Peak Fitness

Alfa Romeo has a mountain to climb with its new Giulia, making the Quadrifoglio just the car to tackle the five biggest climbs in the Italian Alps

WORDS MIKE DUFF PHOTOS TOM SALT

WORDS MIKE DUFF PHOTOS TOM SALT

ITALIANS are not the sort of people to let a minor detail like the lack of a common language get in the way of asking questions about a brand new Alfa Romeo. During the course of three days in northern Italy in the new Giulia Quadrifoglio, we get interrogated about it practically every time we stop, in everything from excellent English to what’s little more than grunting and sign language.

I can honestly say that every reaction is positive, from a road-repair guy on the Stelvio Pass to the man who left his Audi Q5 blocking a busy street in Turin to come and grab a closer look. It’s clear Italians still root for the home team.

Yet in general they’ve given up on buying Italian cars. Snapper Tom Salt and myself arrive at Turin airport to find the taxi ranks, which would once have been filled with Fiats as far as the eye can see, packed with Skodas and Seats. Our ride to the vast factory at Mirafiore is a Toyota Prius. While the passion is still there, it’s buried in what seems to be a very shallow grave.

OUR first turn in the 375kW Quadrifoglio had taken place five months ago at FCA’s vast Balocco proving ground and was tantalisingly brief. Hence our resolve to have a proper go in one. So when we were offered one in Italy without restrictions, the challenge was thinking up an appropriate challenge.

An Alpine pass seemed like a good idea, but just one would be too easy. Browsing a list of Italy’s highest roads provided some inspiration; why not try to complete the set?

Three days gives us enough time to bag the five highest roads in the country and get back to the factory. Two of these are west of Turin, although 240km apart, while the other three are clustered in the northeast near the Austrian and Swiss borders. A round trip of 1500km and 10,000 metres of vertical ascent should make for a decent first test.

Mirafiore is everything you’d expect an Italian car factory to be – chaotic and crowded yet with a sense of purpose behind the bustle. Not that this is the right place to start an Alfa story; the company’s home town was always Milan, but these days FCA’s shrunken size has relegated such jealousies to insignificance against the continued challenge of keeping the brand’s head above the waterline.

Sitting in the middle of a preparation workshop surrounded by nondescript Euro-spec Fiats, the Quadrifoglio stands out like a diamond on a pizza. The muscular bodykit and carbon rear wing look great, and the beautifully applied white mica paint could teach upmarket German rivals a thing or two about quality.

The cabin is less impressive. Our car displays a ‘low battery voltage’ warning before it has even left the factory, and some of the switchgear is already feeling wobbly. But the big surprise is the chunky lever for the six-speed manual, a transmission option that right-hand-drive markets won’t get…

Consider it a cautionary lesson. Well before leaving Turin, the gearbox proves we’re not missing out on much, its combination of a high-biting clutch and an awkward shift action making it almost impossible to get a smooth low-speed change.

Gentle progress also reveals that, despite the ferocity we know the twin-turbo V6 can muster on track, it suffers from chasmic lag at low rpm, something else the quick-shifting auto helps disguise.

A round trip of 1500km and 10,000 metres of vertical ascent should be a decent test

TOUR DE FORZA

With 375kW, the 2.9-litre twin-turbocharged V6 at the heart of the Quadrifoglio is the most powerful engi ne eve r f itted to a roadgoing Al fa. All right-hookers will come wit h an eight- speed aut omatic that drives the rear wheels via a carbonfibre propshaft and a torque-vector ing limited-slip differential to help sharpen responses. Carbon-ceramic brakes are an option – they work well, but started grumbling after prolonged hard use – and the car also features an active front splitter to improve aerodynamic performance. R oof and bonnet are made from carbonfibre, with aluminium used for guards and door skins. It’s undoubtedly the most technically advanced Alfa ever.

AFTER a brief bit of crowded Autostrada, the Giulia’s navigation system has plotted a route to the Col Agnel down what seem to be impossibly small roads; one even has a grass strip running up the middle. I suspect the system has been put into crow’s flight mode – my Italian isn’t up to turning the system settings to English – but a quick check with Google confirms this really is the quickest way to the mountains.

The Col itself links Italy to France; at 2744 metres above sea level it’s the highest international border crossing in the Alps. But it’s not really a direct route between anywhere of any significance, something that’s reflected in a welcome lack of traffic.

By the time we get to the road that leads to the summit, it’s pretty much deserted. The small villages we pass through are infested with speed cameras – orange boxes that look like wheelie bins – but between them there’s the chance to unleash the Alfa properly for the first time.

