Each morning I get up and die a little. My street is an automotive wasteland, each nondescript utility vehicle slightly duller than the next, in a parade of mediocrity stretching towards the horizon. The odd Prius prowls past, cloth seats smelling faintly of the last ten passengers. A dog-eared Nissan Micra quite literally bats its eyelashes, an icy wind blowing through manky plastic tendrils. I turn my face away in shame, just to see a Mercedes estate with busted rear springs rusting quietly into obsolescence, unloved, with only an old shopping trolley for company.
According to the auto magazines, manufacturers are giving up on performance and beauty, shifting production over to profitable and bloated SUVs in an attempt to grab the grey dollar from a non-plussed public. Feels like a bad time to like cars.
Or is it? Despite the gloom, the market has given us a few things to celebrate. In Europe, we can buy a red-blooded Ford Mustang – which hasn’t been possible for 50 years. We can still pick up the driver-focussed Toyota GT86, and buy the best Mazda MX5 ever produced (the Mk IV), for comparatively little. Thanks to some smart moves from Renault, a superb Alpine sports car (albeit priced for the comfortable upper-middle market) is available for the first time since 1992. And most importantly, we have something which until recently was but a dream. A new, proper rear wheel drive Alfa Romeo saloon, bearing a legendary name: the Giulia.
What is Alfa Romeo?
Ah, Alfa Romeo. The true petrolhead’s car company. One look at the iconic two-part badge, red cross and green serpent, and you’re taken somewhere else. Maybe inside the roaring crowd meeting Tazio Nuvolari as he flies past to win the 1931 Italian Grand Prix in an Alfa 8C 2300. Or Tuscany in 1969 as your dainty Spider impresses your date by sprinting up winding hill roads. And how could you forget that rainy afternoon at the Oxford services in 1999, staring at your Alfa Romeo 156, trying to figure out what had possessed it to cast off its timing belt with all the wild abandon of an Italian naturist in the first days of summer?
When you ask around for impressions of Alfa Romeo you get a mixed bag: tales of extraordinary racing success and spellbinding design and engineering, cut with occasional tragicomic reliability issues and the odd production disaster (go read about the AlfaSud…). Why is Alfa Romeo so special? Alfa Romeo fans will say it’s just so Italian. It’s detractors will say it’s just… so Italian.
Just like its FCA stablemate Maserati, the Alfa Romeo marque has a varied history which makes an interesting backdrop to its position today. Curiously the company began as a French concern – Darracq – only to be bought out in 1910 by one of the managing directors who creatively rechristened it [Societa] Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (The Lombardy Car Factory). In 1915 “Romeo” turned up in the form of the Neapolitan industrialist Nicola Romeo, who shepherded the concern through WWI until another financial crisis hit. The Mussolini government stepped in with a bailout, and subsequent state ownership was formalised in 1933.
While Alfa Romeo’s reputation had been burnished from its beginnings by production of luxury vehicles and total dominance in motorsports thanks to excellent Grand Prix cars, after WWII came a push into the mass market. 1950 saw the introduction of the 4 cylinder twin-cam 1900, which was revolutionary for being Alfa Romeo’s first car assembled on an automated production line. But this wasn’t a sad turn to normality. The racing DNA was still there. The 1900 was marketed as the “family car that wins races”, and 1960s / 70s road models like the original Giulia and the GTA all shared a pugilistic, sporty nature not lost on generations of tuners and enthusiasts. One more financial crisis saw Fiat take control in 1986, and the company has been in the hands of what is now the Fiat Chrysler Group ever since.
The Alfa Romeo Giulia: A new direction
After a number of fairly well-received modern sports cars (hello Brera, goodbye 4C), FCA decided to get on the warpath from 2014, with the aim of making Alfa Romeo a worthy premium competitor of Mercedes, BMW and Audi, while making the most of FCA’s own vast cross-platform expertise. A bold first move was needed. And so a new platform (to be shared with the new Stelvio SUV) was developed to usher in a wholly new car for 2016: the Giulia, a rear wheel drive saloon aimed squarely at disrupting the stagnant market dominated by haughty Teutonic rivals. With the kind assistance of FCA, I had the 2019 edition on test for a week in Veloce spec, the sportiest available before you get to the fire-breathing 500hp monster of the Quadrifoglio.
The Alfa Romeo Giulia draws your eye immediately. It is unquestionably a fine looking car with a body shape cleverly proportioned to encourage quiet admiration; unsurprising when you consider that the base design was the Quadrifoglio, with lesser specs dialled down accordingly. The Giulia’s designer, Alessandro Maccolini, has claimed its shape is largely the result of wind tunnel testing, and that he was just following the design brief for a clean and technical object. Yeah, Alessandro, I like the no-makeup look too; but you can’t disguise the multitude of small, deliberate touches making it a class in exciting visual design.
