Alfa Romeo is one of the motoring world’s most famous brands: An automotive legend steeped in a history stretching back more than a century. But while the Milanese marque is associated with beautifully styled, evocative machines delivering stirring dynamics, the sales figures paint a less appealing picture. Indeed, to survive, Alfa needs to attract more customers. The all-new Giulietta promises to do just that – but will it deliver? By DEON SCHOEMAN.
In a world overflowing with average brands delivering merely average products, owning a truly distinctive marque with a globally recognised badge is worth money – lots of money. But that’s only true if the brand is both distinctive and successful.
Alfa Romeo is a good case in point. The Italian carmaker has a proud heritage of producing fantastic road cars, racing cars and sports cars, most featuring the distinctive, heart-shaped grille that remains the brand’s universally recognised trademark.
Alfas have been around for more than 100 years, and in that time, they’ve accurately expressed the aspirations, demands and requirements of a discerning, enthusiastic motoring clientele.
But, despite its glorious past, and a long line of equally glorious cars, Alfa appears to have lost its way – at least if its sales performance is anything to go by. Global sales in 2009 only amounted to about 102,000 units, and indications are that it didn’t fare much better last year.
It’s not clear just what went wrong. But Alfa, which is owned by the Fiat Group, is clearly under pressure, both internally and externally.
Fiat Group CEO Sergio Marchionne has threatened to axe the brand, should it not return to profitability soon. That would suit Volkswagen’s Martin Winterkorn, who is champing at the bit to acquire the marque from its Italian parent, proving that a great brand remains an attractive buy, even in the absence of profitability.
All of this may be of little relevance to the average car buyer. But it underscores the importance of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Its fortunes will be followed with great interest, because the C-segment hatchback represents Alfa’s most concerted effort yet to produce a car that’s both evocative and economically viable.
The Golf-sized Giulietta is a step up from the 147 hatchback it replaces. The latter scored high aesthetic marks, but was ultimately too cramped and impractical to be taken seriously.
By comparison, the Giulietta is simply drop-dead gorgeous, openly flaunting its brand identity. It’s so downright handsome that heads turn and fingers point wherever it goes. This is a car that oozes desirability and sheer sex appeal and once you lay eyes on it, you just can’t stop staring.
The Giulietta comes to South Africa in three flavours, all with turbocharged petrol engines. There isn’t a turbodiesel in sight for the SA market yet, although European buyers get to choose between two diesels too. Perhaps we’ll get them later?
Our test car at the local launch in the Western Cape was the top-of-the-range 1750 TBI Quadrifoglio Verde. By the way, “quadrifoglio verde: is Italian for “green cloverleaf” – a symbol that has traditionally adorned Alfa’s performance models.
The other two derivatives are both fitted with turbocharged 1400cc powerplants, featuring maximum power outputs of 88kw and 125kW respectively. Front-wheel drive and six-speed manual gearboxes are standard across the range.
The shape retains Alfa’s emotive styling DNA: the deep, heart-shaped grille dominates the front, with intriguing, clear-lensed headlights with daytime running lights on either side. The side view links narrow glass apertures to sculpted flanks and muscle-bound haunches, while the rear is pert and contoured. A tapered roofline adds further appeal.
There’s enough of the previous 147 to confirm that the Giulietta is its successor, but the shape is more sophisticated – if a little more fussy too. The “face” also shows some resemblance to the smaller Mito, although it doesn’t share that car’s myopic stare, nor pug-nosed bluntness.
However, the Giulietta lacks the crisp athleticism of the 147. It looks bigger and heavier, and even 18-inch wheels look a little too small in the overall context.
Visuals apart, the Alfa badge also creates other expectations, specifically as far as dynamics and performance are concerned. And on paper, the Giulietta 1750 TBI QV seems to be well-equipped to deliver on that front too.
The car bristles with high-tech features, including a system Alfa calls “DNA”, which allows the car’s dynamic traits to be adjusted for Dynamic, Normal or All-Weather conditions. Affected are the throttle mapping, steering assistance and stability control settings – and frankly, Dynamic should be the default. It makes the most of the Giulietta’s sporting potential.
Besides Vehicle Dynamic Control – Alfa’s name for electronic stability control – the hatch also comes standard with Alfa’s much-vaunted Q2 electronic diff, which uses the front brakes and a series of sensors to optimise traction and counter understeer.
The heart beating under the Giulietta’s bonnet is an impressive piece of kit. The twin-cam four-potter resurrects the classic 1,75-litre capacity that used to be an Alfa trademark, but in this modern context, it also gets direct fuel injection and advanced turbocharging.
The result is a claimed output of 173kW at 5,500r/min, and a 340Nm torque peak, already on tap at 1,900r/min. The specific power of 99,3kW/litre is best in class, Alfa says, ensuring loads of shove.
