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First Drive: Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

Mission accomplished as first impressions of the Giulia encourage a firm thumbs-up

BALOCCO, Italy — Driving is believing, but watching ain't bad, either. Actually, make that watching and listening. Long before the eyes can focus on the moving object, the ears pick up its working noises. I can't see what is occurring behind the bridge and over the hill at the far end of the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles test track, but it sounds like a single-plane air race. Or perhaps like a roller-coaster powered by a combustion engine or like a MotoGP bike on four wheels.

After a long, imageless prelude wrapped in cottonwool, the wah-wah suddenly blares into sight, blending 7,000-rpm-plus upshift crescendos with trumpeting downshift double-takes. Accompanying the street music are two bright LED spots and a red blob taking shape. Fast. At the entrance to the longest straight, a real-time object approaches at 100, 120, 130 mph. Welcome to the world premiere of dame Giulia at work, a feast for all senses and the stuff long-lasting goose pimples are made of.

A small fleet of test cars is gathered under the lofty roof of what has been nicknamed "Sergio's Aerodome," a modern white-and-gray stadium worthy of a Roman emperor. There are half a dozen diesels but only two Quadrifoglio models to choose from. Although the superfrugal supporting acts will have to make hay in the European marketplace, it's predictable that enthusiasts zoom in on the performance model. It's loud, thirsty, expensive—but so what? The 505-hp crackerjack epitomizes all the elements that can make Alfa Romeo great again. What if it fails? Then it may go down in history as the harbinger of terminal doom.

The do-it-or-die Quadrifoglio is the Supergiulia, the marque's answer to the Audi RS4, BMW M3, and Mercedes-AMG C63. A four-door sedan on steroids, with broad shoulders, a proudly presented six-pack, and sexy hips. It's the physical embodiment of agility and aggression, self-consciousness and narcissism.

Tense and curious, the men who made project Giorgio (its platform name) happen are mingling with journalists. There is Harald Wester, the mastermind of Alfa and Maserati. And Roberto Fedeli, the new research and development director who left BMW's Project i for an even bigger challenge. In their wake, more blue suits join the open-air fray: the chassis guru, the ruler over all quality issues, the senior software wizard. FCA boss Sergio Marchionne is notorious for not having a lot of time for his engineers; according to his monocular point of view, they spend too much money and don't get things done fast enough.

"But this time, we are actually ahead of schedule," rejoices a mind-reading Wester. "At 33 months, Giorgio beats the average gestation period by about three months." Adds Fedeli, "Giulia is only the beginning. This architecture has a lot of potential. It is instrumental in redefining the brand for its climb to former glory."

Enough small talk, yes? Let's slide behind the leather-wrapped multifunctional steering wheel, adjust the carbon-shell sports seat trimmed in leather and Alcantara, pull the seat belt tight, and push the red Start button. What did you expect? The erratic idle, punkish slang, and addiction to revs typical of the Alfa 4C engine? Or the hoarse brawl of the Maserati-based V-8 fitted to the 8C Competizione? Instead, the V-6 installed in the Giulia cultivates its own tonality, voice melody, and sound pattern. Its phonetic vocabulary does not include rogue terms like loudness and noise. Instead, it compiles rhapsodies for tenor and bass, sings songs, and constantly varies the intricate coloratura as it moves up and down the rev ladder. Even before the flagman steps aside, I feel compelled to summon the underhood orchestra, probe the turbo whine, the intake rasp, the clink-clonk switch between lung volumes, the full-bodied midrange hum, the impatient liftoff skirmish.

With the drive mode selector aptly named "DNA" in its sportiest setting, we take off and join the so-called Lange circuit, a long loop composed of curvy country-road sections, dips and crests, and at least a dozen surface changes. The clutch feels light and positive, but the six-speed manual gearbox is more committed to stirring emotions than to changing ratios swiftly. Even though the aluminum-knobbed lever moves through the gate with due precision—never mind that embarrassing fake downshift throttle blip—it can't match the eight-speed sport auto transmission available later this year for rapidity. Emotionally, however, the classic lever-operated man-machine interaction is likely more involving than any paddleshift routine.

The 2.9-liter, twin-turbo quad-cam V-6 musters 505 hp at 6,500 rpm. The fast-rising torque curve hits its peak between 2,500 and 5,500 rpm, where 443 lb-ft can't wait to skin the Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires. When sticky rubber meets dry tarmac meets a seasoned driver, the approximately 3,650-pound QV can roar from 0 to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds. The unrestricted maximum speed is an equally remarkable 191 mph—both numbers are in 911 Carrera 4S territory.

