As usual for this time of year, it’s raining cats and dogs. The temperature gauge reads 4 degrees Celsius, and after seventy-five miles the bright white Alfa Romeo Giulietta now wears a streaky, light-gray livery. Gray is indeed the defining color of this depressing late November Sunday: haze in the Po Valley, sleet in the hills above Parma, thick smog permeating Milan like atmospheric cotton wool. Here we are in the newest Alfa Romeo, in weather matching the status and the outlook for a brand that ranges from bleak to bright, depending on whether or not you are on Sergio Marchionne’s side. A couple months ago, Alfa stopped building the Brera coupe and Spider, which together found fewer than 5000 buyers per year. Then it canned the proposed 169 flagship sedan, whose spot in the lineup will now be filled by the still-to-be-developed Maserati positioned below the Quattroporte. And instead of creating modern engines along the lines of the great Alfasud boxer and the legendary four-cylinder DOHC units, the bean counters decided to source a new large diesel from VM Motori and the Pentastar V-6 from Chrysler. Despite the dried-up technology reservoir and the barren product portfolio, the Italian capos insist that Alfa is on track to triple its sales volume to 350,000 units by 2014.
Commedia dell’arte or a Machiavellian breakthrough strategy?
The former Alfa Romeo headquarters building on the outskirts of Arese symbolizes the dilemma of the 100-year-old car manufacturer, which became part of the Fiat Group in 1986. A boxy brown bunker clad in washed concrete panels, the building that was buzzing with activity in the ’80s and ’90s is now empty except for a small ground-floor office and the adjoining museum, which has also seen better days. But go inside, and the exhibits are guaranteed to give you goose bumps. Parked door handle to door handle on six loftymezzanine floors are forgotten gems like the very first Italian-built Darracq; the original Alfa 24HP; the most gorgeous Targa Florio and Mille Miglia racing cars; the famous 6C and 8C road and competition cars; the 1300/1600/1750/2000 coupes, spiders, and sedans; special-bodied sports cars by Pininfarina, Bertone, and Zagato; wide-body GTAs by Autodelta; the striking but commercially unsuccessful Montreal; about a dozen concepts from various periods; and long rows of red track machines from the Tipo 33 to the Alfa-Brabham Formula 1 monoposto.
We were drawn to the Barolo red 40/60HP Corsa that scored Alfa Romeo’s first significant victory in the 1920 Parma to Poggio di Berceto hill-climb. Sadly, the immaculate car on display is not a runner, and in view of the missing drivetrain parts it probably never will be. Introduced in 1913, Alfa built an unspecified number of stradale versions of the 40/60HP but only four Corsa models equipped with a more powerful twin-carb engine. The front-mounted powerplant is a 6.0-liter four-cylinder featuring split cast-iron blocks, overhead valves, and side-mounted dual camshafts acting through rods and rocker arms. Developing 82 hp at 2400 rpm, the four-speed, 2400-pound two-seater topped 93 mph on the long, flat straights linking Milan with Parma, Piacenza, and Pavia.
On a German autobahn, the 170-hp Giulietta we are driving would have maxxed out at 135 mph. On the Italian autostrade, however, everyone these days is running at 87 mph to comply with the country’s speed-control surveillance system. Monitored as we were by the eagle eyes of the law, we would have appreciated a decent sound system to help kill the time, but even the optional premium stereo failed to properly intone Luciano Pavarotti, Gianna Nannini, and Eros Ramazzotti.
SS62 is a magic code for Northern Italian classic-car aficionados. After all, the Parma to Poggio di Berceto road race for vintage (and, more recently, not so vintage) automobiles is still staged every autumn in the mountains leading from the country’s ham capital to the wooded hills of the Apennines. A little over thirty miles long, this special stage of SS62 starts with long sweepers interrupted by mushrooming villages and intersected by countless bylanes. Back in the old days, it was the high-speed section where the big-displacement engines would achieve triple-figure velocities-no mean feat considering the Alfa’s leaf-sprung live axles, narrow 6.00-20 tires, and marginal brakes. Unlike our Giulietta, which boasts four Brembo stoppers, the old 40/60HP had no brakes at all in the front and massive drums in the rear. They were activated by foot and by hand lever to slow down the car on steep descents and to induce a flick of potentially life-saving oversteer.
