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Alfa Romeo Giulietta

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Alfa Romeo Giulietta
6/10

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Road Test

Alfa Romeo Giulietta 1.4 TB 170 HP

Driven June 2010

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The Alfa Romeo Giulietta is a far better car than the 147. That may be no great revelation - the 147 has been knocking around for a full decade now, and has long been usurped by younger, lither rivals - so here's a bigger one: the Giulietta might just be the best car that Alfa has built in its 100 years of existence.

But it isn't a better Alfa.

Sounds nonsensical? Stick with us. While the Giulietta does all the proper, grown-up car stuff - build quality, refinement, economical engines - better than just about any of its predecessors, it comes at the expense of Alfa's essential... Alfaness. Character. Passion. God-give-me-one-now-and-to-hell-with-the-residuals desirability. The Giulietta is an easy car to admire and like,
but not one that grabs you lustily by the man-parts.

It must be conceded that we don't have the ideal conditions in which to fall helplessly in love with the Giulietta on our early test drive. As we arrive at Alfa's Balocco test facility, just off the Milan-Turin road in northern Italy (Mi-To, reads the sign pointing to the motorway), rain is falling with a weight and ferocity that suggests someone's done something massive to upset Him/Her/Them Upstairs. A Golf remains a Golf no matter what the weather, but an Alfa somehow requires big blue skies and shimmering warmth. Shallow, perhaps, but hey, it's an Alfa. Shallowness is somewhere near the top of the CV.

Through the rain, our white test car looks every inch the big brother to the Mito. Normally we'd steer clear of discussing aesthetics at any great length, because (a) you have eyes and (b) someone keeps casting Kirsten Dunst in films, so clearly taste must be subjective. But Alfa has always relied on visual oomph to sell cars, so forgive us a few demi-objective points. First, the Giulietta is massively colour-dependent.

Those sharp creases down the bonnet simply become lost in darker shades, making the front end look too tall and shapeless. Secondly, though you'll have spotted the resemblance to the new Megane and Astra about the rear-end profile, the Giulietta's is a far more subtle backside, the cutaway swage lines taking a lot of the bulk out of what could look like a fat arse. The jewellery is gorgeous, the LED rear lights tracing a lazy, unwinding delta towards the central badge, the handle-free rear door as elegant as ever.

But, for our ha'pence worth, that big upright grille lacks the intrinsic elegance of the Brera and 159's slinky front end. OK, the Giulietta looks a lot more distinctive than the Audi A3, its most obvious rival, but is it properly beautiful? For us, not quite. Not yet.

Same story in the cabin. Nice, but not irresistible. There are flashes of loveliness in here. The row of ‘horseshoe' switches below the central control panel are soft-touch and beautifully damped, the vents on the centre console slimline and classy, and the leather looks like it would taste of finest Argentinian fillet if you licked it. Just a few more flashes of originality would have raised the Giuletta's interior to proper ‘need one now' levels, but too much of it is over-familiar: the steering wheel switches are straight off a Fiat Punto, the plasticky glove-box door seems to have been nicked from a Doblo van. Of course, all premium manufacturers indulge in a degree of parts snatching from their cheaper cousins, but it all depends on where you hide 'em: the Giulietta's borrowed bits remain too exposed.

Right. Enough navel-gazing. With the rain now reaching such ferocity that it can't be long until the ground bursts open like a split balloon, or simply floats off into the Mediterranean, a sodden little lump of Italy bobbing towards North Africa, we sweep out of Balocco and in search of sunshine, lakes and a decent road.

We find the latter... and the Giulietta's fizz. It might not be genuflectingly beautiful, but it doesn't half drive well. The Giulietta sits on an all-new modular platform that will underpin a whole bunch of future Alfas and Fiats, and gets aluminium multi-link rear suspension. Alfa admits the 147 sacrificed too much comfort in the pursuit of sportiness, and says this set-up strikes a better balance.