It’s bloody impressive. The blue touchpaper moment is about level with the ‘4’ mark on the tachometer. Until then it feels quick, though not exceptionally so, but from that point onwards it pulls with brutal enthusiasm all the way to the 7250rpm rev-limiter while making the sort of angry noises you’d normally have to taser a lion for. Yet it’s immediately clear that the chassis can take it, the Giulia feeling remarkably stable at speed and turning with assured precision on the faster stuff.

As the road steepens, so the corners start to become hairpins, bringing a new and novel problem. The Giulia’s highly strung engine isn’t turning fast enough to be boosting when asked to deal with these in second gear, so the only way to drive out of them at a Quadrifoglio-appropriate speed is to – counterintuitively – downshift into first. This reveals another issue, the definite sensation of the engine winding itself back, presumably as it tries to inhibit the torque output to protect the gearbox.

Approaching the summit, the views are spectacular, but there’s no time for ceremony when we actually reach the top. A biting wind discourages us from spending longer than is necessary to take a single footstep into France and grab a valedictory photograph. Besides, we’re already short of time if we’re going to make the Colle del Nivolet before the sun sets. I’m soon grateful for the presence of the optional, but untireable, carbon-ceramic brakes on our Giulia.

After the descent comes another slow schlep across the plains of Piedmont. Relentless speed enforcement might have slowed Italians down, but it’s not made them better drivers. Superminis and scooters punish my determination to keep what they must judge to be a woefully excessive one-second gap to the vehicle in front by constantly nipping into it.

The only significant highlight of this transit leg comes near San Giorgio when a fleeting glimpse of a line of strange-looking cars as we pass an industrial unit encourages a second pass. It’s a former Pininfarina factory, closed in 2011, with a row of Alfa Brera cabriolets, presumably prototypes, still parked outside and covered in weeds. Spooky.

The Alfa is a superb machine for this kind of road, capable of carrying huge speed

The Colle del Nivolet doesn’t climb as high, but the terrain feels far more rugged, with grey skies adding to the sensation that we’ve driven into Mordor. The road is too narrow for high-speed confidence, and it’s a deadend rather than a pass leading anywhere. Beyond the summit it descends to a lake, and with the temperature display reading single figures – it was 32 at the bottom of the hill – it’s not exactly swimming weather. The only other traffic is an Impreza STi that seems to be using the road as a private rally stage, and a bloke on what looks like rollerblades propelling himself up the 30 percent slope using ski sticks.

At the summit there’s a sign pointing to a cafe down a rocky path. With the sun dipping below the horizon, it seems deeply unlikely it will be open, yet it is, and still serving. I order a hot chocolate that, designed for hardy mountain types, is essentially a cup of melted chocolate. Owner Alessandro Bado looks like an Italian Hemingway and tells us he doesn’t like the traffic or the tourists it brings during the summer; we’re in what’s supposed to be a wilderness.

The ski-pole guy has made it to the top by the time we’re ready to leave. It turns out his wheeled skates are to train for a cross-country event this winter. They don’t have brakes, so he can’t go down the hill on them; instead he’s planning to run the 15km back to his car. With the light fading we offer him a lift instead. His name is Giovanni and he runs a camera shop in Milan – this is his idea of a nice, relaxing day off. Although he claims to have no interest in cars, he knows he’s sitting in the new Alfa Romeo. “It’s good,” he proffers. “Many people will buy it.”

WE OVERNIGHT in a nondescript hotel near Milan and then hit the road bright and early for the long transit to the Dolomites. We’re not early enough to miss traffic on the A51 Autostrada, which does at least give the Quadrifoglio a chance to prove itself an accomplished cruiser, quiet and refined, and happy to operate at three-tenths.

Today’s mission is to try and string together three passes, with the Gavia taking us from Ponti di Legno to the mountain town of Bormio, and then the famous Stelvio before another 70km run to the Timmelsjoch.

I’ve heard great things about the Gavia, but this is my first time here and we’re not catching it on a good day. Coming from the south means the climb is on a road that’s single-car width for most of the ascent and the surface is poor; it’s like trying to charge up the Unabomber’s driveway. The Giulia’s first gear is also starting to sound graunchy on its all-hairpin diet.

But the big problem is other road users, specifically those on two wheels. Not the cyclists drawn to the place – it’s often used as a stage in the Giro d’ Italia bike race – and who aren’t going quickly enough to be trouble. The menace is fat touring motorbikes, usually piloted by equally chunky Dutch or Germans with alarmingly little road sense. Why you’d choose to attack an Alp on a Harley Davidson while wearing immaculate Hells Angels leathers remains a mystery, but after rounding a corner to find a pack of these Born to be Mild types wobbling towards us across the full width of the road, we pretty much crawl the rest of the way up.

