► 2000 miles in a 2018 Alfa Giulia Q
► Our big European road trip
► Was it a drive of our dreams?
Let’s first rewind the clock back to 2016. August Bank holiday weekend has just ended and we’ve returned from a road trip to Spa, having watched the Belgian Grand Prix.
I’d covered over 1,100 miles and spent the best part of the week camping in a Land Rover Discovery Sport. As we started unpacking each of our cars, one of my mates said 'Let’s go watch the F1 at Monza next time! I fancy getting an MX-5 and driving all the way there…'
‘No chance.’ I thought. And for two reasons.
First of all, I can't see my 6ft 4inch tall mate sitting comfortably in an MX-5 for an extended amount of time, and if he tried, he’d probably want to set it on fire afterwards.
The second reason being, Monza is just too far away for me to comprehend how many miles and hours we’ll have to spend driving just to get there. Besides, I’ll risk falling asleep throughout the whole race weekend anyway so I probably won’t even see anything.
It was painful enough just trying to return from Spa when the motorway outside the Euro Tunnel closed for two hours for no reason, so trying to get home from Italy sounds like hell.
‘It’s a terrible idea, count me out.’
Hmmmm. Let’s bring it back to 2019 and this is where I am now. It’s the first Sunday night of September, and I’m at home setting my alarm for 3am to drive down to the Euro Tunnel. Final destination? Monza. Oh dear.
My friend, on the other hand, didn't get an MX-5 in the end, he got the Abarth 124 Spider instead – the preferable choice depending on who you ask. And he’s arrived with a wide grin on his face, raring to go. I, meanwhile, am wondering how I can be wrong twice.
If I’m going to do this, I’m going to continue the Italian theme and head across Europe in one of the most appropriate cars for this trip: the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio.
Not only is Milan home of Alfa Romeo, but they also have a Formula 1 team this year. Plus, its 2.9-litre Ferrari-derived V6 is also a nice nod to the prancing horse, who’ll be celebrating the 40th anniversary since Jody Scheckter’s win in the 312 T4.
But that’s not all. We’ve got a third car to round up the group. Ok, so it’s not Italian, but one that provides a strong argument for taking a hot-hatch on a hefty road trip like this.
It’s a BMW M135i, the penultimate version of the six-cylinder, rear-wheel drive performance hatchback that came from the firm, before dying as the M140i earlier this year.
As the all-new replacement 1 Series arrived later in 2019 with neither of these things, I’m hoping BMW won't be wrong twice as well. This will be an appropriate send off for the outgoing model.
So, we have a two-seater roadster, a hot hatch and a sports saloon. Suitably in The Italian Job colours. All are rear-wheel drive, all are turbocharged and all have loud exhausts. Two have six-cylinder engines, and only one has a manual gearbox.
Which would you drive on a European road trip?
Ideally, you’d want something comfortable, fun to drive and spacious enough to avoid being cocooned with luggage in the cabin. The Abarth 124 doesn’t quite get away with the latter on this trip, but you can get a boot-mounted luggage rack to help out.
Annoyingly, both the Abarth 124 Spider and BMW M135i-equivalent is now off sale, so hopefully the Giulia Quadrifoglio bucks that trend for the foreseeable future. I’m dying to find out what this car can do.
We’ve planned an approximate 2,000 mile, round-trip route to cover a sizeable chunk of Europe.
We only just managed to scratch the surface of California last year in a Mustang with that same amount of mileage, so it’ll be interesting to see what we can cover in comparison this time.
We’ll whizz through France, Belgium and head through Switzerland via a few mountain passes, before stopping in Monza for the race weekend. On the way back, we’ll head north back through Switzerland again, thread through Austria and delve into Germany for the Nurburgring, before driving into the Netherlands to catch the ferry back to England.
As we head for the Euro Tunnel at 4am, initial impressions of the Giulia Quadrifoglio stem from two key areas - both of which are helping me battle against sleep deprivation.
That loud exhaust system is the first one and is a fantastic wake-up call as you begrudgingly hit the road before sunrise, with the valves switching up the volume of the exhaust note around 4,000rpm.
