Romeo & Giulietta creates best proposition since 156
IAIN ROBERTSON – BCingU – CARS – 11.8.2015
Unswayed by the mild fanaticism that surrounds the Alfa Romeo brand, Iain Robertson believes that the Chrysler-Jeep association with Fiat Group is presenting some clear benefits, not least in the latest Giulietta hatchback.
Charisma and character can be satisfying bed partners in terms of both brand development and recognition. It helps especially in the automotive scene, where the rationale of vehicle acquisition is such an emotive decision for so many buyers, or end-users. Alfa Romeo has relied on those stirrings for much of its existence and while the Milanese company has enjoyed an illustrious past, its present has been somewhat more troubled.
Alfa is an acronym (Anonima Lombarda Fabrica Automobili), while Romeo is the surname of Nicola, a local entrepreneur, who took over the racing car company five years after its foundation in 1910. Despite a winning formula, it became Italian state-controlled from 1932 until 1986, when it was passed conveniently into the hands of the Agnelli family, the owner of the immense Fiat Group. Throughout its history, the brand had cannoned from success to failure and back again on many occasions.
The first proper fruit of the Agnelli plan for the firm arrived in 1997, when the gorgeous 156 first hit the road. Unlike prior Fiat-assisted products, this one emphasised the best elements of the brand’s illustrious past, not least in the shield-like radiator grille, upon which was emblazoned that immensely beguiling heraldic cipher. Its charismatic badge combined two devices, the red cross of Milan and the ‘biscione’, a crowned viper swallowing a Moor, used as the emblem of the House of Visconti (the ruling family of Milan in the 14th Century).
In real terms, the 156 was the most magnificent leveller, gifting the brand its greatest chance for survival in its history. It worked. Ditching the typical Italianate ‘ape’ driving position (which demanded long arms and short legs) and introducing an alluring combination of style and purpose, the 156 started to dent the heavily walled and largely impenetrable premium car segment. While better than many of its antecedents, poor reliability and questionable build would harm its upwards sales trajectory.
A mish-mash of contributing factors would lead to a downwards trend at Alfa Romeo over the following several years – the passing of Sr Agnelli…the dissolution of the partnership with General Motors…a world economic downturn. Although the 156 disappeared, to be replaced by the 159, by 2013, total production of the car firm had plummeted by almost two-thirds of its peak of 213,638 units attained at the turn of the New Millennium. Chrysler was hovering on the sidelines. A failed attempt to inject new life into Lancia in the UK, with impertinently, Chrysler rebadged models, proved to be a costly lesson. However, the Alfa line-up is being revitalised and the latest Giulietta model is a prime example of how Italian brio can be laced successfully with American know-how.
Naturally, I have harboured my personal doubts about this relationship, after all, Chrysler was a bloody mess. Trouble compounded by trouble is not an engaging exercise. Such thoughts affect one’s decisions and, even before I slipped behind the steering wheel of the Giulietta, I was showing signs of reluctance. In fact, my initial punt around my 50-miles test route, which includes town and country motoring, firstly at an economical rate, then at a more devil-may-care pace, produced little more than pleasure that it had managed the task admirably.
My next drive involved a trek to Oxfordshire, during which a stoical avoidance of traffic incidents and road-works led to a growing fascination for the Giulietta’s more charming aspects. Powered by the latest version of the 2.0-litre JDTM common-rail (a fuel injection system invented by Alfa Romeo), turbo-diesel engine that has been an Alfa staple for several years now, it develops a solid 150bhp and a substantial 280lbs ft of torque. Yet, the numbers only tell a partial tale. Apart from the sheer delight of the 6-speed manual gearbox’s shift quality (meaty, yet well-engineered, to produce fluent, faultless and swift gearchanges), allied to well-chosen gear ratios, enough punch is delivered from so low in the rev-range that the engine pulls sturdily from a mere 1,000rpm (in top), stridently from 1,500rpm, emitting little more than a sportingly tantalising growl, all the way to the 4,500rpm limiter. Cruising at 70mph in top demands a mere, refined and relaxed 1,700rpm.
