Car reviews - Alfa Romeo - Giulietta - 5-dr hatch range
Alfa Romeo models
Ride, steering and handling character of 1.4 engine grunt of QV engine
Room for improvement
Difficult seat adjustment pedal placement road noise side and rear three-quarter visibility
19 Jan 2011
THE decision to buy an Alfa Romeo has traditionally been one you make with your heart rather than your head. With the Giulietta, the famous Italian manufacturer has worked hard to appeal to objectivity by producing a car that offers power, economy and low emissions.
Not only that, it has achieved the highest Euro NCAP safety rating in its class and is even priced competitively against the German competition. Things are looking good – has Alfa really nailed it and turned out a viable alternative this time?
We sampled both models in the Giulietta launch line-up - the 125kW 1.4-litre MultiAir-engined base model and the 173kW 1750cc Quadrifoglio Verde (QV) flagship. Both drive the front wheels through a slick and easy-to-use six-speed manual.
First the looks. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but it can depend on whether that eye is regarding a photograph or the real thing. In the case of Alfa Romeo’s new Giulietta, we thought it was a contrived-looking thing until we met it in the metal.
With a wheel in each corner and a purposeful stance, the Giulietta looks wider and lower than its dimensions suggest, in a similar way to the Golf-based Volkswagen Scirocco coupe that we’d love to see imported to Australia.
Alfa makes much of the Giulietta’s lightweight engineering and this carries through when you open a front door. For a Golf competitor, it doesn’t feel reassuringly heavy but neither does it make you wince with a cheap-sounding click or clang when closed.
That said, the rear doors are another matter, requiring an assertive slam to close properly and with plasticy hidden handles that have a disconcertingly soft action.
Make sure you have plenty of time when you first slide into the Giulietta’s cockpit as, like many of its predecessors, it takes a while to get into a comfortable driving position - longer if you can’t find the seat-back adjuster knob, access to which is obstructed by both the lower seatbelt anchorage and the bulky B-pillar.
Surely someone should have spotted and rectified this fundamental flaw during pre-production testing?
Alfa’s trademark cowled instrument pack is present and correct, with the usual and deliberate quirk of substituting internationally recognised symbols for petrol gauge and engine coolant temperature with the Italian words Benzina and Acqua respectively.
Another curious feature of the dash is a row of five retro-styled toggle switches, which are oddly placed given that two of them control the front and rear foglights. More sensibly, two others are used to disable the idle-stop system (1.4 only) and activate the central locking, while the one closest to the driver is actually a mysterious switch blank. The switches are a nice idea but not nearly as well-executed as those in a Mini.
We can see that Alfa’s tried to apply its design flair to the interior, but it feels as though it has either tried too hard and come up short or had the right idea and then run out of money or time to perfect it because although it’s pleasant and modern enough, the facia is a bit busy, some of the plastics let it down and as a whole it doesn’t compare well with the fuss-free and more consistent-feeling interiors of rivals like the VW Golf and Audi A3.
Alfa has paid attention to practicality, supplying a capacious glovebox that features a handy rack with three semi-cylindrical spaces for storing drinks out of the sun. Hatches in the centre of the dash-top and the front-centre armrest reveal a further two storage compartments.
Turn the key and both speedo and tacho needles welcome you with a full sweep. Between them is a digital multifunction display for the trip computer and so on. With the headlights on, the dash back-lighting is very attractive and almost shimmers in its silvery glow with red accents that echo the red back-lighting for the various buttons and switches around the cabin. Overall, the instruments are very user-friendly and clear.
Initial impressions of the 125kW 1.4 MultiAir around town are that although it seems to exhibit almost no turbo lag, it doesn’t feel as nippy as you’d like or expect from a torquey, 125kW small car.
That is, until you use Alfa’s DNA selector to shift into Dynamic mode. The inner cynic expects this to be a gimmick but it really does transform the car. Now we’re talking, and we haven’t reached the city limits yet.
At first it feels as though the car has somehow shed a few kilograms as it feels more alert, but apart from fattening up the little engine’s torque output and making it available lower in the rev-range, you also get a more instant response to the actions of your right foot – on both the accelerator and brake pedals.
With the windows down and trundling along at low revs on urban streets, you can hear a purposeful baritone from the exhaust, which as the revs rise turns into a whoosh from the turbocharger as it sucks in the atmosphere before crescendoing in a dramatic release of air pressure, a sound not dissimilar to the type of aftermarket dump-valve favoured by tuners. This, the base model, is already feeling like a sporty little number.
At urban and suburban speeds, the suspension can thump a bit over potholes and cracks in the road surface but it’s acceptable for a car that’s already demonstrating a sporting character and is proving fun to weave in and out of traffic.
Out onto the freeway now and the Giulietta effortlessly accelerates along the up-hill on-ramp, the bump-thump all but absent at this speed but disappointingly replaced by an intrusion of poorly-suppressed high-frequency tyre roar.
Cruising in light traffic, the Giulietta makes it so easy to maintain a steady freeway speed that the cruise control seems almost redundant. We give it a try though, and it proves intuitive although its control stalk’s proximity and similar size to the indicator stalk cause a few unintended winks of the blinkers.
The freeway stint reveals a large over-the-shoulder blind spot. With the seat positioned for your 186cm-tall correspondent, a pre-lane change glance over the shoulder is met with a view of nothing but the same thick B-pillar.
Crouching forward to simulate the driving position of a shorter driver yields no better view, so it’s handy that the door mirror comes equipped with a blind-spot zone.
Now it’s time to head into the hills to find out whether this little Alfa can deliver on its sporting pretentions.
