I’ve long heard about the great days of Alfa Romeo – how if anyone knows how to make a spectacular driver’s car, it’s Alfa. But I’ve never seen it. There have been glimpses of brilliance, but they’ve always felt like expensive Fiats to me. So I’m mighty proud to be able to say that the Alfa Romeo Giulia is a true 3-Series baiting sports sedan – a credible contender that’s magical to drive.
Not just the M3-rivalling Quadrifoglio version, though – even the bare-bones entry spec. Alfa Romeo Giulia is special. That’s what I found in my driveway recently; a Silverstone Grey 2.0T Alfa Romeo Giulia in absolute base specification, with cloth and leather combo seats, no GPS navigation, no power adjusted seats, and no frills.
Power outputs are 147kW and 330Nm, derived from a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol 4-cylinder and sent to the rear wheels through a ZF 8-speed automatic gearbox – the same ‘box used in the BMW 3 Series and Jaguar XE. But whereas even the BMW M3 and M4 have discontinued the use of a carbon fibre driveshaft, even this base spec Alfa Romeo Giulia utilises carbon fibre in its drivetrain – trickle down tech from the range topping Quadrifoglio.
The turbocharged engine produces seriously punchy power delivery, the 330Nm arriving at just 1750rpm. Peak power arrives at 5500rpm, before dropping off sharply ahead of the 6100rpm redline. It’s a more old-school turbocharging style with a sharp torque delivery that dies early, and though potent, many times I yearned for an additional 1000rpm worth of engine spin. But the responses are swift, turbo-lag is minimal, and the carbon fibre driveshaft reduces inertia to help deliver instant responses.
Many a great car has been ruined by a poorly tuned gearbox – the ZF 8-speed being phenomenal in BMWs and less satisfactory in Jaguars simply due to tuning. Alfa Romeo has nailed the tuning. Shifts are snappy and precise when the ‘box is left to its own devices, the only hiccup being a jerky shift down to 2nd at low speeds.
Manual mode creates an altogether different set of circumstances though. Shifts are controlled by crafted aluminium shifters behind the wheel – but like they are in Ferrari’s, and telling of the Alfa Romeo Giulia’s development team’s origin, these tactile paddles are column mounted. It sounds fancy, and the lengthy, stalked paddles look and feel gorgeous, but when steering lock is applied the paddles are never at your finger tips. I frequently found myself snatching at empty air looking for a mid-corner shift. When you do find them though, the paddles feel incredible, and shifts are rattled off sharply. Bang into the rev-limiter and the ‘box will hold the gear until you command otherwise.
Leave the gearbox to its own devices, though, pop the DNA drive selector into Dynamic mode, and the Alfa Romeo Giulia’s slightly more hidden driving dynamics come to the fore.
The electronically assisted steering is gorgeously weighted, though perhaps lacking the same level of feedback as the Jaguar XE. The response is incredibly sharp; direct off centre to make the Giulia feel intuitive and responsive, and the quick steering rack almost seems frantic in just how rapidly it responds to inputs. A delicate hand and measured inputs bring out the most from a front end that seems to have endless amounts of grip.
The grip may be one aspect of the Alfa Romeo Giulia’s breadth of ability, but it’s the ride comfort that makes it all the more impressive. Where the BMW 3 Series has favoured comfort over genuine handling, and yet not quite mastered either, the Giulia strikes the finest ride/handling balance in class – relying on rapid-response dampers to mitigate vibration, and firm springs to maintain contact with the road.
The default chassis balance has a definite rearward bias – not just through power-on oversteer, but through a natural balance that keeps the front wheels glued with a hint of rotation from the rear. The brake-based toque vectoring assists the rotation factor by pinching the inside front wheel during hard cornering. Despite the Giulia’s desire to oversteer, in non Quadrifoglio models the traction control refuses to allow oversteer to penetrate the driving experience; sharply cutting in the moment slippage is detected.