The nose of the car cuts through the air and concentrates the traditional callsigns of Alfa Romeo – heraldic grille flanked by aggressive lights – into a single focal point. This visual energy then explodes rearwards over the sculpted bonnet and sides. A single crease from the front wheel arch takes your gaze and rakes it backwards with the airflow, which whips across the muscular rear axle and out behind the car. It’s an example of adventurous yet tasteful design done right. Certain German manufacturers should take note…
On the inside, Alfa Romeo have focussed on what is important – seating position and comfort, ergonomics, and a general ambience of friendly sophistication. Initial impressions of the Veloce trim were good: a comfortable steering wheel with tactile (albeit rarely used) aluminium shift paddles, supportive seats, excellent visibility and a sculpted, flowing dashboard bringing to mind design cues from a Ferrari.
But never forget that this is an Alfa Romeo. There’s a whole backstage operation necessary for this prima donna to put on a performance and sometimes it falls slightly short. The covering of the A-pillar sprang out at me one afternoon, and took some delicate yet firm encouragement to go back into the wings. I also noticed that the spring-loaded cover for the cupholder didn’t quite connect flush with its opposite surface, giving a rocking motion just before closing. Molto sexy. To be fair to Alfa Romeo, they have announced a fix of small interior niggles in the 2020 update of the Giulia, including more leather and a few more Italian flags (thanks guys). Given the clear need to spend design budget sensibly, I’m not sure an Alfa interior will ever match those from BMW and Audi, but then again, if you like interiors that much, stay at home – capisci?
Because it’s ultimately the drive that counts. And here the Giulia excels. The steering is pin-sharp thanks to a nicely tight steering ratio, and the car turns into corners keenly. You can judge a fast turn easily and the car never feels like it is unbalanced – to the contrary, it is light on its feet and confident. There’s really very little to fault with the chassis. The sprightly 2.0l engine does a good job of disguising the fact that it is a turbo four-cylinder, and while the 277 hp available in my Veloce test car wasn’t going to win me any drag races, it was certainly enough to get me out of trouble on the motorway. Somebody at Alfa Romeo has clearly made a huge effort to make sure that this saloon is a driver’s car first, rather than just a tool to get to the office. Thank God for that.
So the overall impression of this car is very good indeed. Perhaps even greater than the sum of its parts. Strangely, that brings a problem of its own – a certain insecurity as to what you’re driving. The common perception of an Alfa is the idea of perfect imperfection; that to own an Alfa Romeo should be something of a noble struggle, because that is the true calling of the petrolhead. To paraphrase Stephen Hawking in The Nature of Space and Time, history tells us that, like God, not only does an Alfa Romeo play dice; it sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen.
The Giulia’s issues, as a flagship modern saloon, will seem paltry in comparison to the monumental feats of mechanical elbow-greasing Alfa aficionados of the past have had to carry out as a rite of passage. Driving an Alfa I don’t want to complain about little bits of trim popping off or errant dashboard lights; I fantasise about telling people that first gear is temperamental but you can really open up past 3000 rpm in second onwards because I’ve just reconditioned the gearbox in my front room with a toothbrush and a bottle of Chianti. And don’t trust the fuel gauge, it’s full of damned lies. You get the picture.
Of course, that’s a pretty odd thing to say about a modern saloon. It’s not a race car, I’m not Fangio, it’s 2019 and I’m just an errant scribbler with dreams of a better automotive tomorrow. I guess it’s just a reflection of what it feels like to drive the Alfa Romeo of my generation, however, in a culture formed by the experiences of the past. Will we look back on this car in the same way that people look back on the classics? The modern Giulia is safer, more reliable, more predictable, and more fuel efficient than previous Alfa Romeo cars; beautiful and controlled, but perhaps not as exciting, raw, unplanned, infuriating, or off-the-cuff as what came before. I guess we all need to move with the times, however.
More pressing is the value for money question. In Veloce trim you are looking at a car which starts at around £38k and can, if you choose some desirable upgrades, end up costing a touch under under £50k; territory belonging to the higher spec variants of incumbents like the BMW 3 series, Audi A4, and Jaguar XE. New cars today are extremely expensive as it is, and the Giulia Veloce does leave a few small things to be desired if you are going to be asking for that much. However, the Giulia model in general is certainly worthy of being considered one of the most unique and enjoyable saloons to drive in the market. My heart says I’d prefer one over a BMW 3-series, for the sheer feeling that I’m driving something special. My head tells me to speak to the fleet manager.
It’s a bit of a tough call. But if the Giulia says one thing, it’s that Alfa Romeo have feel. They have rhythm. They know what makes an engaging driver’s car and are busy extracting the best from whatever technical and financial constraints they have to work within as part of FCA. Is the Giulia a perfect saloon? No. But are its imperfections overcome by glimpses of some inherent greatness? Very much so.
In recent months we’ve heard of the scaling back of plans to develop a new GTV coupe and updated 8C supercar, prior to the FCA / Peugeot merger; sad news for those who were on their knees praying that off the back of the Giulia’s success, a wider sports car revival was on the way from Alfa Romeo. But I remain an optimist. I mean, we still have the Quadrifoglio. If Alfa Romeo can continue to refine what they have shown they are capable of in the Giulia variants, with some luck and a bit of famed Alfa grit, we may well yet see the badge adorning something even more special in the future.
So I say to all you modern Alfisti out there, don’t lose hope. One day, someday, we’re gonna be free.