Can the Alfa Romeo Giulia hold its ground against the German competitors? We drive the sedan in Belgium to find out.
What is it?
It’s the base petrol version of the long-awaited Alfa Romeo Giulia. When it was launched, it came only with diesel powerplants and the 510bhp Quadrifoglio supersaloon version, so the slightly less affluent driving enthusiast has been kept wanting a bit. Alfa Romeo is set to make that right, however, with this two litre petrol model.
While calling it the base model is factually correct, it suggests a wheezy 1.6 with 115bhp. The opposite is true, however, as this Giulia comes with a healthy 200bhp and 245lb ft of torque. The good stuff doesn’t end there, either. As every other journalist and their mother have surely told you by now, the Giulia is the first production Alfa since the 75 to have the engine in the front and rear wheel drive. It also rides on double wishbones in the front and a multilink in the rear, which is pretty much the ideal sporty suspension setup. And to top it off, there is a limited slip differential in the options list, something BMW hasn’t done since the nineties.
Manual gearboxes come as standard on some European versions, but for the UK and for the 2.0l petrol in general, an automatic is standard. Then again, take rates for manuals on higher-power saloons are usually marginal anyway and you can do a lot worse than the 8-speed ZF torque converter, ubiquitous as it might be. If you tick the right box, you can even control that transmission with a set of gigantic column-mounted Ferrari-esque aluminium paddles.
The styling may not be quite as pretty as the old 159, but it’s definitely more distinctive than some of the other offerings in the segment. Alfa has carried that through in the interior, where you get a swoopy but clean looking dash that incorporates the obligatory infotainment screen, rather than having the ‘iPad glued to the dash’ style that so many companies employ these days.
Is it any good?
First impressions are very positive indeed. Styling is of course subjective, but many seem to agree that the Giulia is a handsome car. Pictures tend not to do it justice and it looks sleeker in the metal. In any case, it’s a damn sight more distinctive than the sea of 3-series and A4s that floods our roads.
It keeps it up in the interior, too. Some reviews suggest that interior quality isn’t quite up to German standards, but our car felt like a very nice place to be. In all fairness, the test car was equipped with leather seats, some nice wood trim and a leather-covered dashboard. All this may help to disguise some shortcomings and yes, the lower dash material is somewhat scratchy, but almost all the important surfaces you touch look and feel nice and more importantly, are up to par for the segment. The seats and steering column have plenty of adjustment to accommodate pretty much any shape. Headroom with the sunroof is limited, though, and the standard seats are quite hard.
One possible exception to the build quality are the infotainment controls, which feel ever so slightly flimsy and are oddly scattered around the centre console. The iDrive-style centre control dial’s glossy surface falsely suggests that it might be a touch pad. The system it controls is not quite as intuitive as BMW’s iDrive, but is entirely adequate. Similarly, the navigation graphics look somewhat dated, though the information is laid out clearly and visuals are crisp enough. Unless you are Steve Jobs, it shouldn’t bother you.
The Alfa Romeo Giulia has been among us in diesel and QV form for a while, though, so what about that engine? I’m afraid it’s not entirely good news in this area. If you were expecting a rorty little screamer, think again: the new two litre turbo struggles with a lack of character. Alfa probably knows it themselves, because they have done an exceptionally good job at isolating the sound. When you first start it up, you have to look at the tach to verify that the steering wheel mounted start button has actually done something. Moving off, it’s much the same story, with the standard ZF 8-speed keeping revs and noise down.
Make no mistake, it gets the job done. 200bhp will be ample for most days and while there is some turbo lag, it’s never an issue. The tach’s red line is indicated at a rather low 5,500rpm and the engine doesn’t feel like it really wants to go there. At higher revs, some engine sound makes it through, but even then, it sounds almost – dare I say it – like a diesel. The car I drove had very few miles (or kilometres) on the clock, so it might loosen up, but I’m pretty sure it will never be one of the great engines.
Special mention should go to the shifter paddles. Not only do they look the part, they also feel like the real thing. Mounted on the steering column rather than on the wheel, they help in making the Alfa Romeo Giulia feel like a Ferrari saloon. Whether you use them is down to personal preference, but the excellent ZF ‘box does such a sterling job that you definitely don’t have to use them. If there is any chance that you may not use them much, then think twice about whether you will use them before speccing them, as they do block access to the indicator and wiper stalks. Ferrari puts those functions on the wheel for a reason.
Don’t think twice before ticking the box for the adaptive dampers. They truly add to the experience. In the ‘normal’ mode of the ‘dna’ drive mode switch, the test car on 17” wheels returned a pleasantly firm ride for cruising, while in ‘dynamic’ mode, the dampers firm up for reduced body roll and increased precision. You can, however, press the little damper button in the centre of the switch to soften them off again, but retain the more aggressive throttle map and alert gearbox programme. Strangely, the damper button does nothing when in normal mode. I would have liked a personalized programme with the sporty dampers and transmission, but without the overly eager throttle. It’s a minor gripe, though.
The firm ride does position it in the sporty corner of the market. In combination with the premise of the first rear wheel drive Alfa saloon since the 75, a limited slip differential in the options list, the Ferrari-esque paddles and the equally Ferrari-inspired quick steering ratio, the Giulia promises to be an entertaining steer on the right roads.
The steering can feel darty when you first set off, but within the first mile you get used to it and wonder why other cars don’t give you the option of hardly ever taking your hands off the wheel. It doesn’t quite inspire enough confidence in fast corners to really deliver on the sporty promise, though the accompanying squeal from the Michelin Primacy tyres suggests that a set of more performance-oriented tyres could make a huge difference. With different rubber – such as the Goodyear Eagle F1s on the 18” rims – it would probably be about on par with a BMW 3 series. Finally, the brakes are very powerful, though a tad inconsistent, with a firm but not overservoed pedal during normal driving that gets quite soft when pressed harder.
Price point and verdict
At a base price of £28,654, it is almost identical to a BMW 320i SE with an automatic at £28,500. The options policy is also in line with the German philosophy of charging for absolutely everything and Alfa have made it very easy to get carried away with some tasty options.
The Italian manufacturer is playing with the big boys now. It knew that the memory of when it was a glorious marque would one day fade away and that modern savvy buyers can’t be tricked with pretty looks alone. The new Alfa Romeo Giulia retains the good looks, but is now a genuine competitor for the premium German brands. It has its shortcomings when compared to the best, but it does make that up with a character that should brighten up our roads.
Alfa Romeo Giulia Image Gallery
Words: Illya Verpraet
Photography by Chirag S Moro