Buying a high-performance luxury sedan in the United States in 2017 isn’t difficult. You don’t have to think about it. If you have the means, Mercedes, Lexus, Audi, Cadillac, and BMW have you covered — especially BMW.
The Bavarians created the sports sedan and brought it to America in the 1970s. Since then, BMW has improved on the idea to the point where its 3 Series is the platonic ideal of four-door go-fast-ness. If you move up the M-Sport M3 from BMW’s performance division, you get the platonic ideal with fire in its belly.
The default choice, therefore, is obvious. But the default can be boring, and that’s where Alfa Romeo comes in.
The Italian brand is returning to the US after a long absence. Alfas of old were stylish — just think about the convertible from “The Graduate” — but not exactly reliable. Fans put up with this until they didn’t, and a surge of dependable Japanese and superbly crafted German vehicles arrived.
Alfa started small and weird with the 4C, effectively a small Ferrari. (Alfa and Ferrari used to live under the same room at Fiat, before Ferrari was spun out in an initial public offering in 2015.) We liked the 4C, but it was quirky.
Enter the Giulia, a proper sports sedan. Alfa just started selling it. Also, enter the Quadrifoglio performance upgrade. “Quadrifoglio” means “four-leaf clover” in Italian, and the meaning of that totem of good luck for Alfa is nicely explained by Michael Banovsky. Suffice it to say the green badge on the Giulia Quadrifoglio adds something special.
Alfa tossed us the keys to the car for a week, and we put it through its paces. So how did this $A99,000 (as tested) challenger to the BMW M cars stack up?
Photos by Hollis Johnson.
We got our first taste of Alfa's return to America with the 4C, a taut little mid-engine roadster that's like a shrunken-down Ferrari.
Our $A99,000 test car came with a Vulcano black paint job and Alfa's distinctive front grille, an inverted triangle that evokes the brand's heritage. The Alfa badge, by the way, is probably the most beautiful in the automotive universe.
The lightweight carbon-fibre hood is sculpted, and, like those of so many luxury cars these days, the headlights are narrow, somewhat menacing slits.
It's a handsome ride, with just enough Italian panache to make it stand apart from the BMWs and Audis of the world. The roof is carbon fibre, too.
Our Giulia was given the Quadrifoglio treatment and has the four-leaf-clover badge to prove it. Such a beautiful and whimsical touch! Of course, there's some tragedy in this heritage.
They're attached to this, the Giulia Quadrifoglio's engine -- a 2.9-litre, 505-horsepower twin-turbo V-6 that's effectively a Ferrari V-8 with two cylinders lopped off. The Quadro Giulia makes a lot more horsepower than the base four-cylinder turbo version's 276.
Four hundred forty-three pound-feet of torque accompanies the 505 ponies, all of it rev-limited at 7,250 rpm. So you can't wind this Giulia out as far as you could, say, a Ford Shelby GT 350. But the output on this thing surpasses the turbo inline-6 on the M3.
The cockpit is fairly no-nonsense, with easy-to-use controls and a comfortable, well-bolstered driver's seat.
One knock on the car is the overall quality of the interior materials. My colleague Ben Zhang thought they weren't quite up to par for the segment, and he has a point. The plastics are plasticky. If you buy a comparable German vehicle or something from Lexus, Acura, or Infiniti, the insides are nicer. Ditto Caddy.
He thought this was sort of not so great for a car at this price point; I was more forgiving. But I have memories of sports sedans that were more sports car than luxury ride. We'll see if Alfa does something about it in future iterations.
This might be my new favourite steering wheel. It feels just right -- not too thick, not too thin. Note the Ferrari-like red stop-start button and the combination of leather, carbon fibre, and brushed metal. Mmm, mmm, good. (It's $A520 extra, by the way.)