And, by jove, they've cracked it. With the ‘DNA' switch - the button that allows you to adjust dampers, differential settings and throttle response on the fly - set to sharpest ‘dynamic' mode (an action which also causes a nice little G-meter to pop up on the satnav screen, making us very happy indeed), it's sublime, deliciously supple and controlled. As far as it's possible to tell on drenched roads, it clings on nicely, but can be easily coaxed into cheeky, controlled wet-roundabout slides.

There's an almost organic quality to the Giulietta's steering that makes your A3 feel lifeless, your 1-Series feel over-brittle. On a good road, it's everything an Alfa should be. Fun.

Unfortunately, such dynamic loveliness does draw attention to the Giulietta's surprisingly soulless engine. We're driving the 167bhp version of Alfa's 1.4-litre four-pot petrol engine, which features Fiat's clever new ‘MultiAir' variable-valve tech. Until the 235bhp Cloverleaf edition turns up later in the summer, this is the most powerful Giulietta available. There's a detuned version of the same engine available, too, packing 118bhp - essentially the same engine we've driven, and admired, in the new Fiat Punto - and a pair of diesels.

Objectively, grown-uppedly, the top-spec petrol is excellent. It'll do 0-62mph in under eight seconds, which is frankly quicker than a good-sized hatch with a 1.4-litre engine has any right to be. Equipped with stop-start, it'll manage 49mpg and just 134g/km of CO2: impressive figures. Yes, things are a bit dead below 2,000rpm, but it hardly feels like a tiny petrol engine with a fat turbo attached: power delivery is smooth and progressive, the boost barely noticeable.

So what's the problem? In noise and character, it's soulless: a modern Euro-spec turbo four-pot, all gentle turbo whirr overlaid with a dull drone at high revs. It doesn't fizz round the rev gauge with intent. In the A3 or Golf, we would regard this as a fine engine. But in an Alfa - a brand that should sweat, bleed and occasionally urinate petrol - it doesn't quite fit. It wouldn't take much to inject a bit of soul, a hint of exhaust crackle would do it, but for now you'd be better off with the bigger diesel.

And that's the problem. By mature road-testy criteria, the Giulietta is a fine car. Rear passenger space - always a gripe in the 147 - is now on a par with the five-door Golf, and the boot is of a decent size with a nice flat loadspace. At speed, it's very nearly as quiet and refined as the A3. Great, brilliant, but it leaves us just a bit cold. Would you sell your family pets to the local kebab vendor to pay for one? Meh.

You could argue, quite fairly, that we're trying to both have and eat our Battenburg here. We spend years moaning about the unreliability and flimsiness of Alfas, and then as soon as they build a solid, refined car, we moan that it's characterless. The Giulietta is now a genuine Golf and A3 rival, and, though prices are yet to be confirmed - Alfa has announced only that the Giulietta will start at around £17,000 - it should be competitive. But if you want something that's like a Golf, we'd guess you'll still buy a Golf. Alfas have always catered to the more petrolheaded market, but this one doesn't. Not quite.

Alternatively you could argue, again quite fairly, that our eyes have got it all wrong: that the Giulietta is the most desirable car you've ever seen. Maurice certainly would. Maurice is possibly the most excited elderly man in Europe. At the end of our test drive, we park up the Giulietta in a sodden town square on the banks of Lake Maggiore, its waters frothing and foaming as if Godzilla is soon to rise in apocalyptic rage. Maurice comes literally skipping from his little grocery store, clapping and clasping a Giulietta brochure as he splashes through the rain.

"Bella, bella, bellissimo," he chants hypnotically, stroking the car and beaming like he's just downed a morphine smoothie. In a conversation that could generously be described as bilingual, and more accurately as ‘pointing and repeatedly shouting', we establish that he has achievement the purchasement of a Giulietta that commences its arrival upon the second Saturday of the May-month. Bought a Giulietta - 1.4-litre, 118bhp petrol in white - without having driven it or even seen it in the metal, just a couple of photos on the internet. Yowch. That's commitment.

For us, right now, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta just hasn't reached that level of desirability. The Cloverleaf - which will arrive in the summer, packing meatier visuals and, with any luck, a more engaging powertrain - should help matters. Until then, we're impressed, but not in love.

Sam Philip

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