The challenging hill-climb starts right after Fornovo di Taro. Ferrari introduced the 599GTB Fiorano to the international press on this road, and they lost a car on the first day on one of the hairpins overlooking the valley. Although the Multiair engine fitted to the Giulietta whips up 170 hp, the maximum torque delivered by the turbocharged 1.4-liter unit is a relatively modest 184 lb-ft. Although a new dual-clutch transmission will soon be available, the test car was equipped with the six-speed manual. It’s a quick and slick box with sufficiently aggressive spacing for tight corners, short uphill sprints, and more relaxed third-gear S-curves. Torrential rain and occasional miniature landslides didn’t bother the Giulietta one bit, but attacking The Big Hill in 1920 must have been hard work for Giuseppe Campari and his Alfa 40/60HP. That car’s worm-and-roller steering required more than four turns from lock-to-lock, its braking performance depended largely on the arm muscles of the passenger, and its four-speed gearbox needed a sixth sense of effort and timing to coordinate its unsynchronized cogs.
High up in Poggio, where the fog seldom lifts between November and February, the crowd would cheer their heroes to the provisional finish line next to the Albergo di Berceto. Young Enzo Ferrari drove his first road race here, and in the 1960s, the Fornovo to Monte Cassio section of SS62 was a venue of the European Hill Climb Championship. The current event features a wide range of vehicles, from vintage racers to sports cars from the ’60s and ’70s, such as Ferrari Daytonas, Lancia Fulvias, and Maserati 3500/5000GTs. The Giulietta felt at home on the roller-coaster turf, thanks to its keen handling, responsive brakes, and decent ride comfort. Less impressive were the artificial steering, the legs-akimbo driving position, and the confusing ergonomics.
Until mid-2009, Alfa contemplated bringing the Giulietta to North America after the face-lift in spring 2014, but this plan is currently being revised. The latest word is that Alfa will now prioritize the all-new Giulia that replaces the 159 (in 2012), the five-door MiTo subcompact (in 2013), a BMW-X1-sized crossover based on the C-platform (also 2013), a bigger SUV derived from the C/D components set (in 2014), and a new rear-wheel-drive roadster and coupe designed along the lines of the iconic Duetto and the first-generation GTV. Also on its way is a modular plug-in hybrid system that will be introduced top-down, starting with the next-generation Maseratis. The only new Alfas that may not cross the Atlantic are the Giulia Sportwagon and the Giulietta replacement. All U.S.-bound platforms are being developed in Europe.
Berceto marks about the halfway point between Parma and La Spezia at the Ligurian coast. Instead of taking the direct route back to Milan, we meandered through the hinterland, following endless poplar alleys, geometrically laid-out waterways, and long rows of ancient maple trees that stood out against the sky like giant sea urchins. Milan, Italy’s second-biggest city, is surrounded by vast industrial areas, anonymous housing developments, and interchangeable shopping malls. On a Monday morning, the drive from the southern to the northern outskirts is a two-hour stop-and-go-affair. Thanks to the mild winters, old cars age well in Italy, where on a congested road one might encounter Fiat’s entire product portfolio, from the 1949 Topolino to the 2011 Punto.
The Royal Park of Monza is open to the public, and for a small fee you can also visit the racetrack and the pits. Il Autodromo di Monza is not only known for the Lesmo and Parabolica bends and for La Curva Grande, but also for the two banked corners that define the high-speed oval constructed in 1954. The original track built in 1922 consisted of a very fast infield and a second, partly overlapping, larger loop that together measure exactly ten kilometers in length. Inspired by the Indy 500, the oval was erected to stage the Monzanapolis race series. Despite the dramatic architecture, the extension to the circuit was a commercial disaster.
