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Car reviews - Alfa Romeo - Giulietta - 1.4T MultiAir 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Styling, practicality, economy, verve in Dynamic mode, Dynamic-mode steering and handling response, Dynamic chassis tune, gorgeous exhaust note in Dynamic mode
Room for improvement
Flawed idle-stop system, road noise, some rattly trim over bumps, big turning circle, lacklustre performance in ‘Normal’

Alfa Romeo logo21 Jul 2011

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

WELCOME to the best front-wheel drive Alfa Romeo since the rust-bucket Alfasud of the 1970s.

Wow, that’s a big call, because we also rate the beautiful 156 and 147 (manual only, and especially GTA), and still swoon when the timelessly elegant 159 and Brera breeze by.

But trust us. The Giulietta is better than any of its flawed Milanese supermodel ancestors ever were.

Except the version we really like, the one we rate right up there with the most enjoyable motoring experiences so far in 2011, isn’t the $36,990 MultiAir 1.4 Turbo tested here, but the $41,990 Quadrifoglio Verde.

The QV is a proposition that stays true to its Italian performance and design heritage while offering a tasty alternative to the German, French and Japanese hot hatches, including the Renault Megane RS250 and Volkswagen Golf GTI.

Indeed, while most punters might struggle to justify the 1.4T’s $7000-plus price difference against the stupendously competent Golf 118TSI Comfortline, the QV feels more like a match for the $50K Golf R never mind the GTI, making it that very rare thing… a bargain Alfa Romeo.

If you have an ounce of driving passion you must take a long and hard test-drive in the flagship Giulietta before buying anything else.

But enough about that car. We’re here to talk 1.4T, which is not a bad car at all in any shape of form.

Yet the Alfa feels a tad underwhelming and conspicuously overpriced against some towering rivals. $37K is a loaded Focus Titanium or Skoda Octavia RS with change and almost three-door Golf GTI, BMW 118i and Mazda3 MPS money.

Undermining our point, however, is the base Giulietta’s million-dollar couture. Less is definitely more since the QV’s shouty alloys and (albeit subtle) body kit are accessories that this most buxom bod doesn’t need. We dare you to find a more beautiful hatch than the 1.4T.

Maybe that’s why the opposite applies the moment you slide yourself into the Alfa – via (reassuringly solid sounding) doors that open large and wide… even the ‘hidden’ rear ones with pillar-mounted handles that still fool onlookers some 13 years after the 156 first featured them.

For the dough – and this also applies to the QV by the way – the dash seems too austere and some of the materials appear just too drab.

One could argue it looks simple and clutter-free, but the hard and all-too-visible lower-console and door casing trim feels leagues beneath the best.

The face-level centre vents in particular are nasty to the touch (and rattle along with other bits over bumpy roads), while reclining the seats is torturous due to a tiny and hard to use mechanism.

While we're at it the middle rear position is no picnic and nor is reverse parking due to the fat blind spots caused by the middle and back pillars thankfully large mirrors and parking sensors are included. And the steering wheel looks like it belongs in a Buick.

But that’s about it for cabin complaints.

Even tall folk will find space to move behind the (refreshingly large yet lovely to hold) wheel, while regular and shorter people won’t even think twice about the relationship between the wheel, pedals and gear lever once they’re sat and they’ve set it, since an ideal driving position is possible to achieve in this Alfa.

The instrument look and layout is as functional as it is stylish. Finally Alfa offers us a cabin with sufficient storage spaces – including a sizeable glovebox. The auto-AC/heater controls do precisely what they’re supposed to. And the night-time illumination – in trad red of course – isn’t as hard on the eyes as you might imagine.

All four outboard places front and rear rate highly for room as well as comfort, but it is in the back where owners of this car’s 147 predecessor will notice progress.

The backrest is angled correctly feet can be tucked beneath the front seat there is a (single) air vent, door cubby holes, overhead grab handles, seatback pockets, and a centre armrest with cupholders and more (shallow) storage is fitted and the (one touch) rear windows retract all the way down.

Surprisingly, there is a welcoming feeling of space despite the coupe-like window line. It’s simply not as tight in the second row as the styling might suggest, so the Giulietta deserves to be considered as much of a four+one seater as something like a Golf or Focus.

The 350-litre boot, too, ticks all the practicality boxes, and includes cabin access via a ski-port. Press in the at-times sticky Alfa badge and presto, a hungry square aperture awaits. No cause for complaint here either, even with the spare wheel living beneath the reasonably deep boot floor.

But you haven’t read this far down to hear about the Giulietta’s cargo capacity, have you?

Thanks mainly to VW, by now the notion of a 1368cc engine in a 1290kg hatch of 4351mm length should no longer appal anybody, and on paper the 1.4T’s 125kW and 250Nm max outputs more than make up for the little donk.

Fire it up and the Alfa-esque exhaust will be music to the ears of any marque enthusiast. Raspy yet refined, there is no doubt at all that an Italian heart is beating away up there.

