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Review: Alfa Romeo Giulia QV, the 503bhp BMW M3 rival

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So, how is it?

Alfa Romeo has made a brilliant car. After years of modestly capable (Giulietta) or actively underwhelming (4C) cars, Alfa has finally built a belter. It’s actually a relief to be able to write that, to find that this time there doesn’t need to be any ifs or buts or qualifications or caveats – the Giulia is great. Full stop. End of.

What was the last Alfa you could say that about?

I had a think, and I honestly can’t remember. The last Alfa that impressed me enough to think I’d actually like to own one was the 156 GTA 15 years ago and even that came with caveats. It was way less powerful than German rivals, front-drive only, had a curious seating position and suspect build quality. It was unusually supple, though  - which, as you’ll see, will strike a chord later on.

So how come Alfa has got the Giulia so right when the 4C was so wrong?

It was, wasn’t it? Such a disappointment that car. The answer comes down to investment – I think FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) was unwilling to invest fully in the 4C due to the low potential sales and instead used the carbon-chassis’d sports car as a tech demonstrator. The Giulia is different. This is the car that sets the tone for all future Alfas, that shows us the direction the company will take.

And what direction is that?

North. Towards Stuttgart and Munich. Because this is no piecemeal, half-hearted rival to the BMW M3 and Mercedes-AMG C63, but a head on, carefully targeted, dead set alternative. And not just the hot Quadrifoglio, but all Giulias – the model range will include everyday diesels and petrols, too.

All are underpinned by a new-from-the-ground-up platform (code-named Giorgio, it’ll also underpin an SUV in due course) that has had billions invested in it in a quest to take Alfa from sales of 75,000 per year to 400,000 within three years.

Have you driven the everyday cars as well?

We have driven the diesel, and it’s really impressive. I’ll write a full drive on that in the next few days. There are 150bhp and 180bhp diesel versions, and in due course a 2.0-litre petrol, too. Those will be the volume sellers and all are turbocharged, rear-wheel drive and feature carbon fibre propshafts. Really.

The vital statistics (mpg, CO2, 0-62mph etc) are good, and pricing will be announced closer to the September on sale date.

OK, back to the hot one…

This is Alfa going for M3’s jugular. The chassis is aluminium and steel, the 19-inch wheels are held in place by double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension, it’s rear-drive only, the torque divvied up by a vectoring diff able to send 100 per cent of thrust to either wheel.

Ahead of the carbon prop shaft sits ZF’s 8spd auto (other markets, such as the US, will have a six-speed manual as an option, but not us. More on that later) and shoving the whole thing along is a 2.9-litre twin turbo V6 that is ‘inspired by Ferrari expertise and technologies’.

Inspired by Ferrari?

That’s the phraseology, but there’s more to it than that – it shares bore and stroke measurements with the eight cylinder Ferrari California T and comes from the same F154 engine family. I suspect Alfa would love to make more of a song and dance about this, but FCA doesn’t want to risk devaluing the Ferrari mystique. So it’s ‘inspired by Ferrari’ and not ‘Ferrari-engined’. Shame. Remember the Lancia Thema 8.32? If not, look it up.

Even in the M4 GTS with water injection, BMW’s 493bhp twin turbo 3.0 falls short of the 503bhp output generated by this direct injection, continuously variable valve-timed engine. There’s 440lb ft of torque on tap, available from 2500-5500rpm. It doesn’t rev massively high – the limiter hits just before 7,000rpm – but there’s so much drama and excitement before then that I didn’t miss a blood-curdling top note.

How’s the rest of the package? I spy carbon bits.

Yep there’s carbon for the front splitter, diffuser and side skirts, plus our car had the optional carbon ceramic brakes and both the roof and bonnet are carbon – the M3 makes do with just the carbon roof. So plenty of carbon, all contributing to a claimed kerbweight of 1524kg – some 40kg lighter than the standard M3.

There’s also 50:50 weight distribution, the wheels are deliriously beautiful, the bodywork is sculptural, elegant, achingly desirable and it’s painted in rich, thick, liquid three-layer Competizione Red.

It’s too good to be true, isn’t it?

I know, I wandered around looking for weak links, evidence that it was all going to fold in on itself like a pack of cards. And there is one entirely predictable area…

It’s the interior quality, naturally. If you do a direct comparison with the A4 or 3-Series, the Giulia isn’t as well built inside, the plastics don’t butt up against each other with quite the same millimetric precision, there’s a tinnier tone when you tap them. But you know what? It’s the best built Alfa I’ve ever sat in, probably as well assembled as a Jaguar XE and, crucially, the quality is merely a slightly weaker link in a very strong chain.

The design work inside is superb. It’s clean and simple, cleared of buttons and complexity, the infotainment screen is faired in, its menu system and rotary controller operate very like those in the BMW 3-Series. It works and works well. The driving position is spot on, there’s yards of reach adjustment on the steering so you can pull it into your chest for the full touring car experience, and the leather rim is lovely to hold.

It’s even got more than adequate rear space and a decent boot (small aperture, good depth). OK so it’s only got one cup holder and the central USB socket could have been more tidily integrated, but it’s very, very convincing. I enjoy being in here, the ambiance is special – more bespoke and sporting than any German rivals – it doesn’t let itself down.

I’m still finding it hard to consider this as an M3 rival.

