First drive: Alfa banks on Giulia - and the car delivers

After years in the doldrums the new Alfa a has to be good to seriously challenge the German premium brand: and it is

 

Alfa Romeo has bold ambitions. Then again it has always had - the problem was that few of them came through.

This time it wants to grow its annual global sales from a paltry 75,000 a year to 400,000. And it plans to do so within three years thanks to a new model range led by the new Giulia. Whatever about sales success, ambition is not in short supply in the boardroom of the Italian brand.

The Giulia fills the gap left when the 159 went out of production in 2011. In that year only 11 were registered in Ireland. Giulia is a completely new machine from the ground up.

For a start, unlike the front-wheel drive 159, the Giulia is rear-wheel drive. Alfa Romeo says it is targeting premium German rivals like Audi’s A4 and BMW’s 3 Series. Whether Alfa 159 owners will forgive the brand for deserting them for so long is another matter.

In the metal Giulia is impressive. Short overhangs and a distinctive corporate nose give the four-door an imposing presence. It is clearly related to the handsome 159 but there are also hints of A4 and 3 Series traits, towards the rear.

In an odd way Giulia’s exterior shape looks like it was mothballed at the time Alfa shelved its plans to build a 159 replacement but Alfa tells us the car has been developed over the last three years.

Auto box for Ireland

When it goes on sale in Ireland in September it will come with a ZF sourced eight-speed automatic transmission as standard. Left-hand drive markets get a choice of auto or manual but not for us, due to the high cost of reengineering.

Our test cars were pre-production but we did get to test a six-speed manual for comparison purposes. On the road we found the transmission and engine combination of the 2.2-litre diesel less refined than the auto version. The manual made us more aware of engine noise in the cabin, something that shouldn’t be that noticeable in a premium offering.

The aluminium 2.2-litre diesels will be the main sellers and they come in two power outputs, either 150bhp or 180bhp. There will be a 200bhp 2-litre petrol on sale shortly after the launch and a 99g/km emitting ‘Eco’ diesel too. All engines are turbocharged. The headline grabbing range topper is the fire-breathing Quadrifoglio (QF), Italian for cloverleaf, that has more power than a minority government.

At the Agnelli family owned Balocco proving ground in Italy we put Giulia through its paces. The weather was more Irish than Italian so the race track was soaked.

QF aims for M3

Alfa was keen to impress us, but only wanted to let us drive the potent Quadifoglio on a drier track later in the day. Initially we went out with a racing driver at the wheel. He demonstrated the ability of what some are calling a four-door Ferrari. The QF features a petrol powered 2.9-litre twin turbo V6 that is adapted from the V8 in the Ferrari 458. This unit is rumoured to be the power plant for the new Ferrari Dino. It delivers an attention getting 510bhp and 600nm of torque through the rear wheels.

Giulia will have four-wheel drive variants but not in the QF. The power through the rear wheels is glorious and when you add in some Italian racing heritage the recipe is delicious. Alfa is serious about taking on the BMW M3 and Mercedes Benz AMG C63 Coupé with the QF. A 0-100km/h sprint takes just 3.9 seconds and top speed is 300km/h. Former Ferrari engineer Philippe Krief headed up Giulia’s development and clearly brought a few tricks with him to his new employers.

The last performance Alfa that impressed was the brilliantly flawed 4C, though it had a ride quality equivalent to walking barefoot up Croke Patrick. Ultimately one’s faith was rewarded with a thrilling drive.

Where 4C was track focussed Giulia needs to be great on the road. We took a 180bhp diesel out on to the public roads around Balocco and the standard suspension set up was impressive.

Fast steering

The car has a weighty premium feel yet when cornering feels really light and nimble. The body is stiff and credit must go to the chassis design team. Giulia features very fast steering that is wonderfully direct. At high speed it needs a light touch especially if you’re flat out and need to sneeze. Standard across the range is the ‘dna’ selector that Alfa owners are familiar with. This allows the driver select a specific drive mode that electronically modifies the engine output, throttle response, gearshift speed, driving aids and power steering to name a few. The Cloverleaf gets an additional ‘R’ for race mode that turns off all electronic driving aids and let’s you drive to (and beyond if you wish) the limits of your talent. Reassuringly, when you hit the brakes hard all the aids kick back into help out.

Inside the cabin Giulia has large comfortable seats and you won’t forget you’re in an Alfa as virtually every surface is adorned with the firm’s emblem.

What is lacking is cubby space, as even the door bins fall short of being very useful. In the back, two adults will fit comforatbly. The transmission tunnel makes the centre seat only suitable for kids. If you are seated in the rear don’t wear bulky footware as large feet will feel confined under the front seats. The boot is reasonable but we did notice a lack of hooks and luggage systems. The dreaded puncture inflation kit was present under the boot floor.

As the weather cleared we got behind the wheel of the QF. Giulia QF wants to compete with BMW’s M3 and Mercedes Benz C63 Coupé and we quickly found out it can. Again Irish QF’s will have automatic transmission but we tried both gearboxes out. The manual has a feature that allows the driver keep his right foot flat to the floor while shifting through the gears - just like a high-end race car. This unique-in-class feature makes rapid progress effortless.

The auto QF is simply joyful to drive as you can keep you hands on the wheel more of the time and let the car shift the cogs for you. The speed of shift is variable depending on the drive mode selected. Our QF testing was restricted to the track so we cannot say how the car would manage public roads.

The QF caters for drivers of any standard and allows them drive rapidly with little effort thanks to the superb torque vectoring that makes the rear of the car feel very planted when exiting corners at speed. An M3 is perhaps more precise and an C63 more beastly, but the Giulia QF is a happy medium and definitely more forgiving.

New model line-up

Giulia sits on a new modular platform known as Giorgio that will be used in up to eight Alfas in the coming years. This platform will next be used in the yet to be revealed Alfa Romeo SUV. Yes, shock horror Alfa is building an SUV. We passed a disguised ‘Stelvio’ (unconfirmed name) that was testing also at Balocco. Times certainly have changed at Alfa. Enthusiasts are still coming to terms with the fact most Alfas these days are powered by diesel. After the SUV we will see Alfa Romeo’s rival to the king of the premium market, the BMW 5 Series.

Alfa Romeo has a dismal sales record in Ireland. This year to date just 20 cars have been registered, mostly Giulietta hatchbacks and a couple of MiTo superminis.

Giulia will be the first step back into the premium family car market. Previous big Alfas suffered from a distinct lack of love from the fleet sector and were often not allowed on company car driver’s shopping lists.

Giulia has to be good to seriously challenge the German premium brand, and it is. After a gap of nearly four years Alfa Romeo is starting from scratch and needs to establish itself as a machine to take on the volume selling carmakers of this world first.

Alfa Romeo Ireland says prices will be released closer to launch but will be close to the German equivalent and better equipped.

Harold J. Wester, chief executive of Alfa Romeo and Maserati, told us that “Giulia is a make or break car for Alfa Romeo. We pushed the reset button and invested over a billion in developing this car... and will invest many more billions in other cars... the credibility of the program depends on this car.”

It seems Alfa Romeo is back but what remains to be seen is the welcome it gets.

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