Alfa predator

First thing you notice about the Giulia is its sexy, sinister exterior styling

WORDS GLENN BUTLER

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HIS is the important. might not be the most significant in terms of market relevance or volume, but as far as Alfa Romeo – one of the world’s oldest brands – is concerned, the company’s future depends on the Giulia’s success.

This high-performance Quadrifoglio model (it means four-leaf clover, and Alfa has dropped ‘Verde’ from the name) sets a new benchmark for the famed Italian marque. Thanks to a Ferrari-derived 375kW 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6, this 1580kg rear-drive sports sedan hits 100km/h from rest in a claimed 3.9sec. That’s threetenths faster than the previous best by the V8-powered 8C Competizione coupe. The Giulia Quadrifoglio’s claimed 307km/h top speed also shades that limited-run coupe.

What’s even better is that it’s an absolute hoot to drive. It’s an exciting, engaging and invigorating performance sedan that will give the 317kW BMW M3 and 375kW Mercedes-AMG C63 S a real fastest Alfa Romeo production car ever built. It’s also the most important It challenge when we throw them into the ring after the Giulia launches locally in February 2017.

First thing you notice about the Giulia is its sexy, sinister exterior styling. No mistaking this machine for anything but an Alfa. The Quadrifoglio model steps up the visual aggression over lesser Giulias with a deep chin spoiler – complete with active aero lip that lowers for extra front-end downforce at higher speeds – ground-hugging side skirts, and a visually aggressive and functional rear diffuser.

All of that, plus the Giulia’s long 2820mm wheelbase and the compact aluminium engine’s position low in the chassis and almost behind the front axle line, combine to give this well-balanced car prodigious grip both front and rear. 19-inch Pirelli P-Zero Corsas help, too.

The Giulia’s initial attitude on turnin – and it’s a hungry turn-in thanks to the quickest steering rack in its class and a responsive front-end – is towards understeer, though there’s plenty of feedback keeping the driver informed. A touch sticky initially, but well weighted beyond that. And it’s relatively easy to leverage the responsive twin-turbo V6 to adjust the Giulia’s nose in corners, or overcome understeer completely with some highly entertaining and easily controllable tail-out oversteer. But more on that later.

One area the engine falls short is its soundtrack, perhaps related to its flatplane crank. Extensive efforts to deliver an evocative engine note worthy of the car’s thundering performance fail to overcome the turbochargers’ damping abilities.

“We wanted to make that engine sound like the old V6 engine, the 147 GTA and 156 GTA, so we targeted this kind of noise,” explains development chief Philippe Krief. “We worked a lot on intake, to overcome the turbos, but we also compensated with exhaust. You can like it, or not.”

It’s not that we don’t like it, we’d just like it louder, more brash and uncouth.

Dare I say… more Italian?

Listen to a well-driven AMG and you’ll hear all kinds of delicious gurgles and burps on overrun and accompanying every gearchange; the Alfa does little of that.

First thing you notice about the Giulia is its sexy, sinister exterior styling

Basic Giulia still loaded with spirit

Wheels also grabbed a quick stint in the base model Giulia.

It’s powered by a 147kW 2.0-litre turbo, driving the rears through an eight-speed auto. A manual is available overseas, but has been ruled out for Australia. Sacrilege!

Alfa’s price target is $60K, with standard leather, sat-nav and climate control. So the Giulia won’t hold a significant equipment advantage, especially in the area of active safety.

Some of the cars at launch had fit and finish issues, but they were pre-production so we’d expect Alfa Romeo to have those ironed out before customer deliveries begin. Cabin refinement is impressive in terms of materials (except for hard plastics on door lowers) and noise isolation. The driving position is spot-on and there’s plenty of space for four adults. Back-seat headroom is good, legroom less so but still adequate. The 480-litre boot equals the BMW 3 Series and is deep, though not wide.

Despite runflat tyres, the Giulia’s ride is supple and isolating while providing an agile and sporty platform. The electric steering is a touch sticky moving off centre, but is nicely weighted and quick.