While its stated Official Combined fuel return is given as 67.3mpg, I consider that my ‘economy test’ result of 59.3mpg to be wholly attainable, while my overall consumption for the test period was an outstanding 47.4mpg, which highlights the strength of this combination of engine and transmission. With a CO2 emissions figure of a lowly 110g/km, not only low taxation but also low operational costs form the core of the model’s attraction. It is important to note that it is not slow off the mark, despatching 0-60mph in a respectable and zesty 8.5 seconds, before the Giulietta runs out of steam at a stated 130mph. Perhaps what is more important in daily conditions is that the five-door hatchback is almost ridiculously easy to drive and a sheer pointy delight, when mixing it with other traffic.
It is interesting to note that its steering feels every bit as well-engineered as the rest of the car, even though the leather-wrapped steering wheel (which carries some remote controls on its spokes) is perhaps a bit too large in diameter. Feedback to the driver is subtle but effective and its weighting (thanks to variable ratio) is perfect. If you are wondering what ‘perfect’ means, the whole precept of Alfa Romeo is geared around being ‘sporting’. The various controls impart an expected feeling of solidity, unlike some sporting models (for instance, a BMW 3-Series), so there is no falseness insinuated anywhere and the Giulietta can be driven like a well-balanced sportscar. Even the most severe of mid-corner bumps, while felt, do not result in driver upset. Yes. The suspension is firm but never so harsh that the car is pitched off the chosen line, a problem that afflicts many of Alfa’s Teutonic rivals.
Of course, you can ruin its superb dynamics by selecting ‘d’ on the car’s dynamic drive response system (also known cheesily as ‘DNA‘). There are three settings ‘n’ (as you might expect, the default setting), ‘a’ (intended for poor weather conditions, which actually softens responses usefully), or the aforementioned ‘d’, which stiffens most controls and enhances responsiveness of throttle, brakes and steering, something that is possible with today’s masses of electronic gizmos on many cars. LEAVE THE ‘d’ ALONE! It truly does not make the car feel any better than when left in ‘n’ and even wrecks the superior feel inside the car.
As far as the Giulietta’s interior detailing is concerned, the Cobalto Blue test example, notably in ‘QV-line’ trim, was finished in dark grey and clay red. It looks interesting to begin with but you soon tire of the not very appealing dashboard style, which is partly ‘soft-touch’ and the rest hard plastic, which reflects badly in the windscreen. I have never been keen on Alfa’s insistence on using brilliant red illumination for its information strips, as it can be confusing to read accurately. Fortunately, the twin-dial nacelle is legible and the ‘Uconnect’ 6.5in colour touch-screen in the dash-centre that contains the multi-media and sat-nav set-up works most efficiently.
The seats carry the trim colouring but are finished in fine Nappa hide, which makes them not just comfortable to sit in but, despite their firmness, also very supportive on longer trips. The driver’s seat also hugs the hips and resists body movement most satisfyingly; a useful characteristic in a car that revels in the bends. I found it difficult to achieve a comfortable driving position upon first acquaintance but, after jiggling the electric seat adjuster (the rake and reach are manual), I found a few vital millimetres and experienced no complaints at all thereafter. Space behind me was limited but, then, I am two metres tall.
The boot is readily accessible and a very good shape, with 12.36cu ft of space available, which places it in the middle of the class, being not quite as roomy as a Peugeot 308, or VW Golf, but better than a Vauxhall Astra. The overall quality of the Alfa’s interior is pretty good, there being very few squeaks or trim rattles. In fact, the overall build is superb, the body being delightfully rigid, which ensures that the suspension can work properly.
Conclusion: From what could have been a fairly negative drive story soon became one of great pleasure. While I appreciate the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, I am not such a die-hard fan that I shall excuse its idiosyncrasies. Fortunately, they are few and far between and the car would deliver a responsive experience to any owner, or business user. Equipped with around £3,800’s worth of ‘optional extras’, including its lovely alloy wheels and the sporty upholstery, the Giulietta is not ‘cheap’ at £29,210 (£25,430 as standard) on the road. Whether the badge is worth it is always going to be questionable to me. However, I could find very little quarrel with its various qualities and its sporting intent. If this is a measure of the higher production values that Chrysler brings to the Italians’ table, then I feel confident in recommending it.