The optional Sparco bucket seats up front is the other, as I struggle to find a comfortable seating position and become a little bit restless. I’m wondering whether I should have gone for the standard comfort seats instead, as these appear to be slightly unforgiving and a little light in the padding department, with not much in the way of lumbar support – I've got all this mileage ahead of me to cover in the next couple of weeks, am I going to regret this trip quite soon?
As we leave England behind and venture through the motorways of France and Belgium, we discover that both the Italian cars have slightly ropey sat-navs. Both have different opinions on which is the best route and both appear to have a phobia of long motorway stints, selecting random junctions to take in exchange for a more scenic country route.
You’d perhaps forgive the Abarth a little less considering it allegedly has the most bang-up-to-date software, while the Alfa keeps you on your speed-watching toes by occasionally projecting the sat-nav instructions over the digital speedo on the trip computer screen. When you have speed cameras in Europe looking more like pavement litter bins, making sure you’re within the speed limit requires extra concentration on the analogue dial.
In the meantime, I have at least found my ideal seating position. Rather than sitting quite upright like I normally would, tilting the backrest a notch further back than usual has made it all perfectly comfortable, and that initial void of lumbar support is no longer an issue. Plus, these seats allow you to sit nice and low, while the steering wheel reaches out far enough to cater for you leaning back a few degrees more.
The dash layout is nice and simple and the scuttle is quite low. The black colour scheme on our version is a little monotone for my liking, but at least it makes the all-important, red starter button stand out on the steering wheel.
It also contrasts well with the optional green stitching on the doors and dash too, giving a welcome nod to the cloverleaf badge mounted on the front wings and within the speedo.
Day two. As we leave Belgium and head south, our route briefly cuts into the North East corner of France before heading through the centre of Switzerland towards Lucerne.
It’s another solid of driving ahead of us and while it’s relatively docile on the types of roads we’re driving on, we quietly know this is just the build up for our first stint on the mountain roads lying ahead of (and above), us the next day. Besides, there’s still plenty to see along the way and the further we drive, the number of tunnels start building up.
Cue the exhaust noise.
The Giulia Quadrifoglio is pretty hushed when driven gently, but head north of 4,000rpm and the noise goes up to full volume, with a gravelly V6 bark accompanied by hard-hitting pops and bangs with every gearshift.
It’s not the smooth-sounding, high-pitched V6 burble you’d get from, say, a Jaguar F-Type or Nissan 370Z, but instead you get a much deeper tone that’s a little rough around the edges.
To describe it as agricultural would be harsh, but there’s no doubt this sounds angrier in comparison.
From inside the cabin, the step up in volume when the exhaust valves open pleases the inner VTEC fan-boy in me as you’re met by that similar switch in tone, as if your ears have popped.
Soon enough, the double-flick of the left gearshift paddle to bring the engine above the magical sweet spot as you approach each tunnel becomes all too instinctive.
The M135i is loud enough as it is, with its refined, smooth-sounding straight-six noise, the gravelly Abarth 124 is even louder still, if a little monotone, but the Quadrifoglio drowns them both out at a laughable volume. This, frankly, is too entertaining.
Stay below this threshold and the Giulia is otherwise a refined place to spend long journeys in. There’s a little wind noise and a pleasing absence of road noise - considering the 19-inch wheels - but you do get a few vibrations sent through the main driver’s controls that spoil the show.
Ride quality betters both rivals from BMW and Mercedes and the adaptive dampers have their own designated ‘bumpy road’ mode, meaning you can soften them in Dynamic and Race mode and leave every other setting the same.
Switch the rotary DNA dial to the economical All-weather mode and this keeps the exhaust system muted, but you’ll have to lock it into Race to keep it in angry shouty mode all the time – which means the ESC will be off too, so we leave that one alone.
With this level of long-distance comfort, the Alfa’s range on a full tank is quite literally the biggest stopping point, as it barely predicts over 350 miles when we’re driving conservatively. Now that we have these tunnels included in the equation, that’s far more difficult to achieve here.
The fuel and temperature dials are very Audi-esque, but the white-lit blocks for the former don't stay on for very long.
Refuelling is hardly a difficult task and encourages a break from driving, but something in the fuel tank keeps triggering the pump nozzle into thinking it's full, so refills are quite a slow process.
