and prefer to bask in the great one’s reflected glory.
Not that the Veloce seems to be a poor second choice. Yes, it’s more convetional and, assuredly, it’s not as barking. Yet it still retains plenty of chic character in the look especially and the driving contains plenty of Italian brio. Also, the mainstreamer doesn’t entirely lack for technical spice, notably also engaging with the same eight-speed paddle-shifted automatic transmission and delivering adjustable suspension, a limited-slip rear differential, 19-inch alloy wheels and an uprated brake package with red-painted calipers.
Performance is down a notch but still pretty good: Whereas the QV claims 0-100kmh in 3.9 seconds and a top speed of 307kmh, the Veloce’s respective 5.7 seconds and 240kmh is still decent for a performance four-cylinder medium car.
The smaller engine also compensates by having – if this matters – a better overall fuel consumption, Alfa citing 6.1 litres per 100km against the six cylinder’s 8.2. These optimums, presumably, coming when the cars are operated in the ‘Advanced Efficiency’ mode.
But that’s all car stuff. Alfa Romeo is always out to offer an ‘experience’; everything they do is to evoke imagery of sunbaked hilltop villas, kapow coffee served in thimbles, long lazy lunches and fast drives through stunningly scenic countryside.
The Italian flair is evident with the exterior but, if anything, it’s the interior that really delivers. Giulia reminds that no one needs teach Alfa Romeo (or any of its sister brands) how to detail a cabin: Stitched leather on the seats and across the dash, aluminium dash inserts, sports pedals, heated and electrically-adjustable leather sports seats, and a multi-function leather sports steering wheel are a huge allure in their own right.
True, it’s a little dark in this cabin, and there’s not a lot of colour going on – no contrast stitching, for example – but overall, it all presents and works well. For an example of how it does ‘simple’ with style, look to the seats. Embossed with Alfa Romeo logos, they don’t appear all that exciting, but are hugely comfortable and impressively supportive when you deign to drive as if you’re an F1 hopeful running late for a meeting with a team supremo.
It doesn’t purely trade on a suave appearance. The Giulia is not short on modern conveniences with keyless entry, push-button start, automatic LED daytime running lights, automatic bi-xenon headlights with active cornering function, and rain-sensing wipers all included, as are active cruise control, dual-zone climate control, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, front and rear parking sensors and a rear-view camera with ‘rear cross-path detection’, plus a rear-view camera whose display occupies half the 7.0-inch TFT colour instrument display panel.
An integrated 8.8-inch central infotainment screen teamed with a transmission tunnel-mounted rotary controller is also on board, along with a 10-speaker premium sound system, satellite navigation, DAB plus digital radio, and Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming. It’s a pity that neither Apple CarPlay nor Android Auto is supported, but that’s an unavoidable from Fiat continuing with a Chrysler-developed infotainment hardware.
Can all this divert your attention from a broader design challenge? Perhaps, yes, until you invite some friends along for a ride. That’s when the snugness of the area behind the front seats become apparent. Actually, this is an issue that starts to reveal upon the act of ingress; some will find the rear door aperture a little tight. Legroom and headroom are okay, but those with big feet will have to sit feet splayed because, if the driver likes his/her seat to be set low – and they will, because it suits the driving position – then there’s no toe-room room under the bases. It’s also claustrophobic in the back because the side windows are modest in size, the roof line drops down and, well, yeah, all that black trim. The pronounced transmission tunnel kinda enforces impression of this being a two-plus-two car, at least infosar as adults are concerned.
Safety is a strong suit, with eight airbags, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure and forward collision warnings, and autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian recognition all contributing toward a five star Euro NCAP result.
So, in summary so far: It has a strong design, it’s well-kitted, it isn’t all the commodious - but perhaps not worse, admittedly, that a 3-Series or Audi A4 in that respect – and you stand a very chance of getting out relatively unscathed if you have a prang.