In first, second, and third gear, the fast approaching redline keeps your right hand busy through the surprisingly slick gate. Fourth takes the Giulia into triple-digit territory, fifth is the perfect autobahn ratio, sixth we only needed on the high-speed oval. Set the DNA in Race, and the car instantly morphs into attack mode. Race means traction control and stability control off, the quickest steering calibration, the tautest damper setting, the fastest throttle response, and the broadest grin. Even with the electronic safety net fully deactivated, the Giulia is not a heavy-handed dominatrix who can't wait to punish the driver for the slightest mistake. Although it carries serious speed down the straight and through the corners, the high-end Alfa is a positively seamless and creamy piece of kit. From memory, the M3 feels edgier, the RS4 lacks that reassuring connectivity, and the C63 is even looser overall.

Developed on a shoestring budget, the Giulia does not bring the same high-tech goodies to the table as its German classmates. Still missing from the genetic code are all-wheel drive, a head-up display, LED headlights, switchable anti-roll bars, rear-wheel steering, the latest driver assistance systems, and any kind of hybrid application. While the confident estimated asking price of $70,000 undercuts the M3, for example, by about $4,000, money is an unlikely decider in this supersedan category. As far as perceived quality is concerned, though, the Italian-built contender has some catching up to do. It's not so much the cockpit layout and the lack of available features that make you frown, but the ho-hum surfaces and the seven-out-of-10 build quality.

On the positive side, there is an intuitive infotainment system with a single multidirectional controller instead of the increasingly popular touchscreen. Acronym addicts may appreciate AAS (active aero splitter), FCW (collision warning), AEB (autonomous emergency braking), and RCPD (rearview monitoring and warning).

With Alfa's combined production output scheduled to grow to 350,000 units by late 2019, the Giulia is only the first of seven new models. The biggest Giorgio-based sellers will likely be two compact crossovers, one due in November and one in the fall of 2017. As far as the brand's image goes, the most significant new arrivals are the two rear-wheel-drive sports cars. Insiders claim that the body and soul of the next coupe and spider match the legendary 1954-1964 Giulietta.

Unique to this Giulia are trademark Quadrifoglio rims shod with 19-inch tires (245/35 and 285/30), adaptive aerodynamics, variable-rate dampers, and sills, roof, and hood made of carbon fiber. Measuring 182.6 inches long, this is a proper four-seater with a 17-cubic-foot cargo bay and a 15.3-gallon fuel tank. But it also is a sports car on demand, the Italian cousin of the Dodge Hellcat, a triple-X-rated plaything.

We're still in Race mode as we join the inner handling circuit, and the dampers are now operating in their firmest setting. With the vociferous engine poised to deliver the goods, the fast-dying Pirellis start clipping curbs, yelling out loud at every apex. The electric power steering feels meaty and keen. It relays all the information you need while sorting out irritations such as  longitudinal grooves and transverse expansion joints. Weight, damping, and ratio are spot-on. Praise is also deserved for the optional carbon-ceramic brakes; they bite hard and fast, lap after lap.

She is a powerful lady, the new Giulia, physically strong and with a mindset to match. Even in Quadrifoglio guise, drivers are not required to bring a sixth or seventh sense. Its character remains calm, the chassis couldn't be more composed, and the controls are cooperative. Even in Race mode when the dialogue between input and response draws a fine line between satisfaction and spin, excursions of the live-wire rear axle are reliably intercepted by the relaxed rather than ultra-quick steering and by the progressive rather than ultra-sharp throttle response. The result is a sweet and safe handling balance that helps the driver build up the confidence it takes to fully explore the car's remarkable potential.

In this respect, the Alfa is more C63 than M3, but in addition it throws in a decent ride comfort. At the end of the day, it's the subtle extra measure of compliance that makes this Giulia such pleasant company.

2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio Specifications

On Sale: 2016 (month TBD)
Price: $70,000 (base) (est)
Engine: 2.9L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/505 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 443 lb-ft @ 2,500-5,500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan
EPA Mileage: N/A
L x W x H: 182.6 X 73.7 X 56.1 in
Wheelbase: 111.0 in
Weight: 3,650 lb (est)
0-60 MPH: 3.8 sec
Top Speed: 191 mph

 

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