Since Ferrari, Maserati, and Jaguar had trouble adjusting their cars to the imported high-strength Fire-stone tires, all the races were won by Americans driving Offenhausers. Formula 1 used the long track in 1955, 1956, 1960, and 1961, but after Ferrari driver Wolfgang von Trips and fourteen spectators were killed during the 1961 Italian grand prix, the infield was practically doomed. The last race held on the banked section was the 1969 1000 Kilometers of Monza.
More than forty years later, the concrete bowl looks like a well-kept monument from the Mussolini era. Each bend is still overlooked by a crow’s-nest platform perched on a pedestal high above the token Armco. From up there, the flagman, a photographer, and a race inspector used to monitor the approaching vehicles. While most sports cars could take the banked corners flat out, the grand prix machines had to lift to protect the tires and the suspension. Today, the circuit is largely intact, but the two halves of the bowl are partially moss-covered and the pavement is broken in places. Although the chicanes that were set up in the mid-’60s to slow the cars no longer exist, one can still follow the racing line through the bumpy concrete and cobblestone. It is possible to drive from the beginning of one banked curve along the pockmarked back straight to the end of the other curve, but the final section is now part of the new track.
On the steep banking, third gear and a speed of at least 70 mph are needed to generate the centrifugal forces that save the Giulietta from toppling down to the hard shoulder. Even with the engine revving hard and the little Alfa quickly gaining momentum, we recommend dry palms, a steady line, and one hand firmly planted on the passenger seat to swoosh along the slippery slabs of motor racing history. The approach road is too short and the runout area isn’t smooth enough to go really fast, but even at modest velocities, the crazy angle, the steep climb to the top lane, and the uncommonly high holding forces make you feel like a panda-eyed track hero wearing perforated gloves, thick goggles, and a visorless helmet. The Giulietta, too, was not immune to the alien mix of vertigo and high anxiety-after five runs, the stability control system gave up and the ABS warning light came on, then there was a fluid-level problem, and eventually the engine computer switched to limp-home mode. Two coffees later, however, everything was good to go.
The last leg of the journey led us back to Arese, on the west side of Milan, just off the busy highway. Sure enough, it started to rain again as we sat crouched in our cloth-and-leather-trimmed seats, counting the miles and intermittently checking the dials, which were lit in bright red, and the navigation screen, which had developed a life of its own. The start/stop system never quite recovered from the topsy-turvy Monza experience, and there was a whiff of super
unleaded pervading the cabin, which may explain why the Multiair engine failed to be quite as economical as advertised. It’s a good car, the Alfa Giulietta, but it’s not a really great car. Even the faster Quadri-foglio Verde model, which squeezes 235 hp out of its 1.7-liter four-cylinder, isn’t in the same league as Europe’s very best hot hatches. What Alfa needs to put itself back on the map is a truly exciting automobile, a product that will invigorate the brand image, a sporty car with flair and panache.
“Among other things, we are working on a new Alfa sports car,” reveals Harald Wester, CEO of Alfa Romeo and chief technology officer of the Fiat Group. “We have what it takes to develop a true halo model, which would be rear-wheel drive, breathtaking to look at, and dynamically best-in-class. This car will help Alfa forge a credible link to its glorious past. After all, history is not something you can buy. History needs to be earned. In principle, we all agree that Alfa Romeo must return to motor racing. But we need to be careful with our investment strategy. That’s why I prefer to wait until 2013, when the new rules are out, so that we can start from scratch with a focused motorsports program.” Since it’s known that Wester doesn’t believe in touring-car racing, it will be interesting to see where, how, and in what class the cloverleaf brand is going to race. While chances for a Parma-Poggio comeback are understandably slim, Monza would be a fantastic opening act for an Italian legend reinventing itself on the racetrack.
Alfa Romeo Giulietta
BASE PRICE: approx. $30,000, in Italy
ENGINE: 1.4L turbocharged I-4
HORSEPOWER: 170 hp @ 5500 rpm
TORQUE: 184 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
WEIGHT: 2889 lb