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.

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