With the current July 2010 issue of CAR Magazine dedicated to the 100th anniversary Alfa Romeo (ALFA, if we’re being pedantic), and with a personal holiday planned around the Italian lakes, it seemed like a shame to opt for a shoddy hire car. So instead of a clapped-out bit of crap, the missus and I secured ourselves a new Giulietta for our week-and-a-bit away. This is what happened…
If you haven’t heard of the Giulietta, or if you’re thinking it’s a ’50 or 70’s Alfa, then let’s recap. Essentially it’s the company’s new Golf rival, a successor to the 147, and it sits on the same modular platform that will be stretched to underpin 2012’s new 159-replacing Giulia saloon. A fairly important car then, and we’ve got the perfect chance to live with one for a while to see if it really is any good.
Of course I really wanted the new Cloverleaf version, with a 1.7-litre turbo packing 232bhp, and when we arrive at a Fiat Group garage in Milan there’s a particularly tasty looking one in deep red (complete with titanium-coloured alloys) sitting broodingly in the shadows of the car park. But I was sensible and asked for a diesel, as this is the battleground where Alfa needs to compete with (and maybe beat) VW, Ford et al – I made the sacrifice for you, dear readers. In the end, we leave in a white Giulietta powered by a 2.0-litre diesel producing 170bhp at 4000rpm and 235lb ft at 1750rpm. It’s exactly the same spec as the car Jethro Bovingdon used to chase the Mille Miglia in the latest issue.
Initial impressions are positive. The quality of the plastics inside – and the build quality – seem pretty good, and the dash design is attractive, while a press of the Alfa badge on the tailgate reveals a boot easily big enough for the surprising amount of clobber we’ve brought along.
We end up next to an old white Alfa Spider in the hotel car park, and it still looks stunning; the Giulietta isn’t half as gorgeous, but it isn’t half bad either. Of course it’s subjective, and you can pick out a few influences if you want – personally I see a bit of Ferrari 612 in the headlights, some Astra in the rear lamps and, sorry Alfa, but somehow I also spy some latest-gen Subaru Impreza in the flanks and rear three-quarters, especially with this paint colour. But I like it, as does the boss, and over the next few days we’ll discover that quite a lot of the Italian population are keen on it too.
On every day thoughout the holiday the Giulietta impresses. In every Mito I’ve driven you’re immediately reaching for the DNA switch, knocking the electronics into Dynamic mode to add weight to the awful artificial steering and sharpening up the throttle response. Not in the Giulietta – it’s the first DNA-equipped Alfa where the Dynamic mode doesn’t need to be the default setting. Leave it in Normal and while the steering is feel-free (few systems offer any real feedback these days), there’s a decent, consistent weighting. I’m impressed.
With the heat of the Italian lakes the air-con is running constantly, so the stop-start system doesn’t get a chance to do its bit (it always works if the air-con is off), and in the traffic around Lake Garda I find myself wishing this Giulietta was an automatic. But, refreshingly, that’s all I’m wishing for – after 30 minutes in an Alfa you’re usually in need of a chiropractor and have found half a dozen faults, but in the Giulietta we’re comfortable, cool and perfectly content.
Push the switch to Dynamic and a display on the pop-up screen shows you’ve activated the overboost function, awakened the Q2 diff, tweaked the ESP, given the steering some extra heft and sharpened the throttle response. Rather than just being a decent hatch, the Giulietta suddenly feels pretty darn quick, with a huge mid-range lunge forward available in each gear. The diff helps drag you out of corners, with a little twitch through the wheel, and the heftier steering is welcome as it isn’t over-heavy like an Audi for the sake of trying to be sporty.
The only downsides (whatever setting the DNA switch is in) is not much power below 1500rpm, and a fairly vocal engine across the rev range, especially near the top end. When you have window down or door open, you here just how loud this hi-po 2.0-litre is. This car is expensive too, at £22,495.
It’s while I’m waiting for the missus to buy a coffee that I pull some of the dashboard apart – the surrounding for the pop-up sat-nav pops up too. Woops. Look round the cabin and you’ll realise the quality can’t match a Golf either; the tops of the doors in VW’s popular hatch are covered in soft touch plastics, but they’re harder in the Giulietta. Not as obviously cheap as what you’ll find in a Mito, but nonetheless noticeable, as are the cheap-feeling exterior rear doors handles and the glovebox lid.
But, and it’s a serious but, they are a long way from being bad, and I’m particularly sold on the cabin design. The dials, stalks and wheels are all lifted from the Mito, and some might argue that the rest of the interior isn’t classic Alfa, but this is a company trying to make a fresh start. There’s none of the deep-set auxiliary dials that you’ll find in a 159, but a big chunk of blue-tined brushed metal finish swathes the dash, the air-con controls look great, feel good as they click, and a row of five switches in centre of the dash are a lovely touch. It's a really nice place to be, much more attractive than the staid Golf, better than the over-complicated Astra, and a clear step ahead of the current Focus.
You can't see much of the Alfa's bonnet when you're behind the wheel, but you do get a lovely part-Alcantara/part-leather steering wheel, plus alloy pedals, an alloy-topped gearstick. Plus this is the view around Lake Garda.
A three-wheel Piaggio, in classic John Player Special guise.
There's an awful lot to like about the new Alfa Romeo Giulietta, and hardly anything to dislike. To the latter first, and bar a few plastics that can't match a Golf (and in truth, nothing in this class can) the shonky sat-nav cover, and the fact that space is a bit tight in the back, there's not much to mark the Giulietta down.
As for the positives, there's lots of them. The interior looks great, the exterior isn't bad either, and this Giulietta is good to drive too. It's perfectly accomplished in normal, everday driving, without any of the usual Alfa drawbacks – the brakes, steering and gearshift are all impressive – and the Dynamic mode turns it into a proper diesel hot hatch. It's really good – it's the first ever modern Alfa I actually want to live with.
By Ben Pulman (photography by Sarah Sharples)