Having been on the road for a good eight hours or so and living on the Type-2-friendly road tripper’s diet of copious Haribo and sugary drinks, we arrive in Lucerne just after the sun sets. It’s been a relatively fuss-free day, with only a brief detour required to find a petrol station to source a vignette, shortly after we cross the border.
Tomorrow though, this is when the fun really begins.
Right, another big day of driving lies ahead of us, and while it seems a huge shame to leave behind the beauty of Lake Lucerne so soon, a bigger attraction awaits. The Furkastrasse.
It’s a brief detour off the main route down to Milan, and after a short stint of traffic and road works to contend with, we’re soon off the A2 motorway and on the Sustenstrasse anticipating what lies ahead.
It doesn’t take long to suss out how popular this road is as the number of motorbikes, Ferraris and Caterhams that drive by us suddenly ramps up as we set up our cameras on the side of the road.
It takes a while to work your way up this road, serving up a gentile introduction to what lies ahead, building up suspense as you cruise to the top of the mountains - it’s worth stopping and going for a miniature hike once you get to the highest point just to scope out the view.
As we start weaving our way back down from the top, the smooth wide roads never seem to end. Okay, so they’re not the most challenging roads you’ll come across and you won’t encounter any large changes in trajectory amidst a series of hairpin turns, but these fast, sweeping bends allow you build up momentum and soak up the view.
Thankfully, there’s a lot to take in, meaning you can easily concentrate on just driving for brief periods of time, before switching to full tourist mode along the straights and be in awe of your surroundings.
The Giulia Quadrifoglio’s 2.9-litre, twin-turbo V6 punches out 510hp and 600Nm of torque, but the latter figure is what’s helping us out the most here, picking up momentum effortlessly on the exit of every turn.
The quick-shifting auto ‘box is a joy to work up and down the gears with, and the tall, metal paddles are right where you need them to be. The fact this turbocharged engine is willing to rev out cleanly all the way to the redline with little evidence of power tailing off draws a wide smile on your face extremely quickly; everything seems to just come together. Even the brake pedal, which can be a little tricky to modulate in traffic jams, is responsive in these environments.
We reach the bottom of the mountain range at Grimsel before having to climb back up the Furkastrasse. The twisting roads are tighter here and the number of switchbacks ramp up, you’re very quickly surrounded by mountain views again.
We stop at the Furkablick for a late lunch and let the cars cool down, before heading down to the base as it ends on a series of flyovers towards the motorway network.
As we cross the Italian border during early evening rush hour, it’s hard not to notice the change in road traffic behaviour. The glorious mountain roads with very little traffic is now replaced by bunched up cars in a motorway traffic jam. I guess we may as well have a break from Dynamic mode…
The F1 at Monza
Well, this circuit is certainly different to the last one we went to. While Spa was located out in the countryside, Monza is right in the city.
It's more rustic than Spa and you can tell nature has been left to take its course. Some would perhaps think it looks a little unloved and a little neglected, but others will probably prefer the slightly agricultural vibe.
Italian security is also incredibly patchy and varies from gate to gate. You'll be asked to show your ticket at one of them, while another will simply have a bucket sat in front of it to act as a deterrent from walking onto the circuit.
Thankfully, there are less hills to contend with once you’re inside the grounds, but it is easier to get lost in the woods if you decide to explore and venture off the paths.
If you're lucky, you might find an open patch in a fence and get to walk onto the defunct banked circuit that still resides here, if you're not, you'll emerge at a random part of the circuit as though you've been lost for days, having grown a full beard in the process. If you’re really unlucky however, you'll just be met with a dead end.
Otherwise, it’s quite easy to navigate your way around and the fantastic benefit of having a small enough track is that you get to hear the sound of the cars permeate through the trees as they race around you. This is the ultimate surround sound experience; even if you can’t see them, you can track them by ear regardless of whether they’re in a Porsche GT3 Cup or Formula 1, 2 or 3 car. It’s just a shame that the relatively small grounds and the absence of banked woodland means there’s far less seating around the circuit as well.
When we were at Spa, the green scenery of the woodlands were awash with bright orange shirts from all the Verstappen fans. This time, it's replaced by a sea of red from all those loving Ferrari, with a fair chunk of Alfa Romeo ones too. Naturally, when asked, we respond by saying we're fans of either in fear of our safety.
