Italians have their own way of doing things. I arrived at a grand hotel with medieval internet. It’s an old restored castle so maybe there’s a theme. And I would’ve had better luck filing this story in a bottle and chucking it into Lake Maggiore.
Then at Balocco, Fiat Chrysler Auto’s proving ground halfway between Italy’s industrial cradles Turin and Milan, Alfa Romeo didn’t have a new Giulia for me to drive. At the car’s international press drive launch. No one in a red shirt seemed to think that was much of a problem, so you can’t even get mad, and instead of driving there was lots of good coffee, great food and sunshine. It’s heart over mind here, it’s their way.
Except that for too long, nearly 30 years now, Alfa has been building cars with brains. Of course it’s been a disaster. The new Giulia is a hunch car, developed with impulse and passion. Alfa’s people couldn’t bear it any longer and the proof is in all the money squandering – this is an entirely unique product that has nothing to do with its sister brand’s Maserati Ghibli, even though the models are remarkably similar on paper.
No one is making any excuses, for the first time at an Alfa launch in ages, and charismatic company CEO Harald Wester guarantees the high-performance QV version will reawaken the faith in thousands of Alfisti.
‘We had nothing but a blank sheet of paper when we started the Giulia,’ says Philippe Krief, the car’s chief engineer. We’ve heard this all before, and finally it resonates.
Philippe and his team started development solely with the flagship Quadrifoglio Verde model in mind, and only turned their attention to the rest of the four-cylinder range after the QV was set in motion... A new, smaller modular rear-wheel drive architecture totally unrelated to Maserati’s heavier platform that underpins all the trident cars. A totally unique 503bhp 2.9-litre 90-degree V6 biturbo (you have to say biturbo and not twin-turbo) built in Termoli (Italy’s poorer south region) that again has nothing to do with Maserati’s 3.0-litre 60-degree V6.
Innovative construction with sandwiched, layered panels to reduce vibrations, unique double-wishbone aluminium suspension, limited slip differential, adaptive dampers... The chassis, Alfa says it’s the stiffest in class with some ridiculous torsional rigidity figure – I did the math and you’d need the power of 30 of the Quadrifoglio’s 503bhp engines to twist the chassis out of line by 1.0mm.
So, clean sheet, which means the most important Alfa in decades, if not ever, could have been anything. It could have been disappointing. The interior is... It’s actually fine with me but the problem is your BMWs and Mercs of the world, and their pesky German standards. In a quality comparison of materials and switchgear tactility the Giulia is a class below with cheap plasticky air vents and some flimsy controls, although it’s a spacious car with enough room in the back and only a compromised rear headroom area. Something like a Golf R is basically more premium inside.
Then Alfa really wants you to note the all-new entertainment system on board and a host of tech the company seems proud of, but from an 8am start it would be 3pm until I first sat behind the wheel, a day spent overdosing on caffeine, all for two laps of the Balocco circuit. Here’s what little I learned…
Not much about the engine, except in the six-speed manual car I started running out of revs quite soon and hit the limiter a few times. This thing is supposed to be wondrous, surely, seeing as Alfa poached a guru named Gianluca Pivetti from Ferrari to design it. And it is, yet with all that power the Quadrifoglio picks up pace well but the manual ‘box isn’t perfectly geared and it saps the engine of its flavour. At the end of the straights, the brakes impress more even if the middle pedal is ludicrously imbalanced in terms of its effect – you have to push hard for the last 10 per cent of travel to get 90 per cent of the real braking force from the massive 390mm carbon ceramics with four-piston callipers up front.
The bespoke Pirellis work hard without a squeal and feed back how well the car grips to a stop and turns on the brakes. For me that’s a big deal because confidence from the stopping performance of a car translates into pace even on unfamiliar roads.
Loss of grip, more importantly, is so progressive, it almost comes on a platter, ‘Hey guy, I’m gonna break loose now but don’t worry I’ll give you a full second of transitional warning.’ Even then the tyres are not just spinning wildly and leave plenty rubber available to respond to either the steering or the right foot. The Quadrifoglio (have you been saying it right? Quad-ree-folyo?) offers several driving modes, however only Race is worth it on the move because Dynamic is still a highly restrictive setting that abruptly cuts power out of corners – these interruptions are no good, gaping holes in this car’s otherwise fantastic power delivery and engine response. Provided you get the auto…
Seriously, it’s a different car because the eight ratios in the automatic give a great deal more urgency to Pivetti’s V6 and Krief’s chassis (by the way, Krief was poached after finishing the Ferrari Speciale – not a bad CV), and keep the car popping in the prime zone of power, which means somewhere near the red line. With so much torque, 600Nm from 2,500rpm, the nice-enough manual is a bit pointless to me in this car, since it’s geared all wrong (or maybe it’s the flexibility of the torque appearing to stretch the gears longer), and so you hardly shift because fourth seems good enough for anything. So what’s the point?
The conventional ZF eight-speed torque-converter – no double-clutch weight penalties here – is great, with a snappy mapping and fantastic paddles behind the wheel, fixed, with a long travel and such satisfying shifts that actually feel like somewhere below there are mechanical gears biting at other gears instead of zeroes talking to ones.
It also tugs at the pull off, like when you slip a manual clutch. An auto ’box you have to finesse? Wow. BMW, Audi, Mercedes, it’s astounding but none of them get this right. All the rest of the industry can parrot is, ‘Our new transmission shifts gears in 20 milliseconds,’ or whatever nonsensical figure they come up with. Alfa didn’t say anything about how fast or slow its ‘box shifts, because I couldn’t care less and nor could it. Feel is immeasurable and yet it always measures higher than a number. Heart over mind, remember where we are.
Apart from the bespoke Pirellis and the car’s fine chassis, a proper limited slip differential in the rear makes a big contribution towards the Alfa’s intuitive oversteer. Where an M3 makes me sweat and a hot Jag needs big steering inputs to sort things out, the Giulia seems a doddle to drive fast not because it’s aided by trick electronic nannies but because it’s just a sorted performance car.
As for the steering system, I can’t say much about feel on a glass-smooth track surface but your arms do very little work – this makes sense, for Krief tells me the ratio is 11.8:1, which is significantly the quickest rack in the segment.
Alfa pulls at our heart strings with the Quadrifoglio but the company still needs to shift 100,000 Giulias in 2017, the model’s first full year of sales – it arrives in the Middle East before the end of 2016. The modular architecture developed three years ago just for the Giulia shares nothing with sister brands, which means Alfa’s platform needs to form the basis for a line of cars still to come – Wester only smiles at the suggestion of coupés, GTs and Spiders… The Stelvio SUV (that name isn’t confirmed yet) will account for similar figures as the Giulia, which won’t be enough for Alfa’s long-term global target of 400,000 annual sales. The future of the company’s front-drive hatchbacks is in the open too.
So FCA’s Euro operations now has two modular rear-drive platforms to return its investments on. The brand wants independent success, and the group wants exclusivity in tech for each of its marques, Alfa, Maserati, Ferrari… It’s an expensive and risky plan, new territory for the Italians. It’s time for some mind over heart.