Crucial diesel version of Alfa’s new saloon promises more than just catwalk looks
The arrival of a Giulia in the UK feels like a watershed moment. For now, the steering wheel remains on the wrong side for UK, but soon that will change and the nation’s compact exec buyers will have the option of a proper rear-drive Alfa for the first time since the mid-1980s 75.
The 75’s successors were uniformly front-wheel drive, uniformly pretty and uniformly undeserving of the model cull that left the 159 without a successor in 2011. The Giulia remedies that with not only an expensively developed rear drive platform but also a raft of new engines, including the crucial all-aluminium 2.2-litre Multijet II four-cylinder diesel.
That unit comes in 148bhp and 178bhp forms, and while the lesser model is inevitably cheaper, it is the higher-powered version tested that suggests itself as a genuine threat to the class’s running order. With claims of 67.3mpg and 109g/km, plus 332lb ft and 0-62mph in 7.1sec, the Giulia is, for now, technically superior to the equivalent BMW 3 Series, Jaguar XE and Audi A4. Neither diesel lump can be had in entry-level trim, making mid-range Super the likely sweet spot. The 178bhp variant starts from £31,950 and comes with sat-nav, DAB, 17in alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, dual-zone climate control and cruise control as standard.
Outwardly, it is rather splendid; inside, the dashboard architecture has clearly been arranged with one eye fixed on what might look beautiful – a useful contrast to the purely functional prettiness its northern European rivals achieve.
If the Giulia’s only requirement were that you sit and admire it like a Botticelli fresco, the car would be a triumph. Sadly, it’s when the process of driving demands that you engage with your surroundings that the niggles surface like rising damp. Some are merely questionable fit and finish; others are functional, such as the low-rent infotainment screen, the unswitchable stability control and the weirdly unhelpful wiper settings.
Subjectively, though, these issues tend to provoke mild dismay rather than outright offence. It’s distressingly easy to forgive the squeak of an ill-fitting cupholder cover when the solid metal paddle shifters look so good, or to ignore the ridiculous aspect ratio of the 8.8in multimedia screen because the dash swoops so deliciously low above it.
However, there’s no need for such leniency when it comes to the way the Giulia drives, because here, in broad strokes, it’s compellingly good. The crisp, cultured chassis applauded in Europe arrives in the UK mostly intact, even with optional 18in wheels and run-flats. Shod thus, its sophisticated ride registers a mite too taut on occasion, but it mostly settles into a wonderfully supple groove that eschews the cloying, dull-edged comfort of its major rivals.
Instead, the car feels magnificently passive and lithe on front double wishbones and rear multi-links, and it is brilliantly adept at telegraphing contact patch information. To suit the fleet-footed change of direction and apparent lack of mass, Alfa has kept the steering light, rendering a level of ease that might flirt with over-assistance if its response weren’t so well tuned to complement the bite of the front end.
Combine all this with the advantages of 50/50 balance, the subtle poise of a pushed chassis rather than a pulled one and the exemplary keenness of an engine and gearbox that seem to have been synchronised with enthusiasm in mind rather than abject parsimony and there are great lumps of time in the Giulia’s company where it rewards a driver at least as deftly as anything else in the segment.
Nevertheless, there are bubbles in the gloss, and the more time you spend in the Giulia’s company, the more readily they crop up. It isn’t as quiet as most other premium options, more noise being kicked up by the passing wind and also the running gear. Its rivals are probably better at isolating and cosseting their occupants, especially on long motorway journeys.
Because that is the primary business of the compact exec, it can’t be overlooked and reinforces the idea that the Giulia, for all its charm, isn’t quite the finished article it might have been. That, we hope, will come as the model matures.
As it stands, this is a riveting, idiosyncratic and striking entrant into a class usually defined by understated superiority. That it is also conspicuously flawed only feels like proof that Turin has delivered an Alfa worthy of its heritage.
So dynamically adept and charming to both look at and be in that you’ll forgive it a few flaws
Alfa Romeo Giulia 2.2D 180 Super
Engine: 4cyls, 2143cc, diesel
Power: 178bhp at 3750rpm
Torque: 332lb ft at 1500rpm
Gearbox: 8-spd automatic
Kerb weight: 1445kg
Top speed: 143mph
Economy: 67.3mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band: 109g/km, 21%
Rivals: BMW 320d, Jaguar XE 2.0 i4 180