Like many Curbivores and car enthusiasts, I have a strong fondness for Alfa Romeo, for having perhaps the greatest motorsport heritage of any accessible brand, a history of distinctive and some truly great (and some less so) cars, and that enchanting spirit of Italy – sunshine, great architecture and style, wonderful pasta and Chianti. Modern Alfas offer access (or ownership if you like) to all that heritage, as well as some fundamentally-sound semi-premium cars with a sporting emphasis and a touch of exclusivity. If you read my recent blog post about trying to choose a new car, you can probably see where this is going.
I have bought an Alfa Romeo. Among the reasons were all those in the first paragraph – the style, the history, the association with Italy and Italian lifestyle, the competence of the car and the effective scarcity of the car, allowing to me to have that something different that I wanted, and which can stand as an enthusiast’s choice. You can add value for money as well, and just liking it.
From my earlier post, you will recall that I was car hunting, and that it became clear that the next car needed to have an emotional aspect to it, otherwise it wasn’t going to replace the Fiesta and I was going to continue feeling like I needed a slightly larger car. I had an itch, and I needed to scratch it. The final act came in a rather unexpected way.
Alfa Romeo sell fewer than 5000 cars a year in the UK; Ford sell 8-10,000 Fiestas a month. You can therefore easily discern that Ford have a lot more dealers, and Alfa very few. Unbeknown to me, a new one had opened near our home, sharing space with Fiat and Jeep and hidden behind a major line of other brands on the same site. I was looking round the used car lot on the major multi-brand site and saw a Giulietta close up for the first time. It wasn’t the right car, specification wise, but it set the brain juices flowing. At around the same time, a 2015 Giulietta had appeared in the car park at work, and my colleague, a former BMW owner, reported being impressed.
A short walk round the corner from the used car lot took me to the Fiat and Jeep agent, now also doing Alfa Romeo. Nothing was immediately apparent on the very crowded and cramped forecourt, so I wandered in.
“Have you a Giulietta I can look at please?” “Yes, just here” pointing to a Giulia. “No, the smaller one, the hatchback”. “Oh, sorry, just there” pointing to a Mito (a Fiat Punto derivative, as the Audi A1 is derived from a VW Polo). “Er no, that’s a Mito, isn’t it?”. #thatsnothowaudidoit.
Another voice pipes up to say there’s one outside. We walk outside and just about manage to open the door of a tightly parked red hatchback, with a higher than preferred price on the windscreen. After a brief conversation, we exchange e-mails addresses and offer to keep in touch.
A week later, my wife and I looked at a Giulietta at another dealer, who seemingly decided that we were just window shopping and therefore didn’t warrant too much of his time. In the meantime, the dealer’s website had confirmed that the red car I had seen was just under one year old, had covered just 78 miles(!) and was being offered for little more than 60% of the list price, making it within budget, just. But we liked the car we saw, and I made an appointment to properly view and drive the red car. Somehow, it was starting to call me.
Specification wise, it was close to what I wanted – a 1.6 litre turbo diesel (I do at least 20,000 miles a year, so diesel makes a default case on economics), a relatively modest but complete specification, with a six speed gearbox, digital radio and Bluetooth with the Uconnect system, voice activation, alloy wheels, Alfa’s DNA mode selector, Alfa embossed headrests and Alfa red paintwork. I have no need for a Brougham. An Alfa, though, is a different matter.
In Europe, the Giulietta is FCA’s competitor to the (plusher) VW Golfs, Audi A3, BMW 1 series hatch and Mercedes-Benz A class, whilst also being a better value (or lower price if you wish) proposition than the premium brand German cars. FCA has the Fiat Tipo range to compete directly with the plainer VW Golfs, Renault Megane and Ford Focus, though again value is a major part of the proposition.