The aftermath of Hubert's crash from the week before is still fresh in everyone's minds, but everyone’s spirits are high. Leclerc is very much in the spotlight this week, with the majority of fans anticipating a second win in a row, while Jody Scheckter’s parade laps gets everyone charged up for what lies ahead. That 312 T4, by the way, still sounds fantastic, never mind sounding better than any of the current turbo V6s.
Come race day, we leave early in the morning to try and grab a good vantage point. We drive there in miserable, post-storm weather and the Sparco seats lack the heated seat function to make the trip less of a chore.
Amusingly, we’re not even the earliest ones there as we discover our preferred bench has already been occupied by some hardcore souls who appear to have camped on them overnight.
If you’re considering public transport on this day, good luck. The network effectively shuts down on the Sunday, so if you're unlucky, a 20 minute direct train can result in four-five hours worth of bus replacement services, selected train lines and a Monza-specific shuttle bus. And that’s before you have to navigate your way home as well.
Nevertheless, sitting by the Roggia chicane meant we got to see Leclerc squeeze Hamilton off the track during the heated battle for first place - not to mention the full celebration of his win from all the fans at the end of the race.
Alfa Romeo drivers finished in ninth and fifteenth, but it was a slightly muddled reception for the Ferrari team overall though, with Vettel raising a few eyebrows after his manoeuvre to rejoin the track at Ascari chicane narrowly missing a passing Lance Stroll.
Switzerland Bernina Pass
After a weekend of very little driving and watching other people race around a track, I'm itching to get behind the wheel again.
We’d originally planned to go to the Stelvio Pass after reading about it on Adam’s road trip, pinning it on the map as a detour on our way to Germany tonight.
On the morning of us leaving Monza, however, this predicted drive of well over nine hours seemed a little optimistic - and that’s if we didn't encounter any traffic jams. Rumour has it the Stelvio Pass has become too saturated by cyclists and other road trippers nowadays, so we could be rather unlucky.
It’s a shame, especially since we’re already in the same country. But this time it was a case of ‘so close, yet so far’. For us, the last minute decision to choose the Bernina Pass instead made more sense, as it was both on the way and far more local to us. If we had the choice of staying another day, we'd devote it to the Stevlio Pass and maybe visit Lake Garda. That would’ve been ideal, but on this occasion, it was just too far out of reach for one day.
As we head up north, we know we're back in Switzerland once the atmosphere is accompanied by the sound of cow bells again.
The Bernina Pass is a four seasons type of road and it suddenly feels like we've skipped autumn and driven straight into winter when we reach the peak. Despite being surrounded by snow, it's not actually that cold - except for your feet, obviously.
What a view though. The surrounding mountains are in closer proximity than on the Furkastrasse so you get a face full of them in your view. Something about the place makes it feel more serene, too.
Yes, there are tour buses and motor homes dotted along the way, but overtaking points are plentiful, or you could just soak up the view behind them. Visually, this is the best road we've been on.
As we head down the mountain road and towards Austria, the views just don't seem to end. The roads flatten out, but weaving through the valleys with all the roadside train tracks and small towns continuously breaks up the journey.
Through sheer luck in timing, we briefly drive alongside a mountain railway train at a very similar speed, as it snakes its way along the edge of the mountain range just above our roof line. As it worms its way through the intermittent sections of tunnels, it keeps disappearing and reappearing beside us. This surreal setting is something I'd expect to see on a Christmas model railway set. Not in real life.
Even when the sun had long set, we're still greeted with hairpin bends and fantastically narrow tunnels that feel like a secret entrance to somewhere. We eventually queue in traffic at the German border as we end on the third country of the day, ticking over into the eighth hour of driving. Since it’s way past dinner time, every passenger is assigned to restaurant-finding duty on Google maps.
The final leg of today requires a quick blast down the autobahn to the outskirts of Kempten. We don't reach anywhere near the Giulia's 191mph top speed, but it'll comfortably sit at 140mph.
