Just because I predicted not long ago (June 2016) that FCA would be hard-pressed to land on the same continent as its stratospheric sales projections for upscale models from its Maserati and Alfa Romeo brands doesn’t mean I’m not happy Alfa’s new Giulia turns out to be a first-tier sport sedan. As my co-columnist, Sir Arthur of St. Antoine, pointed out last month, it’s a driver’s car, an engaging and handsome alternative in a day when too many once-sporting marques have all but imagined themselves into that gray future where driver involvement becomes impersonal, with the wheel man’s function akin to that of an old-time keypunch operator.
Job No. 1 for FCA was building a real Alfa Romeo, not something that just looked like one. And the first thing telling me the new Giulia’s a real Alfa and one for the books is its rack-and-pinion steering, which though electrically boosted is like no sedan out there: quick, razor sharp, and addictive, good fun. With responses so immediate, the new car is catapulted into first-gen new Mini territory if not that of the Lotus Elise. Would you call it an artificial feeling? Perhaps, but as the lady said in the old Parkay margarine commercials, it tastes like butter to me. Allied to a body that’s stiffer than all comers, a chassis with 50/50 weight distribution, and leather-lined interiors that don’t smack of the cost-cutters’ X-Acto blade, entry-level Giulias start at a very reasonable $38,990.
But as we began our day in California’s Napa Valley at Sonoma Raceway, we found ourselves helmeted and strapped into the $73,595 (and up, way up) Giulia Quadrifoglio. This he-man is the car that for the moment holds the Nürburgring lap record for four-door production sedans. A good value itself — and the Giulia model Alfa Romeo in the U.S. put on sale first — it was the natural choice for the test drivers Alfa flew in from Italy for the occasion. One of their many tasks that day was the job of making journalists nauseous first thing in the morning, flinging us around a wet Sonoma while roasting street tires.
Back on public thoroughfares after recovering a modicum of equilibrium, I was able to devote more attention to the other cars. Despite the strong pull of the Quadrifoglio’s bold performance, I think the base Giulia and Giulia TI models — with their 276-hp, 295-lb-ft, 2.0-liter, intercooled turbo fours and hardly leisurely 5.5-second 0-60 times — are fizzy like the best Alfas of yore. They will do nicely for me and many others. You might save $30,000, not to mention the all-wheel-drive option, which adds a Q4 badge, is only available on the lower-power cars.
I was surprised to learn the smaller engine has but one overhead cam, twin cams being an Alfa Romeo hallmark for longer than any of us have been alive. You also won’t find a manual transmission. This omission surprised many of the assembled journalists as Alfa’s U.S. website showed pictures of just such cars. They do exist, but U.S.-market plans had changed. Questioned closely, FCA engineers and execs pleaded the old standby: Americans don’t buy manuals. To which we were duty-bound to remind them, they don’t buy Alfa Romeos either, so clearly we’re already hoping for some changed consumer behaviors.
That said, it is also the case that a paddle-shifted eight-speed automatic, which knocks off shifts in less than 100 milliseconds, is modern, well-suited to the turbocharged four-cylinder engine’s power characteristics, and thoroughly satisfactory. Winner of Most Improved Over What I Expected honors was the infotainment stack screen, which is large, black, and artfully splayed on the dash in a way that exudes coherent design, where the Maserati Ghibli and many previous stacks looked like they were pulled straight off the Jeep Liberty line and Krazy Glued in place.
BMW, Audi, Mercedes, and Jaguar beware: Alfa really has something here. But don’t be too scared. The probability that thundering hordes will spring for the genuine Italian motoring experience is low. Alfa’s upcoming Stelvio SUV should sell better while offending purists more, but in truth, Alfa should be quite happy selling 6,000 Giulias its first year out, the 8,201 of three models it sold in 1986 being the most cars it ever sold in the U.S. in any one year. FCA folk refused to speculate, but they seemed prudent and realistic.
Left unspoken, however, was what these much lower sales figures will augur for Sergio Marchionne’s Alfa comeback plan, or for that matter FCA’s. Alfa Romeo’s fate once again hangs on a knife’s edge. Why do bad things always happen to good cars?