Giulietta is a name with history within Alfa Romeo. The 1955 car was the first compact saloon built by Alfa Romeo after the war, as the company reset itself as a maker of accessible, if premium, cars, rather than the rarefied high-end luxury and sports car. The company still actively campaigned in Formula 1, sports car and touring car racing, and won the inaugural Formula 1 Driver’s Championships in 1950 and 1951, and has never lost that sports car maker’s reputation and image.
The first Giulietta, known as the Tipo 750, was a conventional front engine, rear drive four door saloon, conservatively styled by Bertone in a way that showed similarities to contemporary Fiat and Morris styling. It is not easy to identify a clear competitor now, other than the Lancia Appia, perhaps an MG Magnette or a Fiat 1500 would be closest, or maybe think of a more compact Jaguar Mk1. This Giulietta is also well remembered as the basis for the wonderful Giulietta Sprint Speciale and Sprint Zagato coupes.
In 1977, the name came back for the Giulietta Tipo 116, which was based closely on the 1972 Alfetta saloon but with a short tall rear boot. The wheelbase, glasshouse and doors were practically identical. The best match for this car would be an early BMW 3 series or Audi 80, though elements of the car were older, so perhaps the Triumph Dolomite could also be reference.
Power came from 1.6 litre and 1.8 litre, and later 2.0 litre, twin cam engines, though a 1.3 litre was also offered in Italy to beat the tax man. There were no coupes this time, but there was an estate version, built in small numbers.
The current car is exclusively a five door hatchback, with a range of transversely mounted four cylinder engines – 1.4 litre and 1.75 litre turbo charged petrol and 1.6 litre and 2.0 litre turbo diesels. Gearboxes are 6 speed manual or TCT twin plate automatic with steering column control. Suspension is by MacPherson struts and a multi-link rear, with all round disc brakes. With a wheelbase of 104 inches and a length of 171 inches, it is matches the Golf externally, but is perhaps a little more compact internally, especially in the rear seats.
Styling is by Afla’s Centro Stile, and is deliberately and gloriously evocative of classic Alfas, complete with the prominent shield grille and off-centre number plate. The styling, to me, tries to offer a long bonnet, cab rearwards stance, perhaps to evoke a rear drive impression, and there is a small penalty for this in the interior space. But this is an Alfa Romeo, not a car trying to beat the Golf in a rationality contest.
The platform, known as C-Evo, was also used for the 2012 Dodge Dart and 2015 Chrysler 200, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee and the Fiat Viaggio and Ottima in China. The Giulietta is the only European use though. It has been on the market since 2010, and was (very) gently tweaked in 2016.
The model code JTDm-2 denotes a second generation Fiat multijet common rail diesel (JTD comes from Jetronic Turbo Diesel) and the engine is shared with Opel/Vauxhall (badged as Ecotec), as well as across the FCA range. It is in fact the same engine used in the Jeep Renegade I hired last spring. The capacity is 1598cc, with 16v and twin overhead cams; power is 120 bhp at 3750 rpm and torque is 240lbft at 1750rpm, and Alfa claims 121 mph.
After the test drive, which went well considering the salesman had never sat in a Giulietta before (!), we started talking prices. Inevitably, a Fiesta with 145,000 miles on it at less than seven years old wasn’t the most valuable asset to trade with, but we inched towards a deal. Reversing sensors came into it, as well as some other dealer inducements, and the deal that will probably be the closest I’ll ever do to buying a brand new car was done. Delivery was set for 2 weeks away, to allow time for final vehicle preparation and the usual diary issues.
First impressions of ownership have been very encouraging. Mileage is now 2300 miles and fuel mileage has, on shorter runs and in the current very cold snap, been very close to what the Fiesta would have achieved, and on longer runs is matching or beating it, whilst offering significantly more space and a comfortable if quite firm ride, and cruising at a higher speed and with more refinement. The car revs well for a diesel and offers a fairly satisfying growl as it does so. It may not be a classic twin cam Alfa noise, but it’s not unattractive, and performance is certainly not lacking for everyday purposes. On the evidence so far, the 2.0 litre version would seem to be a nice to have, not a must.