I was too. I run an M3 as my daily driver, have done over 11,000 miles in it now. I’ve bonded with it, forgiven its foibles, admire it tremendously, thoroughly enjoy living with it. And given a straight choice between it and the Giulia… I really don’t know. It’s that close. My practical side would say BMW because it’s a known quantity, but I reckon there’s a strong case for the Giulia being better to drive.

Now, this will need full analysis when we’re not restricted to an Italian test track and can get the two together, but what I find refreshing about the Alfa is that it has body roll. It hasn’t followed the German template of being so tightly controlled the ride becomes jiggly and unpleasant. They do it for grip, response and agility of course, and I suspect the M3 would edge the Giulia in those areas.

What the Giulia does is flow. That weight distribution gives it great natural balance and the pliancy in the suspension allows you to get a better idea of the forces building up. It’s less edgy and aggressive, gives you a little more time. It’s not soft, but I do wonder if the damping could keep pace with a badly broken B-road. At this stage that’s my only query.

What about the steering?

It’s got a really quick rack, which offsets the supple suspension, giving it real turn-in zest and eagerness, backed up by great front end grip from the new Pirelli P Zeros. Surprisingly, the soft-ish suspension and sharp steering combine well together, so the Giulia is both positive and supple when you turn the wheel.

There’s very little steering feel but we’re used to that now. I’d like a little more weight – it’s one of the settings that adjusts as you cycle through the DNA controller, the others being throttle and gearbox mapping plus traction control.

The adaptive dampers are controlled separately and there’s a new R mode which also disables the stability control completely.

Does it bite?

Don’t be frightened of it. The Giulia is far less spiky and intimidating than the M3, a much more graceful mover and that vectoring differential is beautifully set up, allowing you to exit corners with a nip of oversteer and a wisp of smoke. Or play at being a complete hooligan.

Traction is not only strong, but very predictable. I love the way this thing gets itself out of corners, it’s so communicative and biddable. And quick, too. The M3 (unless you fit the Comp pack) has a tendency to splay itself sideways, but this is more in the mould of the mighty twin turbo V8 Merc C63, trustworthy and predictable, but daintier, lighter, a better mover.

Speaking of cars with good engines…

This one is more in the mould of the M3’s straight six than the theatrics of the Merc’s roaring V8. It’s every bit as good as you hope an engine with Ferrari roots and overseen by an ex-Ferrari engineer (head of development Philippe Krief worked at Maranello until the Giulia programme began) would be: responsive, sharp, noisy, potent.

You just don’t expect an Alfa Romeo to accelerate this hard, to thrust itself forward so relentlessly. I’m not sure it feels that much faster than the 425bhp M3, but the power delivery is good – it’s got that massive hit of torque across a wide band, but keeps on giving eagerly all the way to the limiter.

Ferrari’s achievements in minimizing turbo lag have mostly been passed on to the Giulia. It’s not quite as sharp to pick up as the M3, but it’s good and well matched to the car’s general dynamics which are that little bit gentler and more playful. Plus the rasping V6 sounds great.

Yeah, but I want mine with a manual…

I know, and we won’t get it in the UK, not even further down the line or if sales take off spectacularly. The vast majority of cars will be autos and it’s America that’s driven manual demand.

Don’t be sorry that we won’t get the manual. The shift is OK, but better coming down the gears than going up, where it’s notchy unless your shifting is aggressive and fast. There’s also a touch too much flywheel effect in the engine, so not enough engine braking and the revs don’t drop quick enough during shifts. You’d put up with it if you really wanted a manual. Even the cheap gearknob. 

But you’d have the auto?

The 8-speed ZF is brilliant – the shifts are double-clutch instant, hit home the moment you ask for them, and the big paddles are good to use despite being column-mounted. Plenty of other firms use this gearbox, but as far as sporting applications go, I like it here better than anywhere else.

There’s enough gears for the low ratios to be closely stacked for sprinting, while the higher ones are long for cruising. That helps Alfa at least claim figures of 33.0mpg and 198g/km of CO2.

I’ve avoided this until now, but is it as good looking as it seems?

Absolutely. The style thing is Alfa’s bag and this one does it well. The long bonnet, long wheelbase layout looks lovely and the visual balance and surfacing is artistic. It means the car doesn’t need endless scoops and edgy angles to look dramatic.

Worth mentioning that the rear lights and C-pillars both have Maserati overtones about them, but on the whole this is about as good as compact everyday saloons get, and it’s accessorized beautifully by the carbon glitz and this lustrous optional Competitzione Red paint.

So how much?

We’re promised that pricing will be in line with the M3, so let’s call it £60,000. That’s a massive leap for Alfa, to come into a class where it has so little previous experience and has so much to do to establish the brand for the future.

But if there’s a car that can do it, it’s the Giulia. It just remains to be seen if buyers can be convinced that this is more than just another Alfa flash in the pan – there have been too many disappointments over the years for trust to be earned back immediately.

Plus the dealers need to pull their socks up. They’ve got the car, but if they want the kind of customers that normally put their money into a German exec or a Lexus, they have to really sharpen up.

Any last words?

I’ve just got my fingers crossed. The cars I drove at Balocco were great: dextrous, beguiling, gifted, I just hope that all this appeal and ability makes it through to the production versions undiminished. Come September we’ll find out.

Specs

2.9-litre twin turbo V6
8spd auto, RWD
503bhp @ 6500rpm
440lb ft @ 2500-5000rpm
0-62mph in 3.9secs, 190mph max
198g/km CO2, 33.0mpg
1524kg

What do you think?

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