More kudos go to the perfectly weighted clutch and gear lever, with the short but definite movements defying anybody who truly loves driving to spend the extra dosh on the upcoming dual-clutch automatic alternative.

The sound and feel of the drivetrain already is classic Alfa Romeo, but better than it has been in over a generation. Lovely.

Move off, however, and you might be forgiven in thinking you’ve left on the comically vague handbrake. Nope. Hmm. What’s going on? Well, like old-school Mercs, this 1.4T requires a determined stab of the throttle in order to stoke the fires that do burn within.

Do that and after a usual (though not unduly untimely) turbo lag is overcome and the Giulietta lunges forward with vigour. Keep the pedal pressed and suddenly, yes, there are certainly 125kW/230Nm there to play with.

Did we say 230Nm? Where’s the other 20Nm?

Well, vying with the handbrake as the most awful lever action in history is the Giulietta’s secret weapon, the ‘DNA’ system. If you can get it to work, so sticky was the toggle switch in our car.

Once activated, Dynamic, Normal and ActuallyQuiteUseless All Weather – for slippery road take-offs apparently – are the settings on offer, with the middle one being default each and every time you restart the Alfa.

Anyway, push forward (and then hold) the switch and the instruments put on a quick light show, and suddenly the long travel and laggy turbo straighten themselves up with what might be a triple espresso shot, for the 1.4T finally accelerates and responds as you might expect an Alfa to.

Faster take-offs, speedier mid-range overtaking oomph, and a palpably stronger overall performance attitude with a pathological propensity to visit the 6000rpm redline oh-so-regularly pervade the previously slumbering (and quite annoyingly springy) ‘Normal’ DNA-driven Giulietta.

Better still, the quick but perhaps smidgen too light steering weighs up markedly to match the coked-up throttle response, for more feeling and less vagueness as you storm through your favourite set of corners.

Normally a tidy handler with a propensity to cut through a turn like it was born that way, the Alfa simply comes alive at your fingertips, and is backed up by a brilliant set of brakes that simply do not fade with repeated use.

There’s a more evocative soundtrack to match too. Only a minor amount of steering rack rattle over really bumpy corners blights the experience.

So why isn’t Dynamic the default mode? Perhaps this may explain why.

Slotted to the sportier setting, on wet or tight mountain roads, gravel surfaces, or other slippery conditions, the ESC stability and traction captains relax as every other control tenses up, so you need to as well, to catch a suddenly wayward tail.

Eventually the nannies do intervene, and many keener pilots will love the permissiveness the DNA system offers in its naughtiest position, but caution is required.

That’s the mode we drove in most, and revelled in the spirited driving experience the Giulietta rewarded us with. Indeed, the harder and faster we drove, the more ‘as one’ we became with the Alfa. As an invigorating ground covering GT this takes some beating, even in flaccid 1.4T ‘Normal’ DNA mode.

Who would have thought you needed to grab an Italian car from the scruff of the neck to really get it to boogie!

Impressive fuel consumption – ranging from high-sevens to low-nines depending on driving state of mind – further puts another feather in the Alfa’s cap.

But then we drove a Golf 118TSI Comfortline back-to-back and realised that the Giulietta is a noisy car with too much road roar coming from the 225/45R17 rubber wrapping our funky alloys.

The ride is firm and quite yielding but irregular surfaces seem to excite the tacky cabin trim into a chattering clamour.

And then there was Stop/Start – Alfa’s first fuel-saving engine-idle cut-out device.

Certainly it helped contribute to the fine overall fuel economy, and CO2 emission drops are never a bad thing – but this system is too slow to restart if you are in any sort of rush.

On numerous occasions we stalled the engine thinking it had refired but hadn’t, requiring a restart that would surely have negated the positive effects in the first place.

The Italians provide an ‘off’ switch and soon it was deactivated despite us living in an inner big-city suburb where such tech is most beneficial. More work is required here, Alfa.

Anyway, after realising how competent the Giulietta is when driven in anger/lust, we came away with a new respect for the 1.4T despite the patchy cabin plastics, sleepy normal-mode engine and too-high pricing.

Then we jumped straight into the $5000 extra QV and could not believe the difference in Normal the exxier version performs like a meth-addled 1.4T in Dynamic, while in Dynamic the QV turned into a turbo tearaway.

The ride seemed quieter and not perceptively worse despite its 18-inch wheel/tyre upgrade, and fuel consumption only rose marginally in comparison to the hefty performance kick on offer. No contest.

We quickly realised the 1.4T is just the entree to a wonderfully complete little sports hatch known as the QV.

Which takes us neatly back to the beginning. After a sizeable stint in both, the base car is mildly disappointing while the up-spec version eclipsed our expectations.

Either way, it is time to pop out the champagne because Alfa is back and in a big way. Just make sure you choose the right version.

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