It’s understandable that the majority of the buying public will relish in the safety of this, but for those who are buying the Alfa Romeo Giulia for its dynamic poise, a more relaxed stability control mode would definitely be appreciated. In this 147kW guise, the chassis is truly exploitable, dancing with the driver with the grace of a Viennese waltz and the flair of the pasodoble. It wants to dance, it wants to play, but the electronic nannies simply do not allow it; truly a shame for those who can’t afford the R1.4-million Quadrifoglio.
Those brakes that aid the torque vectoring are as sharp as, if not sharper than, the steering setup. Adjustments to the brake pedal are made by the micron, rather than by the millimetre, and take some getting used to to avoid plunging through the windscreen; but they resist fade, promise rapid stopping power, and the pedal provides exceptional feedback.
As a driver’s vehicle, this is by far the best you’ll find in the segment. Jaguar nailed chassis neutrality and steering feel in the XE, but it was lacking the drivetrain refinement it needed. BMW has compromised the 3 Series with awkward suspension responses under load and muted communications, despite class leading drivetrains. But this, this talks to you, it plays with you, it responds to your every desire. The Alfa Romeo Giulia is a dynamic masterpiece for drivers who enjoy driving, and the chassis begs to be exploited. It feels so sorted that it’s a crying shame we don’t get the 208kW Veloce to bridge the gap between this and the Quadrifoglio in South Africa.
But if Alfa Romeo is to truly beat BMW at the 3 Series game, the Giulia needs to be more than dynamically talented.
To this end, the Alfa Romeo Giulia has almost assumed the role of the 3 Series from a build and practicality standpoint. The dimensions and design almost ape those of the 3 Series, even mimicking a Hofmeister-like kink to the C-pillar. In mimicking the 3 Series, the Giulia is ergonomically sound, with plenty cabin-space for both front and rear occupants. Ingress and egress pose no real hiccups, and once inside, the cabin is a genuinely enjoyable place to be.
Look past the flat-bottomed leather steering wheel, with built-in engine start button a-la Ferrari, and the material quality is up to standard. Almost all components were sourced from the same bunch of companies as BMW, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz; meaning the soft touch materials feel plush and the switchgear feels of high quality. The infotainment system bears more than just a slight resemblance to BMW’s iDrive system; though the interface is now dated against the latest incarnations found in the 4 Series. However, to Alfa Romeo’s credit, the sweeping dash design and in-built screen looks gorgeous and well thought through – unlike Mercedes’ efforts – though the screen looks as if it should be touch operated yet isn’t.
Look elsewhere in the cabin, to the seats and the doors, and everything feels high quality. The milled aluminium shifters behind the steering wheel are gorgeously tactile, as are all major touch points. Look around enough and you’ll find some scratchy plastics, but they’re at the points you seldom touch and none of the competitors are much better in this regard.
But though the Alfa Romeo Giulia uses all the same materials, it’s in the way it’s put together that the Italians have faltered. Perhaps the stigma is one Alfa can’t quite cast off, but the switchgear doesn’t have the same solidity as the German counterparts do, and there were a couple of interior panels already coming loose on my test model. Vastly better than the Jaguar XE, but lacking the finishing touches to truly establish itself amongst the interior quality of the German elite.
In day to day use, some of these flaws may become more apparent, which will be a true shame as for practicality the Alfa Romeo Giulia is flawless. It behaves as a car of this stature should; comfortable, competent, and efficient. Despite more power than a rival 320i, the 2.0T engine consumed an average of 7.8l/100km – besting figures we’ve achieved in a 320i. Impressively, the Alfa did this in Normal mode (N on the DNA selector) and not in Advanced Efficiency.
Alfa Romeo has done it. They’ve created an executive sedan that can accomplish all the practical necessities of a BMW 3 Series without much compromise. Furthermore, they’ve created a rival that dynamically trumps the ‘sheer driving pleasure’ the Munich brand once prided itself on.
An Alfa Romeo that’s the best driver’s car in segment – I’ve waited a long time to say that. The hype is real, Alfa Romeo is back!
Words by Roger Biermann
Photos by Roarke Bouffe