New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2011 Alfa Romeo Giulietta

“This Giulietta is probably a lot faster, and a lot easier to drive fast, than its namesake siblings. I can’t wait to try it myself.”

That was the last phrase of my design analysis last month. And now that I’ve had the opportunity to try several examples, both on the road and on a test track, I can definitely delete that “probably.” The third generation Giulietta is without question the best front-wheel-drive Alfa Romeo ever, whether in terms of dynamics or standard equipment. If it is not absolutely the best-looking Alfa sedan ever, it is nonetheless both agreeable and instantly identifiable.

It is not clear that there is a huge American audience waiting for yet another small sedan, however good it might be. Alfa Romeo (and Maserati and Lancia) CEO Harald J. Wester, a straight-talking German who is also chief technology officer for the Fiat Group, notes that there are 60,000 Alfas in daily use in the United States, which implies a certain potential. But at lunch at the storied Balocco proving ground, he seemed to agree with the media proposition that Alfa Romeo really needs an affordable sports car for an American comeback. Look for the Giuliette to come to the U.S. after its 2014 facelift.

The importance of the Giulietta lies in its being the harbinger of a whole series of superior front-wheel-drive cars yet to come from the combined Fiat-Chrysler group. Matteo Benedetto, the young engineer in charge of the entire program, explained some of the advantages of the Giulietta’s C-compact platform, one that is almost infinitely expandable, in length, width and driveline architecture. He, and the car, were extremely convincing. Great effort was spent on weight reduction, modularity, and crash safety, making extensive use of new and better materials.

The Volkswagen Golf is the benchmark car in the C-segment. The Giulietta is intended to displace it as the class standard, as it is both larger and lighter than the German hatchback. All four Giulietta launch engines — and the 232-hp Quadrifoglio 1750cc unit we tried on the track — are turbocharged. Auto stop-start systems, fitted as standard, reduce emissions up to 15%. The 1.4-liter gasoline twin-cam engine produces 118 hp, while the 1.4 Multiair version, minus one camshaft but still four-valve, uses proprietary technology to vary inlet valve timing and opening electronically, increasing power to 168 hp from the same displacement. The two common-rail diesels make 103 and 168 hp, and the we were able to try the higher-powered cars, both the diesel and gasoline, on public roads. There’s far more torque from the heavier diesel, but at the expense of a rather loud and coarse soundtrack and a heavier and less agile front end. We found the gasoline engine more desirable for day-to-day driving. The all-new 6-speed, three-shaft gearbox is compact and shifts smoothly. Early next year a twin-clutch version with the Fiat Group’s proprietary electo-hydraulic control unit (think Ferrari) will be available for drivers who want an automatic.

Alfa’s Benedetto said that they had spent a great deal of effort on the MacPherson strut front suspension system to assure that there would be no parasitic inputs to affect the steering geometry, and that has definitely paid off in precision and agreeable feel. The overall ratio of the electrically assisted rack is the quickest of any model in the group, and can be varied between quite light for around-town driving and less assistance for spirited driving. On every model there is a DNA – for dynamic, normal and all-weather – “manettino” slide switch on the console that allowing three overall chassis settings. The steering boost, suspension damping, throttle response, differential setting, stability control and shift-point indicators all change, and the difference is manifest.

The accurate front-end geometry really pays off for the highest-power Quadrifoglio model, which gets the power to the ground without the violent torque steer that so often spoils front-wheel-drive performance cars. It’s a bit difficult to see what purpose the Quadrifoglio serves, since the normal models are more than fast enough to cause trouble with the constabulary, but it is a lively vehicle well enough corralled by electronic overseers to keep owners on the pavement, shiny side up. The regular models are quite sufficient in their abilities, especially since the buyer can choose between two distinct chassis, comfort and sport, not to mention several trim levels for each chassis and powertrain.

Something relatively new for Alfa Romeo is an astonishingly comfortable ride, even in the sport chassis cars switched into the DNA dynamic mode. And also notable was the complete absence of wind noise in all of the cars we drove. There was just a hint of the Italian tradition in the first Quattrofoglio we wanted to drive on the high-speed circuit. Its mirrors could not be adjusted, the electrons not making the trip from the control switch to the actuating motors. The crew chief just shrugged and indicated another car.

Alfa Romeo celebrates 100 years of existence this spring. It lost its independence in the Great Depression of the Thirties, when it was taken over by the Italian government, and has been a part of the Fiat Group since 1986. There have been moments when its continuity was seriously threatened, but this Giulietta holds the promise of bringing true salvation to the hallowed marque.