Gareth Butterfield finally gets to spend a week in one of his most eagerly-anticipated cars, the Alfa Romeo Guilia
I’VE been waiting for this day… For me, a car nut who has been passionate about all things four-wheeled for as long as I can remember, the arrival of a new Alfa Romeo is big news. And the arrival of the new Guilia saloon was made all the more exciting by its headline-grabbing flagship, the 510bhp Quadrifoglio stealing the show.
This car however, this gorgeous bright-red cacophony of curves sat on my driveway, is not the Quadrifoglio – it’s the watered-down, fleet-friendly diesel version. But I’m not disappointed. I drove the Quadrifoglio in May and it was an absolute masterpiece. In fact, after driving it I jumped into a BMW M4 and quickly learned the difference between a really good car – and an Alfa Romeo.
The thing is, a 510bhp super saloon isn’t within the reach of us mere mortals, so the entry-level version I’m testing is extremely relevant. And, I’m happy to report, despite the oil-burner under the bonnet, it’s not lost any of its Italian personality. Its exterior is gorgeous, especially with the 18″ wheels on my Speciale test model and inside it’s a delight to the senses. Typical oversized Alfa seats welcome you and cosset you while you drink in the race-car details such as the steering wheel-mounted start button and the huge gear-shift paddles mounted to the steering column.
Everything about the Guilia smacks of a car that’s been designed by people who have a passion for all things automotive. With the possible exception of the Jaguar XE, none of its rivals can stir the senses in the same way. BMWs, Audis and Mercs might be very good cars but, in the same way those Dyson Airblade thingies in public toilets are very good at drying your hands, they’re hardly something to get excited about. This Alfa, on the other hand, is something to get excited about. And I can’t wait to take it for a drive.
OK, so if I’m honest, prodding the Ferrari-esque start button on the steering wheel and hearing a diesel clatter into life is always a bit of a come-down but I’ve done quite a bit of driving in the Guilia now and I’m actually really impressed with the engine. It’s the pokier of the two diesels on offer, with 180bhp, and that might not sound like a lot but it marries up beautifully with the eight-speed gearbox and, if you get the revs right, it feels really quick.
The abiding memory I have of my brief fling with a Quadrifoglio version earlier in the year was the wonderful steering. What it lacks in feel it makes up for in its direct sharpness, it takes very few turns to get from lock-to-lock and the same system has made it into the lowlier models. It’s brilliant.
The Guilia rides really well too. Even in Dynamic mode – one of three on offer – with everything sharpened up a few notches, it handles rural roads brilliantly. It’s firm and entertaining, but not crashy over the big bumps. Apparently a bloke from Ferrari helped sort the handling on the Guilia and it really shows, even in this model.
This being a torquey, rear-wheel-drive saloon with eight gears to choose from, it can be a bit of a handful in the wet but the chassis gives plenty of feel so it’s easy to correct any errors and, if you flick it into manual and use those lovely paddles, you have a lot more control. It is an absolute joy to drive.
TODAY I’m spending the day with the in-laws and I’ve got to drive them to a pretty village in Derbyshire so they can do some shopping and complain about the cost of ice cream. So I’ll not be using Dynamic mode. In fact, my sober and sedate stint behind the wheel actually serves to highlight how good the Guilia is at just being a family run-about. Its rear bench has plenty of room, partly thanks to the way the B pillar sits further forward than you might expect and, although the boot opening is quite small, there’s lots of space. The front seats wrap around you in that delicious Alfa way, but even my 6ft something father-in-law doesn’t feel cramped. It’s a very well-packaged car.
I did notice, however, on arriving back at home, that the sprung hinges on the boot are a bit weak and, because I park on a hill, it “bounced” back while I was delving in the boot and hit me on the head. How very “Italian” of it.
I’VE noticed a few more Italian quirks in the Guilia today. Firstly, the keyless central locking didn’t work when I went to get in the car first thing. No idea why, it just stopped. I had to pull the key out of my pocket and press the button. It’s worked fine after that. There’s also a silly design flaw in the infotainment system too. The climate control fan-speed setting works on a rotary nob, but is displayed on the large dash-mounted screen. Trouble is, when you have the reversing camera on, the system is too primitive to be able to allow you to do two things at once. So you actually have to take it out of reverse to alter the fan speed. I grant you, it’s not a big issue, but it would never happen on a German or Japanese car.
The infotainment system, incidentally, is very good. It’s like a slightly less-polished version of the Mercedes “nobomatic” wheel-controlled system – and this is good. Touchscreens are silly and dangerous, so I’m glad Alfa has broken from convention. Also, the voice activation system is excellent. Probably the best I’ve used in fact. They’re usually awful, but not in the Guilia.
BY now I’ve really got the measure of the Guilia’s handling. It’s still wonderfully entertaining and I still love the quick steering and clever suspension. The car feels light, responds to every ripple in the road and, even with a diesel engine, is properly sporty. It’s an Alfa Romeo through and through, unlike some of the previous models peddled by the firm, which have been re-hashed facsimiles of other manufacturers’ cast-offs. And the more I drive it, the more I’m becoming absolutely besotted with it.
THE Guilia goes back tomorrow so it’s time to start thinking pragmatically about the week I’ve just spent with what has genuinely become one of my favourite cars of the year. Firstly, it’s priced well. It sits neatly alongside its rivals with the basic model a shade over £30,000. It’s also economical. Yes, petrol versions are thirstier but the diesel is good for 60mpg, or at least 50mpg in the real world. Emissions are low at 109g/km and it’s practical, comfortable and stunning to look at.
Alfa Romeos, even the rubbish ones, always ooze personality and soul and the Guilia is no exception. It has so much more character than any other car in the sector but it’s also a seriously credible rival to them all.
It almost feels as if Alfa has channelled everything it knows about making a good sports car into the Guilia and, completely by accident, has produced something that actually stands out as one of the best in its class.
I wouldn’t knock anyone for choosing, say, a BMW 3-Series over a Guilia but if you stand an Alfa owner next to a BMW owner and ask me which I’d rather go out for a pint with, of course I’d choose the Alfa driver. Alfas have always been an interesting car for interesting people.
And, for the first time in years, now the Alfa owner not only gets to drive the most interesting car in its class, they also get to drive one of the very best.