That the powerplant is thoroughly modern is also evidenced by the claimed combined fuel consumption figure of just 7,6 litres/100km, and a CO2 emissions rating of just 177g/km.
But, as is so often the case, that consumption figure seems purely academic in practice. The Giulietta is not the kind of car you want to pussyfoot around in: It’s a car born to be driven with gusto, and that means making full use of the loud pedal.
Thus, in our day-and-a-half of driving, often on open roads, we achieved a figure of closer to 12litres/100km. The engine is tractable and very responsive, and the notion of short-changing and driving it economy run-style simply don’t suit the red-blooded, performance positioning of the car.
That said, the throttle travel is longer and less immediate than expected (another reason to opt for Dynamic mode, which improves matters significantly). And the steering, could be crisper, too. Still this performance Giulietta feels the hot hatch part.
The factory figures promise a 6,8 seconds sprint time from zero to 100km/h, while keeping the throttle mashed to the floor will allow for a maximum speed of 242km/h. Off the mark, the Alfa certainly felt up to the task in straight-line terms, despite all those electronic aids, we even managed to wheelspin it off the mark on occasion!
Still, the power delivery is less succinct than expected, with an initial drivetrain take-up that blunts the sheer impact of the car’s urge. There’s little point in revving the engine to the red. Instead, short-changing to let the torque shove come into play is a better strategy.
The engine’s midrange and outright tractability is sublime, making overtaking effortless and allowing for fast, understated cruising. The gear set is tallish, and the shift action perhaps not as positive as expected, but it does make the Giulietta more user-friendly and less intimidating that many a fast-and-furious machine, without compromising outright dynamic prowess.
With all that power and torque on tap, the chassis and suspension become vital elements of the overall package. Again, Alfa has opted for a more compliant, less extreme package than the Green Cloverleaf designation may suggest – which makes it a more user-friendly, day-to-day car, rather than an extreme performance machine.
The chassis is rigid enough to allow ample feedback and concise responses, but there’s enough compliance in the suspension to absorb the worst dips and bumps, despite the 225/40 R18 Pirelli boots on beautiful aluminium rims.
Put it this way: Were this an Audi A3, the settings would be much more uncompromising, which would allow a more direct, unequivocal dialogue between car and driver, but at the expense of ride comfort. The Giulietta is less phased by compromised road surfaces and is the easier car to pilot at speed, even if it’s not honed as sharply at the extremes of its dynamic envelope.
I thought the steering felt too unresponsive (a common trait among over-assisted front-wheel drive performance cars), especially in a series of tight twists and turns. But for most drivers, that will be less of an issue. Does it feel as spirited and involving as true Alfisti would demand? Absolutely.
Of course, the cabin is also the interface between car and driver, and here, the Alfa designers have done well to create an inviting and well-equipped space that offers enough room front and rear, with classy materials and high comfort levels to match.
The full house features list includes just about everything that opens and shuts, with electric control for windows and mirrors, climate control, alarmed central locking, decent sound with multiple speakers, and more.
The sculpted, leather-trimmed sport seats are great, with excellent support and adjustment scope. But while I have no problem with manual adjustment, getting the seat back rake right on the move requires the dexterity of a gynaecologist and the flexibility of a contortionist.
That apart, ergonomics are among the best in the Alfa context, with multifunction controls on the steering wheel, clear dials, a comprehensive electronic display and a decent driving position all creating a pleasing environment for pilot and passengers.
Compared to the class-leading Golf 6 GTI, the Giulietta has more character, more panache more pleasing details than its Teutonic rival. But some of the finishes don’t convince: The metallic-look gear knob for instance, is actually plastic, and will soon look scratched and tatty.
The Golf’s attention to detail and rock-solid tangible quality remain unrivalled (except for the more premium-positioned Audi A3), but the Giulietta is a vast improvement on previous Alfas in this regard and overall finishing is commendable.
The multimillion-dollar question is whether the Giulietta is good enough to be the saviour of the Alfa Romeo brand. Judged purely as a car in the C-segment, the answer is yes. It has the dynamic capability, the visual appeal, the ‘green’ credentials and the distinctive presence to be a success.
An excellent five-year/150,000km warranty and a six-year/105,000km service plan will also help attract customers and encourage ownership confidence.
But alas, true success relies not only on the car alone. Perhaps more important is brand perspective, dealer service and after-sales customer care – areas in which Alfa Romeo needs a lot of polishing. Creating brand confidence and customer loyalty takes more than a Giulietta or a Mito.
It requires a focused, all-out effort by a motivated dealer network and a proven track record of reliability and good resale value that simply cannot be created overnight. Whether the Giulietta will deliver on its promise, and whether it will save Alfa Romeo, will depend on the people that support it. DM
Alfa Romeo Giulietta 1750 TBi Quadrifoglio Verde
In-line four-cylinder, 1 742 cc, turbocharged
173 kW @ 5 500 rpm
340 Nm @ 1 900 rpm
7,6 l/100 km
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