The interior is, to me at least, attractive and different to many other cars. There are curves and sweeps in the dash and console, and although my car is trimmed in a calm and tasteful range of greys and stainless accents, it still manages to have an Italian flair, and retains the essence of the classic Alfa twin dial binnacle, and seeing Alfa Romeo in that curved script on the dash always helps start a cold day.
It seems long way from the awkwardness of an Alfetta GTV from the 1970s, but is not trying to be anything other than an Alfa
The greyscale palette may sound dull, but it adds to an understated and unflashy style, and you can have bright red leather seats, dash and door cards if you want. You can dress in a well-tailored, fashionable suit or a colourful, elaborate Carabinieri uniform, and you will still be very Italian.
The basic ergonomics are as good as other mainstream cars, although there is a hint of long arm, short leg driving position of older Alfas, and Fiats. The reach and rake adjustable steering wheel takes care of most of that and I find that I am holding the leather trimmed wheel in a better way than I used to, keeping my hands at a quarter to three. The door cards are matching leather (I suspect the Corinthian variant) for another different but premium touch. The whole interior offers a touch and feel experience very close to VW (generally accepted as the benchmark in Europe), as do things like the exterior door handles.
Except for the boot, where there is no handle, presumably because it would spoil the visual impression of the rear of the car. Italians? You got to love them.
Driving, so far, has been great. There’s abundant grip and traction, decent refinement when you need it and the diesel engine gives the usual diesel shove without intruding aurally. Handling seems well balanced, without feeling as if a heavy diesel engine is hanging over the front wheels. The electrically powered steering is relatively quickly geared, with just 2.2 turns lock to lock and the steering weight is solid with little if any dead area at the centre.
I have to still fully explore the Alfa DNA mode selector. DNA stands for Dynamic, Normal and All-Weather, and essentially the system varies throttle response, steering effort, and damper and brake settings. In Dynamic mode, it also enables the electric Q2 “differential”, with the already impressive traction reportedly maintained in wet conditions, working by controlling the front brakes independently, and the effect can be clearly felt. All-Weather trims back the throttle response and softens the dampers for better traction in adverse conditions.
There are also features that are a little, well, Italian. The car is an entry level model, so makes do without automated wipers and lights, for example, and the wiper stalk action is to twist the end of the stalk, rather than click it around the arc.
The bonnet release has been moved to the driver’s side footwell, which is unusual on a native left hand drive vehicle, and the bonnet has self supporting struts. The accelerator and brake positioning is excellent, with the pedals almost level and side by side, but there is no space to the side of the clutch pedal for your left foot. You quickly get used to it though.
There are some unusual but neat features too – discrete seat belt warning lights visible to all for all five seats for example, and a rear ashtray. It’s a long time since I saw one of those, or storage pockets in the rear doors. The fuel gauge, temperature gauge and rev counter are labelled with diesel, acqua and giri, rather than international symbols. There are cup holders in the centre console that do not seem to impede the gear changing arm, though you do not drink in my car; you may, however, share your chocolate.
Servicing and maintenance are sorted. It is not my intention to use the main dealer, except for any warranty tasks, but the local specialist who cares only for Alfas, and has line ups like this outside his workshop. Prices are significantly cheaper even with original parts and when the dealer says ”the specialists are probably best” your mind is made up……#DoAudiSayThat.
That itch has been scratched, so far very successfully despite the dealer’s amateur level issues. If Alfa Romeo are truly intent on significantly growing sales by competing with Audi, BMW, MINI or Jaguar, then dealer performance on this level will need attention. An enthusiast like me may (reluctantly) accept it, for the value of money such as I got, but how many of those buying new at list prices would become repeat customers or champion the brand?
Forty years ago, I tried to persuade my Dad, unsuccessfully, to buy a Giulietta (when I thought the name was pronounced Gwee-lee-etta, rather than with a soft J) instead of the Chrysler Alpine he did buy. I guess that’s how long the itch has been there, and I’m enjoying scratching it.
But a driver’s handbook would be useful.