It doesn’t disappoint. Is that a first for a modern Alfa? A flogging through the hills of the Hunter Valley region reveal a well-damped and comfortable back-road ride, although again, tyre roar can become a problem on some surfaces.
The chassis resists bodyroll and always feels communicative. On challenging roads, you can always feel what the rear-end is up to, even from the passenger seat. There seem to be few understeer or oversteer vices providing they’re not deliberately provoked and the electronics soon step in to save you from tears if they are.
In the warm, dry conditions as tested, the car actually feels more inclined to break into a four-wheel drift than plough through a corner or spin mid-bend.
The frequent mid-bend bumps of the Hunter’s patchwork roads failed to upset the chassis, requiring minimal driver correction and letting us get on with the job.
The Giulietta’s well-judged steering is pleasantly weighted and direct but not so much so to put the driver at risk of involuntarily lane changes should they sneeze. Feedback through the wheel is intimated rather than shouted, which makes for a relaxing cruise.
Oddly, although the steering firms up in Dynamic mode, it feels more communicative in Normal mode. An ideal compromise would be the D mode’s engine and brake settings, with N mode’s steering.
The engine pulls strongly throughout the rev range, with an intoxicating thrum between 3000 and 4000rpm, becoming rather vocal and unable to hide its small displacement when pushed towards the redline, exhibiting a high-frequency mechanical cacophony.
For an engine so clinically efficient and packed with technology, the 1.4 MultiAir doesn’t half have character. It also averaged 7.6L/100km on our test route, impressive considering that the journey from south of Sydney CBD to the Hunter Valley via a set of bumpy, twisty, hilly back-roads was driven, shall we say, enthusiastically.
While the Giulietta feels thoroughly at home on a back-road blast that requires rapid gear changes and frequent alternation between throttle and brake, this style of driving reveals an irritating shortcoming. The position of the pedals is wrong.
They seem to be located too high and too close together, which is exacerbated by a bulge in the bulkhead that prevents you from moving your left foot from the clutch pedal to a rest position.
The bulge does not appear to be replicated in the passenger footwell, suggesting that the right-hand drive Giulietta is subject to an engineering compromise in that department.
The time comes to wave goodbye to the plucky 1.4 and step into the Quadrifoglio Verde, which squats 10mm lower than the base model over moody looking dark-coloured 18-inch alloys and packs a 1750cc turbocharged petrol four that pumps out an astonishing 173kW and 340Nm.
The moody theme continues inside, with black headlining seemingly soaking up light from the cabin, with a curious side-effect of increasing reflections from the top of the dashboard into the windscreen. It also gains leather trim for the seat bolsters (which offer no extra lateral support over the base model), centre arm-rest and other contact surfaces.
Other differences are harder to spot until we get underway, the first being the comparatively knobbly ride that’s directly attributable to the larger rims and low-profile rubber, combined with the lowered sports suspension.
After enjoying the smaller engine’s busy chattering, the 1750’s note is deeper and more businesslike.
As expected, the QV’s power delivery is punchy and it feeds power in a more assertive, deep-breathing fashion than the 1.4, although turbo lag is more noticeable. That said, for an engine with such a high specific output, it never feels manic, thrashy or hard-worked, just grunty like a turbo-diesel but happier to rev.
Bizarrely, the QV’s rev-limiter cuts in short of the tachometer’s 6500rpm redline, not that you need to explore the upper echelons of the rev range too often, with peak power being delivered at just 5500rpm.
The QV is keener to turn into bends and slightly more composed when subjected to changes of direction compared with the 1.4 but the discernable differences are not huge at the kind of speeds achievable on public roads.
In fact, the 1.4 offers more fun in this respect as you are more likely to explore its limits without fear of racking up the demerits.
Officially, the D position on the DNA selector stands for dynamic, but we think it stands for dramatic on the QV. The difference it makes, increasing peak torque output from 300 to 340Nm and delivering it at just 1900rpm instead of 4500 is so tangible that you wonder why you would ever want to leave it in N mode.
In Dynamic mode, taking a second-gear corner in third is sufficient in most cases. Torque-steer is conspicuous by its absence and kept well in check by the electronically-simulated limited-slip differential (similar to that found on the Golf GTI).
QV quibbles include the aluminium sports pedals, which seem to exacerbate the aforementioned pedal problem and that tyre roar is taken to a whole new level, in some cases reaching levels requiring raised voices to maintain conversation.
For freeway cruising, the low-down grunt of D mode makes the QV a relaxing drive when cruising along in sixth and the torque sweet-spot makes easy work of even steep inclines, enabling an easy resumption of progress after a slow-down without necessitating a change of gear.
In fact, even in suburban driving, the flexibility of this engine is such that it almost led us to forget it was a manual, negating as it does the need for frequent cog-swapping. On a couple of occasions we found ourselves shuddering to a traffic-light stop with the clutch applied just in time to avoid a stall.
Impressive as the QV is, it loses some of the base model’s charm while accentuating its faults to an almost unforgivable level. Its extra athleticism is useful if you want to go chasing down Golf GTIs but, for most of the time, the 1.4 is the real-world winner.
The Giulietta offers a charming, fun-to-drive alternative that’s less staid than a Golf, more dramatic than an A3 and raises a middle finger to the over-starched white collar tyranny of the BMW 1 Series.
We enjoyed our time with the Giulietta and were impressed by its considerable talents. It is let down by a couple of niggles but if you’re in the market for a characterful $40,000 premium hatch, the Giulietta deserves to be on your test-drive list.
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