OK, Alfa, just get rid of the annoying joystick shifter, please. That said, the eight-speed auto (no manual available in the US) is quite capable and can be operated in manual mode using the excellent aluminium paddle-shifters behind the steering wheel -- this reminded us of those of Ferraris and Maseratis.
The central console presents a drive-mode selector -- Dynamic, Natural, Advanced Efficiency, and Race are on tap -- and a hockey-puck-style infotainment knob, all framed in carbon fibre.
The 8.8-inch infotainment screen occupies most of the middle of the dashboard. It works well -- neither as fantastically as Audi's or Cadillac's, but far better than Lexus' infotainment system.
You have everything you need, from GPS navigation to Bluetooth integration -- and a $A1,200 Harman Kardon audio system, if you choose, that sounds terrific. AUX and USB ports are accessible.
It isn't an exciting or dramatic system, but it ticks every box -- and unlike some screens in luxury cars, this one is tucked into the dash rather than sticking out of it.
The interior design has been well-thought-out. It isn't particularly showy, but it isn't bland either, and it's full of quietly sporty touches, such as the contrast stitching in green, to match the Quadrifoglio badge.
Let's get to the driving first. What makes the Giulia Quadrifoglio memorable is:
1. The savage growl of its glorious 505-horse six-banger. Yes, there's Ferrari DNA in there, and yes, you can tell. Actually, a bit more than DNA -- this is the same engine that goes into the new twin-turbo V-8 in the 488 GTB, minus a pair of cylinders.
2. The marvelously light and balanced feel of the car. Just to detail the competition a bit, the BMW M3 isn't a slug, but it has that solid and planted-to-the-road Germanic feel to it while also being rear-wheel-drive like the Giulia Q. But the Alfa comes off as downright tossable in your hands, really more like the BMW M2 in spirit. At 3,800 pounds, it isn't a featherweight, but its power-to-weight ratio is ideal and makes it drive like a leaf on the wind.
3. The ease of use when you aren't accessing the Giulia Q's segment-leading power. If all you want to do is putz around town or cruise on the freeway, the Alfa is a nice place in which to do it. To be honest, the car it reminded me of most was the Buick Regal GS, except the Buick can't do 0-60 mph in 3.6 seconds with a top speed of 191 mph.
Just quickly, the fuel economy isn't great, but it isn't appalling either, and you have the Efficiency drive mode: 17 city/24 highway/20 combined.
On safety, a $A1,550 Driver Assistance package gives you forward-collision and lane-departure warnings.
Back to the driving. On Pirelli ZR19 tires and with Brembos on all four wheels, that river of power that the V-6 is cranking to the rubber is beautifully manageable. But when you want to poke along at moderate freeway velocities, the Alfa is dignified and easygoing. A car this fast shouldn't feel this good when driving this slow, but it does.
In the sport-sedan segment -- notably, the sportier subset of the segment, where the BMW M and the Mercedes AMG and the Audi RS dwells -- each ride needs its logic, a determination of identity. 'Italian-ness' isn't going to cut it, and besides, that's what Alfa's stablemate Maserati already has going for it.
So if the Bimmer M is the state of the art, and the AMG brings the Mercedes luxe vibe, and the Audi RS channels the carmaker's rally-racing heritage (with all-wheel-drive), then what does the Alfa Romeo Quadrifoglio bring to the table?
Basically, just a little bit more -- and a little bit less. What you have in the Alfa Giulia Q is a V-6 Ferrari in four-door form. That's the more. But you also have a Chrysler sedan, frankly, in a world where Chrysler's mass-market sedans, thanks to the strategic thinking of FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne, are about to vanish from American lands, giving way to the market's appetite for SUVs.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you have a lot of good old-fashioned Italian style with the Alfa. But that's beside the point. Put this car up against a BMW M3, and in many respects, you have a better car. That's saying something. The Giulia Q has been designed to beat BMW at its own game, just as everybody has been trying to beat BMW at its own game for decades.
The stunner is that Alfa Romeo has done it.
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