Is that enough? No, of course not. Alfa recognises that it’s something of an outside choice within the premium pack and, above all that, it is a brand that has been given one last chance by its owner to make good. If the Giulia and the forthcoming Stelvio sports utility don’t deliver, chances are this badge will be retired forever.
So what are the chances? In this market, still slim: Is this the second coming, the third, the fourth …? I’ve attended at least that many ‘relaunches’. Cynicism about the brand aside, the immediate issue for the Giulia is that it is something that is of diminishing interest to a lot of high-buyers: That is, it’s a sedan.
Still, it is a very, very good-looking one. Well-proportioned, attractive in any colour or specification with a fabulous face. I like that it looks like a proper, modern car rather than a reprise of the past. It’s not as precisely constructed or finished as a German car (or a Jaguar or a Volvo); panel gaps are a bit off, one or two interior materials aren’t quite quality enough in look and touch and that infotainment screen is small and behind the times in terms of its graphical displays.
The greatest strength come from what Alfas should be about. The driving. The platform this car uses is all new and, though the multi-million spend to create it will ultimately be shared by eight models coming in the next few years (including Stelvio), it nonetheless still represents the greatest single cost associated with this car.
Who does rear-drive any more? Be thankful Alfa reverted to it. This is what makes this car such a joy. That, the huge effort made to keep the weight down and then distributing it evenly over the axles: The 1374kg (dry) bulk is split 50:50 front-to-back and that's thanks to the extensive use of aluminium and bits of carbon fibre in its construction.
Has the effort paid off? Put it this way. If BMW had not already nabbed the ‘ultimate driving machine’ tagline, you’d be reading it in Italian … and in association with this car. It is genuinely the best Alfa sedan I’ve ever driven.
The balance is sublime, the car’s point-ability impressive at the least, the steering – electronic, yes, but also with the fastest ratio in class – is sharp enough to cut steel. It tackles country roads with impressive authority. So, all in all, it feels utterly dependable and involving.
And yet its best singular feature, at Veloce level at least, has to be the ride and refinement. AS you might have twigged, the DNA control affects throttle mapping and how long the gearbox hangs onto each ratio and generally, when driving for fun, you’re going to dial up to the most dynamic setting. Yet even then, and despite the tyres being not only very sporty in profile – 225/40s up front, 255/35s out back – but also of run-flat construction, this edition rides really, really well.
By giving it relatively soft springs and good shock absorbers to ensure that it can soak up all manner surface conditions, this is a car that both grips with almost racecar ability yet also gives in respect to comfort: There’s no bang-crash.
The engine’s outputs are pretty good but it’s how this unit interacts the gearbox’s close-spaced ratios that probably makes it feel all the more lively. For sure, it’s not faultless – in the typical Italian way, there’s a wont to get on with it that is so pronounced that, in Dynamic mode especially, the automatic shift can be overly aggressive. The engine is an intrigue; in terms of muscularity, it has almost a six-cylinder shove and you can revel in its flexibility, too. Though it feels strongest between 1500-3000rpm, it’s happy to rev up to double that and beyond. The pity is that there’s very little aural character. There’s no bark. But don’t underestimate quietness for weakness. The Veloce’s ability to pack on speed is quite deceptive.
For a long time, Alfa Romeo’s claims for its cars mainly exceeded reality. But it really seems that this one quite probably seems to be an act that meets its billing.
That won’t overcome all reservations. There are flaws that you feel could have been eradicated with a bit more polish. Plus, while Alfa in the modern age is a much better outfit than it used to be, only time will tell if the build quality and reliability issues that have long dogged this marque are finally resolved. As is, it just doesn’t have quite the same quality feel as other Euros of this price and higher; already the multimedia system feels dated.
So it’s a punt. Yet, potentially not a bad one. Few new vehicles have entered the market with greater expectations and that this car can even be compared with established elite Euros is, in itself, no mean feat. Also, if you judge a car on emotional aspect alone, then it’s probably as good as, if not better, than anything else it measures up against.