The Abarth 124's top speed of 144mph seems like it'll require a long stretch of road to reach it, but the, frankly hilarious, noise bellowing out of its quad exhaust pipes while attempting to do so is incredibly entertaining; with so much gas rush accompanying that angry note, this is more akin to Darth Vader eating a whole chilli prior to stubbing his toe.
Time to tick another one off the bucket list. After a ridiculous amount of schnitzel at lunch, we make our way to the Nordschleife in time for it to be open in the late afternoon.
On weekdays, the Touristfahren allows members of the public to drive on the ‘track’ within a two hour window between 5:30-7:30pm. If we were here at the weekend, we’d have the whole day to do so, but right now, the majority of us in the group are first timers and won’t even know if they’ll want to relive the experience again. Secretly, I know they will, but nerves and too many Youtube crash videos are getting the better of them.
Just like the N24h race, there's a wonderful mix of cars on the road at any given time, with a huge degree of variation when it comes to age, shape and condition. It almost doesn't matter what you bring here, there was a Defender 90 here for heaven's sake – and while I yearn to get back behind the wheel of one of those again, it’s definitely not in this environment.
Other unexpected spots included a Ford C-Max, an MG ZT, a Rover 100 (with a suspected engine swap), and a boggo-spec Citroen AX on steelies.
That level of variety also means you effectively get the pleasure of being sat in the front row seat as you experience cars at the more exotic end of the scale overtake you.
I’ll never forget being deafened by the howl of a 911 GT3 as it overtook us so close up on one section of the track, before witnessing a Renault Megane RS remorselessly bounce its way over the apex rumble strips just to get ahead of a group of us.
Luckily, on this weekday evening, we get a pretty clear run, and letting the car cool down is also a good opportunity to speak to people who wander by in the car park. It’s here where the Alfa got the most attention - just like the Abarth 124, the Giulia Quadrifoglio seems to be a rare sight on the roads and draws the most amount of people towards it, who then want to find out more what it’s like.
A local child who’s mum frequently drives him here simply to check out what’s in these car parks asks if he can sit in the driver’s seat. It definitely gets his seal of approval.
So, it’s all well and good with the Giulia being sat still, but what about on the Nordschliefe?
It never felt as though it needed more power, there’s very little body roll, the brakes are powerful - adding to the feeling of the car’s lightness - and there’s plenty of grip from those tyres, with just a hint of understeer if you go a little too hot into a downhill corner.
The steering is sharp off-centre and the steering wheel itself isn't too thick to hold - something that blights modern BMWs these days- but I'd like the steering to provide a bit more feedback. It's quick to respond and you very quickly build a rhythm as you steer your way from corner to corner, but I’m not being egged on as much as I'd like.
You can lean on the Giulia but, ideally, I'd like a bit more rotation in Dynamic mode and for it to be a little more playful when I’m feeling juvenile.
Sure, you'll get that in Race mode aplenty with everything switched off and the rear tyres break away far more gently than either the Mercedes-AMG C63 and BMW M3, but the fear of being caught on video at everyone's favourite ‘youtube corner’ going backwards keeps me well away from using that.
The option to switch ESC back on could be the solution, but that's a contradictory setup in itself. At the end of the day, who cares - it's good enough as it is - at the very least, for my novice capabilities anyway. I’ve had a mental experience, my adrenaline levels are through the roof and I still have a car in one piece. Win win.
You haven't mentioned the word 'reliability' yet?
Yes, we're in an Alfa, and yes, we heard the jokes about those camping chairs in the boot being handy for sitting on the side of the road while waiting for recovery. But we were fine. The check engine light came on just after our second run of the Nordschleife, but the next day, after checking all the engine's cables and caps on all fluid tanks were tightened up (a quick Google search revealed that it could be something as simple as a loose fuel cap), it disappeared. Was it just a hissy fit? Maybe, but I still love this thing.
Homebound via the Netherlands
Driving into the Netherlands is a stark contrast to the autobahns that preceded it and the journey feels rather dull very quickly. The motorways only appear to have a 100km/h limit and even these drop to 80km/h during rush hour. It seems to take an age to get to our stopping point.
We swing by Circuit Zandvoort as we wait for the evening ferry. There’s a race series on today and it’s undeniably a Citroen theme, with C1s and 2CVs out on track. If Monza felt rustic, this small circuit with its relative lack of space and grandstands in the surrounding grounds felt a little neglected. Considering the F1 is meant to be held here next year, you get the sense that there’s a lot to be done by May time...
