Rooting for the underdog never felt so good.
Describing an Alfa Romeo driver is one of the great automotive conundrums. It is easy – and mostly accurate – to say almost everyone buys Fords and Volkswagens, then upgrades to an Audi and a BMW, or a Land Rover if they want something taller. Mini and even Fiat have a place too, in the hearts of those who want something retro, compact and quirky.
But where does Alfa Romeo fit? If you ask anyone over 40 they’ll tell you one of two stories. Either they knew someone who had an Alfa which, as far as they can remember, was constantly in the garage for repairs.
Or they owned one and, after admitting that, yes, it was frequently hoisted into the air above a head-scratching mechanic, there would be a glint in their eye as they remember the good times. On those days – sometimes several in the same week – they adored their Alfa. The Italian company makes cars with a certain beauty and character which others lack.
The Alfa Romeo Giulia you see here is the company’s latest in a long line of saloon cars. It starts at £29,875 and goes into battle against the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, Mercedes E-Class and Jaguar XF.
First and foremost, the Giulia is a great-looking car. Where all too often cars try to look overtly aggressive, intimidating everyone they dazzle and bear down on in the outside lane, the Alfa strikes a balance between pretty and handsome. It carries enough Italian flare with its distinctive, shallow headlights and triangular grille, but pulls off the look with dignified restraint.
Of course, this description of reserved style applies mostly to the regular Giulia shown here – called the ‘Super’ by Alfa’s marketing department – and not the Giulia Quadrifoglio. That (it’s a silent ‘g’, by the way) is the hot one, the 190mph saloon car with an engine that is essentially two-thirds of what sits under the bonnet of a Ferrari California T.
No, this is the Super. The regular Giulia. It even has a diesel engine, and while in this day and age that may as well come with a red cross on the driver’s door, the 2.2-litre powerplant does a perfectly adequate job.
It sounds a little rough when started from cold and has an annoying habit of making the whole car wobble while stationary, as if struggling to kick an espresso habit at each red light. But with a respectable 180 horsepower and 450 newton metres of torque, even this mid-range Giulia is plenty quick enough for a family saloon car. The spec sheet claims a 0-62mph (100km/h) time of 7.1 seconds and a 143mph top speed.
Step inside, and the Giulia’s Italian upbringing needs no introduction. The hooded speedometer and rev dial, sculptured steering wheel, swooping dashboard and our review car’s tan leather interior all make the driver wish they’d made more of an effort with their hair that morning. This is a stylish place to be, but don’t inspect the interior too closely. Some of the plastics feel harder and cheaper than you might expect, especially the glovebox and area around the selector for the Giulia’s 8-speed automatic gearbox.
Another issue I have is with the infotainment system, which in the year of the iPhone X looks and feels like something from a bygone age. It works, mostly, but on a primitive level compared to the latest navigation and entertainment systems from BMW, Volkswagen and others. On loading up a simple – but admittedly long – 200 mile route, the sat-nav displayed a loading screen for a good seven or eight seconds before giving the first instruction. Google Maps and Apple CarPlay have well and truly spoiled us, because this momentary pause felt like a lifetime – and it would reload in a similarly slow fashion if you took a wrong turn.
And yet…as the Alfa bug worked its way through my veins, I was willing to forgive the Giulia for imperfect plastics and sluggish sat-nav, in the way I’d forgive a puppy for eating my shoes.
Those reservations all but vanish during my first few miles with the Giulia. Left in Dynamic mode by the delivery driver, the car feels beautifully sharp and agile with wonderful, communicative steering and an eagerness to please. I can’t help but smile as I exit London and head for the countryside.
Just as BMW has always managed to match practicality with driver involvement, Alfa Romeo does the same here. Sensible, comfortable, with seating for four adults and a large boot, yet with a sense that it wants to entertain; the Giulia is a family car for drivers who still want to enjoy themselves when the child seats are left at home.
I couldn’t help but fall for the Giulia during our week together. The Alfa Romeo badge might not carry much weight these days, but no one can discredit the Italian styling, the characterful and engaging handling, and the joy you feel from driving something a little bit different.
Rooting for the underdog never felt so good.
Alistair Charlton writes about the Future of Motoring for The Memo and is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter.