When I was living in the UK, a guy who lived near my house had been trying for months to sell his Alfa 156 Monza. It was silver, had tan leather upholstery, gorgeous alloy wheels and was about 10 years old. It was immaculate and, the money he was asking for it, worked out as an average week's income for me. Tempted? Every day. But I wouldn't buy it; couldn't buy it. Because it was a 10-year-old Alfa and, despite its undeniably sensual appeal, I just knew there'd be problems along the way. When it comes to cars like this, no matter how difficult I find it, my head always rules my heart.
My experiences with Alfa Romeo have always been a bit of a letdown. I've really, truly wanted to love them but, 8C aside, I've always handed back the keys with a sigh of relief - lovely to look at, yet distinctly average to drive and let down by the details. To this day, I can't think of many cars less dynamic or more wobbly than the most recent Spider - so many promises, so many disappointments. So when I started to read good things about Alfa's new Volkswagen Golf rival, the Giulietta, I approached it with a healthy dose of scepticism.
Its market sector is a tough one to crack, that's for sure. Ford's Focus is a thoroughly decent car - entertaining to drive and the build quality, particularly in the cabin, is vastly superior to Fords of old. Then there's the VW Golf, which, for more years than I care to remember, has set the standard for how small- to medium-sized cars should be built. Peugeot and Renault's output has also improved of late, so for those in the market for a car this size, there's a fair bit of choice. But Alfa Romeo is still on the wish list for countless customers because of the power that name wields and, looking at the Giulietta, it's not difficult to see why.
With the right colour and alloy wheel combo, it's a looker. The nose features that famous inverted, triangular grille, instantly setting it apart from its more bland competitors, and the bonnet is beautifully sculpted. Its flanks are curvaceous, leading to a quite lovely looking rear end with stylish LED tail lamps. and the rear doors have cleverly hidden handles in the C pillars, giving it a more sporting look. It's a taut, muscular design and, while looks are always a subjective, emotive issue, this is a car that I find turns plenty of heads.
Inside the flair continues and, at long last, Alfa has made a decent fist of making sure the controls are tactile as well as functional. Get into a Brera and feel the column stalk edges - they're rough to the touch, cheap and nasty. Not so here. The dash architecture is horizontal and distinctive, it's well laid out and the dials give a nice, sporting vibe that hopefully will continue when this thing is on the open road.
The engine is a 1.4L affair, with Fiat's MultiAir direct valve control treatment. Power is rated at 170hp, top speed is 218kph and the 0-to-100 dash takes 7.8 seconds. There's a problem, however, and it relates to the recently appointed DSG transmission, because it makes the engine feel more sluggish than it actually is. I drove this car at the end of 2010, when it was introduced to the European market, and mine was fitted with a manual box, which made the quite marvellous little engine feel really punchy. The DSG feels a bit ponderous, especially when compared with the excellent unit fitted to current Volkswagens, although you can take control - to a point - using the steering wheel paddle shifters.
Standard kit includes climate control, stop/start tech, Alfa's DNA driving mode selector, a trick differential and six airbags. The steering is wonderfully crisp, with an electric, twin-pinion rack fitted, and the motor is situated well away from the steering column, giving a more natural sensation through the wheel. Just 2.2 turns from lock to lock means the steering is quick. The Giulietta is also possessed of a very stable feeling, no matter what the speed, no doubt helped by its trick electronic differential that works well to improve traction, even in the wet. It's a relatively light car, too, at 1,365kg (thanks to that engine being so compact), which can't help but add to the sprightly feel behind the wheel.
There's much to like with this car. I find myself trying to find faults, trying to find the weak chink in the Giulietta's armour but I always fail to identify anything that would be enough to stop me buying one over its rivals. It's comfortable, refined, well-built, rapid and economical. It's distinctive to look at and, at long last, those looks don't deceive. For anyone that's ever been tempted by an Alfa Romeo and had that nagging feeling that it wouldn't be a sound, long-term proposition, it's perhaps time to think again. And I really am glad to finally be able to write those words.
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