HAIR TRIGGER

Our journey turned out to be hairpin-aversion therapy; we’d be glad not to see another one for some considerable time. We tackled 42 on the Col Agnel (21 up and 21 down), 64 on the Col Nivolet (32 up, 32 down), 26 on the Passo Gavia (15 up, 11 down), 86 on the Stelvio (38 up, 48 down) and 34 on the Timmelsjoch (17 up, 17 down). That’s a nice, round total of 150.

Total linear ascent was just under 11,000 metres – bear in mind we started each climb considerably higher than sea level – and the total journey including the return from Timmelsjoch to Mirafiore was 1512km. Fuel economy average d 13.4L/10 0km and we drank 21 rocket-grade espressos to keep us going.

Yet the Gavia turns out to be mere antipasto before the main course of Alpine chaos.

The 2757m-high Passo del Stelvio has long been the most famous Italian pass, and it exerts a corresponding pull on those in search of driving adventure. On the right day, at the right time, it’s still pretty special; but not a Tuesday in early September. The Giulia is competing for road space with cars, cyclists, motorhomes, pudgy bikers and even full-sized coaches that are too big to negotiate the tighter hairpins in one go. For the Quadrifoglio, it’s an exercise in frustration, the performance deployed to do nothing more than occasionally blast us to the end of a line of dawdlers.

The village of Stelvio itself is even worse, packed with shops selling tat, and food carts flogging bestnot- ask-from-where sausages. We don’t hang around for longer than it takes to take pictures, and for me to regret eating a particularly grizzly salsiccia.

IF OUR journey had ended at the Stelvio, it would have finished in disappointment. Fortunately the Timmelsjoch, also known as the Passo Rombo, is even further away and is good enough to be the highlight of our journey. We’ve definitely saved the best until last.

Like the Stelvio, the Timmelsjoch is part of Italy’s German-speaking Sud Tyrol region, a geographic legacy of World War I. These days the 2509m summit is the border between Italy and Austria, and it can get busy with tourist traffic. But we arrive at the bottom to find a sign warning the pass is going to close at 8pm for maintenance. We have just enough time to get up and back, meaning we’ve pretty much got the road to ourselves.

It is superb, beautifully surfaced and wider than the tight-feeling Gavia and Nivolet. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better road to show off the Quadrifoglio’s combination of grip and poise. Indeed, there’s almost too much adhesion, enough to persuade me to experimentally turn the DNA selector to its punchiest Race setting, which cages the stability control. Doing this on the track at Balocco turned the Alfa into a drifting machine, but it’s clear there’s still some level of electronic protection here, reigning the engine back coming out of slower corners. It’s nice that Alfa is so concerned with keeping us safe, but it would be nice to be allowed to go play.

Yet the Quadrifoglio still impresses, attacking both the fast corners and the hairpins with what feels like tireless enthusiasm. Even first gear seems to have fixed itself. It’s a superb machine for this kind of road, capable of carrying huge speed and yet still delivering proper excitement. It’s not perfect, but even its flaws add to its character – it makes the rest of the Giulia launch range seem pretty boring by comparison.

For Alfa to have a future, the Giulia and the sister cars that will be spun from the same platform are going to have to succeed, indeed do considerably better than anything the brand has produced in the past two decades. Italy loves the Quadrifoglio, and the feeling seems to be mutual. The big question is whether the rest of the world will give it a fair go as well.

The Quadrifoglio attacks both fast corners and hairpins with tireless enthusiasm

Not in Italy…

There’s a good reason Italians treated the Quadrifoglio as such an exotic beast; very few of them will be sold here. Not through lack of patriotic sentiment among Italy’s car buyers, but rather because of the country’s Byzantine tax structure. Italy still taxes cars based on power output, meaning only the wealthiest will be able to afford a car like the 375kW Quadrifoglio.

The system is complicated to say the least. The basic tax – bollo auto – is levied according to emissions; for the Euro 5 Giulia it’s 2.58 for each kW under 100kW, then 3.87 for each kW between 100kW and 185kW, and finally an ‘excess power’ tax, levied at 20 for each additional kW with no ceiling. Total tax for the Quadrifoglio is therefore 4346.95 ($A6392). And that’s not a one-off; it’s due every year.

Model Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

Engine 2891cc V6 (90°), dohc, 24v, twin-turbo

Power 375kW @6500rpm

Torque 600Nm @2500-5500rpm

Transmission 6-speed manual

Weight 1580kg

0-100km/h 3.9sec (claimed)

Fuel economy 13.4L/100km (as tested)

Price $140,000 (estimated)

On sale February 2017