As we board the overnight ferry and watch the sun set, we reflect on the past two weeks. What's most obvious is that none of us had brought the wrong car.
I was looking forward to the Giulia Quadrifoglio before this trip. Having read and heard about Adam’s expedition a couple of years back, I knew it could handle Europe, but here, it got involved, dealt with everything we asked of it and got us home. It didn't just sit there being boring either, it took part, got stuck in and even threw a minor hissy fit at one point - and it did that while carrying a gaming chair rig the entire time.
An SUV would've been far too cumbersome and, as much as I'd love an estate-bodystyle Sportwagon to exist, it would’ve simply encouraged me to bring even more deadweight crap on this trip; we’d fill the boot high enough to block our own rear visibility.
My mind may occasionally wander and daydream about doing this trip in a two-seater sports car with a screaming V10, but in reality, this two-week holiday calls for space, comfort and some practicality. Where's the glamour in driving around in something exotic when it’s evident the lack of luggage space means the occupants are wearing their pants inside out? And on the third rotation, too.
You also don’t have to deal with scraping the front bumper or worry about it being too wide for narrow roads. The closest we got to any of this was at our accommodation during our stay at the Nurburgring - and that was only due to a steeply-angled driveway.
And that’s the beauty of it. In all fairness, none of the other cars on this trip failed on these aspects, too. Each of them seemed to fit the bill in varying degrees and, while we did help carry some things for the Abarth 124, they all had that wide depth of usability and excitement. You can be comfortable and relaxed on one road and yet, have a little more performance, drama and excitement the next.
I was a big fan of the Abarth 124 Spider when I first drove one in 2017 and my fondness has only grown bigger as time has gone by. Despite this particular colour scheme reminding me of a Leeds taxi, I love the fact the black bonnet is listed on the options list under the Safety section as the ‘anti-glare bonnet pack’ and not under styling…
Also, the Abarth undoubtedly attracted the most attention throughout this trip. They seem to be a rare sight wherever we go and its colour scheme and almost-anti-social exhaust attracted the most glances. The BMW got the most looks in Switzerland, while the Alfa seemed to go by largely unnoticed until we got to the Nurburgring and Netherlands - at which point the number of smartphone papparazi ramped up.
The M135i was good company here and even though the rear passenger was getting a bit restless on the longer days of driving, the argument for a hot hatch on this kind of trip remains strong. Surely, the demand for a used one of these will rocket soon?
Yes, the Alfa Giulia has its quirks - there's no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto and the media player got stuck playing one individual song on repeat at random times. The spring-loaded indicator stalks can be a bit awkward to cancel too, and the door bins are too small for actual drinks bottles.
Thankfully, the 2020 model year update appears to address some of the cabin's foibles, so there’s still life in this saloon yet.
The Harmon Kardon sound system isn’t as punchy as you’d hope, but the Sparco seats are a little harder to dismiss, despite the eye-watering price. Look at it this way though, if you forgo that sound system and flat-bottomed carbon fibre steering wheel, you’re… almost halfway there.
This was the first time I’d spent a considerable amount of time with an Alfa and it’s not going to be my last. Including a 200-mile trip to a car launch, I’d clocked over 2,400 miles in total, averaged 25.7mpg and struggled to comprehend having to return this car back.
Our 18,000-mile example has evidently been doing the rounds and is showing a few minor paint scars on the front, but the Tri-coat Competizione Red paint, optional yellow calipers and darkened 19-inch alloys lend it a classy look.
The cliched head-vs-heart argument is so close now that you can't really talk yourself to death as to whether you should go for one.
The Mercedes-AMG C63 S has the same amount of power as the Giulia, but has that elevated element of danger about it. The BMW M3 feels like it's too complicated to get the best from it nowadays and the fake noise they pipe into the cabin of their cars is borderline offensive. The Alfa balances a sharp driving experience while being more refined than both at the same time, and if you want to talk cabin quality, it's not like the C63 is immune from a creaky interior either.
Ultimately, at the end of this trip, I'd never been so glad to have been so wrong all those years back. Where's next?