The Giulietta is the first all-new car to come out of Fiat, but as much as Michael Taylor likes the drive he feels it is missing something.
2011 Alfa Romeo Giulietta
CEO Harald Wester is a no-nonsense kind of man who knows what he wants in his Alfa Romeos. Just as importantly, he knows what he doesn't want, and he doesn't want Alfas to trade purely off their Italian style or sentimental nods to history or stunning looks. It's a critical car, this Giulietta, and he knows it. Every other car the Fiat Group has done in the last five years has been designed to consolidate its heartland, so they've all been based, quickly and cheaply, off earlier cars.
But it's crunch time now, because the Giulietta is the first all-new car out of the Fiat Group in years. It's based around the new "Compact" chassis architecture, it uses all the latest engine developments out of the family and it debuts new technology in plenty of areas. It won't lack for standard equipment and it won't lack for options. The interior is also clean and Alfa's designers have made obvious attempts to make the interior seem wider than it is with a sweeping metallic-look across the dash. They've also chosen materials that VW and Audi can live with in this class.
There is standard climate-controlled air conditioning, there is Alfa's DNA (Dynamic, Normal, All-Weather) driving mode switch, and there is even cruise control. The rear seats aren't bad, either, and a six-footer will fit back there, though not in long-haul comfort. Still, most adults will fit happily, and the kids will have plenty of room. But the debut of the architecture Alfa calls simply "Compact" is make or break. It will underpin a vast array of future models, including a small SUV, so it's modular, using adjustable central tunnel panels and side members so it can be stretched or shrunk to different wheelbases and widths without affecting the expensive front and rear structures.
While it sticks with Macpherson strut front suspension, it uses a lighter, lower multi-link system at the back that is not only grippy, but gives it Golf-matching luggage space, too. While the upcoming Quadrifoglio Verde model will be the 234hp hotshoe, the petrol honours are, until its arrival, carried by the 1,368cc four-cylinder MultiAir turbo engine. It has only 1,365kg for its 168hp and 250Nm engine to pull around through its front wheels. And it's a very, very good engine.
And it all delivers some suprises, the first of which is the ride quality. Even the bumpiest, most unkempt minor roads in northern Italy won't shake or upset the 1.4L MultiAir. There's a real solidity to this design that combines Italian with German and comes close to achieving the best of both worlds. Surprisingly, no matter how far or how hard you drive it, it's always the ride quality that's uppermost in your mind. That's because it's just so good, and it's not just soaking up vertical loads that makes it impressive. It muffles road noise well, too, producing a slightly louder thud in the rear than it does in the front and that leaves you with just the engine note and the slight rustling of the wind around the mirrors at high speed.
It's a sweet little engine, this, and it's so strong from any rev range that it refuses to be cowed by the driver's clumsiness. We even tried to stall it, but it kept pulling and got up to speed in first gear, even from 450rpm - about half its idling speed. The numbers say it only pulls 7.8 seconds to 100kph but it feels a lot better than that on in-gear sprints and it's more than quick enough most of the time.
The twin-pinion steering stands out most of the time as well, usually because you don't notice anything unusual about it. It feels beautiful just off centre, where you operate all the time on motorways and during those first few degrees of any turn, and that's because it's the old-school hydraulic part of the system that's doing the work. It's also very, very good in the changeover from the hydraulic to the electric system. It does it seamlessly and all you ever know as a driver is that it just goes where you want it to.
The gearbox is good without being brilliant, and you get the sense that the whole car is waiting eagerly for its double-clutch 'box to come on stream. The ratios are very well chosen, which barely seems to matter with an engine that can pull sixth gear from 1,000rpm. But if the ride and the engine are both brilliant, the handling isn't quite at that level. It has a lot of grip, for sure, and there's simply no situation we could throw at it that caught it out. It just does it without fizz or fun. It's nicely nimble and stable up to a point, but beyond that, its controls begin to feel like they don't have the precision you'd expect from an Alfa and it just doesn't have the dazzle. It gets everything done beautifully, but there's a certain softness to the way it conveys what it's doing, like Alfa is dampening the last traces of feedback before they get to you.
It might not have the sharpness and agility you would expect out of the Alfa myth, but it feels like it will be an impressive car to live with every day. And that's the key.