Why Alfa’s rivals will eat their hearts out

WITH Alfa, it is

WITH Alfa, it is

always “head or heart”. Your heart succumbs to the beauty and the passion, while your head is demanding to know if you’ve lost all reason.

For diehards, the heart wins this argument, and while Alfa Romeo has always had a lot of dyed-in-the-wool fans, their numbers have never been enough to make the enterprise profitable. Consequently, the feted, but flawed, Italian marque has, sadly, for much of the last 40 years, been under pressure to turn a profit.

I’m relatively old now, but one of the continuous threads running through my life is curiously Italian: I have no known Italian

bloodlines and my only — ephemeral — connection to Italy is a love of the place itself, the food they produce and, above all, their cars.

I’ve lived through the Alfasud era, and so many previous owners of those cars still gush uncomfortably in polite society about how they got their first romantic encounters because they had an Alfa badge on the bonnet; or how they only truly became appreciative of the art of the motor car and of driving when their bum first touched the seat of an Alfa.

Sadly, though, the iconic brand has always been under financial pressure, largely through its own uncanny ability to crazily spoil wonderful mechanics with a combination of bodies made from recycled cola cans or electronics which appear to have been designed by a

10-year-old.

And every time a new Alfa is launched, we persuade ourselves that, this time, they’ll get it right. Sometimes they do, but not often enough. The result is that the Alfa name has a reputation it does not always deserve

and the net result is that punters will purchase something — anything — German, instead.

Alfa has positioned itself as a premium brand and that means it is constantly going head-to-head with the likes of Audi, Mercedes, and BMW. For most buyers, the choice between the Italian cars and the German ones does not require a lot of deliberation.

With the new Giulia, however, there are many reasons to believe that Alfa has got it right.

Firstly, the controlling hand of Sergio Marchionne, the boss of Alfa owners, FCA, has insisted that this car is the last chance saloon for the marque. If it does not get it right, no further monies will be forthcoming from central funds.

The pressure has been on Alfa to make the Giulia the car Alfa should have been building all along. Marchionne is nothing if not passionate about Alfa, but he is a pragmatist and long ago realised that the emotion Alfa stirs in people is not in itself enough to keep the show on the road. Sales will be the determining factor.

On several occasions

during the gestation of the Giulia, he sent the designers back to the drawing board. Front-wheel drive was

dismissed. Anything reeking of low-rent quality was binned. Marchionne was

determined not so much to put the gun to Alfa’s head, as ensure it had a chance of competing. His determination has paid off.

On first seeing the Giulia, you will sense the wondrous drama of the sensual design and, from that second, Alfa is on the way to winning the battle to restore itself.

Drive it and you will find that the company has come so far along the line to matching what the Germans have on offer that there will be a huge smile on your face, but little amusement in Ingolstadt, Munich, or Stuttgart.

The test car was the entry-level, 2.2 JTD, albeit in Super Lux spec, which adds about €4,500 to the asking price, and it was an eye-opener in every way — from the manner in which it drives, to the way it protects and cossets the people in it.

Let’s be frank: The car is not without flaws. The sat nav display is nowhere near as sophisticated as its rivals; hit the brakes too hard and the hazards come on too quickly; boot shape is not great; and it has run-flat tyres, meaning there is no spare.

These things are not the end of the world and do not spoil the car or the way it goes about its business.

The ride and handling,

for example, are quite

astonishing and a match for anything else in the class. So, too, the interior décor and the build quality — and the level of standard kit outweighs that of most opponents.

The diesel engine —

although outputting just 150 bhp in the basic form we tried, albeit with a 0-100km/h time of 8.2 seconds and a top speed of 222km/h — is terribly competent and while it may not have a

demonstrably Alfa growl, it still provides a lovely aural accompaniment.

It will also return 4.2 l/100 km (66 mpg) and only emits 109 g/km, and so is frugal and tax-efficient.

The eight-speed gearbox — so often painful when tried by other marques — is a delight and has the necessary intuition to always appear to be in the right cog at the right time. There are other engine/gearbox options, but this one sure does the trick.

But, it is the Giulia’s behaviour on the road which really raises the eyebrows. This thing is so sorted — for what is nominally a family saloon, albeit an Alfa — that even to people who have no great appreciation of proper handling it will come as a hugely pleasant surprise. That the ride is also so supple and pliant makes this every bit as good as its Teutonic rivals.

I know many Alfa nuts — even outside the marque’s traditional and eternally forgiving home among those in the Irish/Italian community — and I know people who just have ‘Alfa-itis’ and are prepared to forgive the company almost any shortcoming.

But this car has very few very inadequacies and even those are unproblematic.

Alfa has overcome the ‘head versus heart’ debate that was the conundrum in deci deciding whether or not to buy one for so long.

With the Giulia, you

can sleep easily, having allowed your heart to overrule your head.

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