And the turning circle – a longtime weakness on front-drive Alfas – is a compact 10.8m on this rear-driver, despite its long 2820mm wheelbase.

This new engine is sweet, but doesn’t feel as punchy as Alfa’s 6.6sec to 100km/h claim suggests.

It revs crisply, is refined, and has no discernible turbo lag so it’s responsive. The transmission clunks through the odd change, but it’s a rare occurrence. Alfa’s fuel economy claim is 5.9L/100km.

Assuming its European dynamics are equally at home in Oz, and that Alfa Australia can price Giulia sharply, premium buyers will soon have an Italian worth cross-shopping with the Brit, the Germans, and the Japanese.

And perhaps it’s a testament to the cabin’s isolating abilities, but the engine note also sounds a bit distant and muted inside the sporty and well-appointed interior, despite having a bi-modal exhaust to supposedly offer the best of both worlds.

One trick the engine inherits from Ferrari, as debuted in the California T two years back, is increasing maximum torque as you go up the gears. But it’s not done for tractive reasons, says product development chief Philippe Krief: “It’s not better for car performance, but it’s better for driver feeling. This way the engine feels like it’s always building, giving you more, the more you push. You could have 600Nm from 2000rpm. The engine can do it.

We choose not to, so we can heighten the emotional sensation.”

Emotion, it turns out, was one of Alfa’s key development targets, especially with the Quadrifoglio. It all starts with a good driving position, says Krief.

“This is very important; the way you sit in the car. This is the first aspect. So we define this position, the space you need.

The lower the better. Then after you have to organise everything. You need to have every component – steering, gearbox, brakes, engine – respond harmoniously, and progressively. And then you need also to make a car which is easy to drive. If you do performance which is not easy to drive, your emotion will not be good.”

Krief also considered pushing the 7200rpm cut-out closer to 8000, because the speed at which this engine revs and the close-ratio nature of its eight-speed automatic mean you often run out of revs when selecting manually via the paddles.

Krief decided against it because “the rewards just weren’t there”.

Now, back to the Quadrifoglio’s oversteering ways. No question it loves to wag its tail, and no question that 375kW and 600Nm makes doing so a doddle. But you’ve got to be in Race mode on the DNA selector dial. Regular Giulias let the driver adjust throttle response and transmission mapping three ways: Advanced Efficiency, Natural, and Dynamic. The Quadrifoglio’s DNA can also influence the car’s adaptive dampers, and in Race mode sharpens everything to the max and retards ESC.

While it’s easy to initiate a smoky drift, the Quadrifoglio’s manners around the transition point aren’t always exemplary. I suspect it’s to do with the torque-vectoring rear diff, which uses a clutch on each halfshaft to control drive to each wheel. Get the tail out further and it’s wonderfully easy to hold or to tuck back in as desired.

Our first meeting was enlightening and exhilarating, but short. Eight laps of Alfa Romeo’s Balocco proving ground are enough to know this machine is something special, but not enough to know how special. Nor do racetrack laps give us a clue about how the Quadrifoglio’s sportstuned suspension will handle real road conditions, or how close to its 8.2L/100km combined fuel economy the Ferrariinspired V6 will get in normal driving.

We plan to test the Quadrifoglio more thoroughly in Europe in the next month or so. And of course we’ll throw it into a comparison with its rivals when it lands in Australia in February 2017.

Preferably in the High Country, and with a certain Benz, BMW, Jaguar and Lexus in tow. Can’t wait.

The Quadrifoglio is an absolute hoot to drive. It’s exciting, engaging and invigorating

Model Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio Engine 2891cc V6 (90°), dohc, 24v, twin-turbo Power 375kW @ 6500rpm Torque 600Nm @ 2500-5500rpm Transmission 8-speed automatic Weight 1580kg 0-100km/h 3.9sec (claimed) Fuel economy 8.2L/100km (EU) Price $135,000 (estimated) On sale February 2017