The 2017 Giulia Quadrifoglio Marks the Return that Alfa Romeo Deserves
Photography Courtesy of FCA
You could be forgiven for being highly skeptical, or even downright pessimistic when Alfa Romeo announces a new product release. Ever since Fiat took over Alfa Romeo in 1986, the brand that was responsible for some of the most stunningly beautiful and competitive cars in the world, had been on what many would have considered a downward spiral. A mismanaged and ultimately insufficient investment strategy from Fiat lead to their inevitable withdrawal from the US market in 1995. What should have been a triumphant return to the market was instead under funded and handicapped. The Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione was limited to 85 units for the American Market, with next to no marketing strategy. More recently, under Marchionne’s FCA, the wonderfully fun and highly capable 4C is also too specialized for driving-enthusiasts looking for one car to do it all.
The Alfisti community felt betrayed when they watched some of FCA’s other head scratching moves in the sedan segment. A Lancia badge on a Chrysler 200? We would have rather watched the historic marque die with dignity than to see a 200 series ride on the coattails of a brand responsible for the Stratos.
All of the above made me extremely skeptical of the new Giulia, untill I drove it.
Recently the Giulia Quadrifoglio launched to the North American press market in sunny Sonoma California, and after two days of flogging it around Sonoma race way and spanking it up and down the twisty roads of wine country, I’m here to tell you unequivocally that with the Giulia FCA is paying the ultimate respect to the Alfa Romeo performance heritage. This is wonderful news for both Alfisti, and performance drivers everywhere.
Why do we need another sport sedan?
With the high quality products that Germany pumps out year after year, one might ask why we need another entrant into the ring. First let’s be clear: many of these cars do little for the racing driver inside all of us. As they have fiercely competed with each other in the race to add superfluous features, gadgets, and luxury tech, they have become bloated, numb luxury sedans that have lost their focus on the driver. The BMW E46 M3 with its glorious naturally-aspirated inline-6 and six individual throttle-bodies may have been the last great driver-oriented sports car from BMW, who, incidentally, stopped using the tagline “The Ultimate Driving Machine” as it could no longer make that claim with a straight face. It’s about time someone came along and gave these guys a wake-up call.
On Paper: What’s to love and what’s not?
For the armchair racer who likes to brag about statistics and specifications, the Giulia Quadrifoglio flexes well above its competitors in just about every single category. Not only is it the fastest sedan around the Nürburgring, it’s also faster than supercars such as the Pagani Zonda, Mercedes AMG GT S, or the Ferrari 458.
In total horsepower, top-speed, 0-60, power-to-weight ratio, specific output, and whatever other spec people like to brag about these days, the Giulia Quadrifoglio simply spanks all other high-performance sedans. That’s quite an accomplishment given the competition.
As spectacular as all of that is, what impresses and excites me most about the Giulia on paper is the fact that the dreaded “bean-counters” didn’t get to have a say in its development. Absolutely nothing about it signals cost-cutting, platform-sharing, or reusing parts from the FCA parts-bin. Contrary to previous rumors, the chassis is not based on the Maserati Ghibli and instead is completely new and developed exclusively for Alfa Romeo with light weight and performance as the main objectives. Extensive use of carbon-fiber and aluminum keep the weight down to approximately 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg) for the Quadrifoglio, and a bit lighter in the normal version. The twin-turbo 6-cylinder engine is also bespoke to Alfa Romeo and was developed by former Ferrari engineers.
Unfortunately not everything is perfect on the US Market Giulia Quadrifoglio spec sheet. There is one big glaring issue that is rather surprising for such a driver-oriented car: the lack of a manual transmission for Americans. Even more curious is the choice to adopt a traditional automatic as opposed to a dual-clutch automatically actuated manual. When I asked Alfa Romeo CEO Reid Bigland about it he defended this decision by saying that only one percent of buyers choose a manual transmission. I find the 1% figure a little hard to believe, and my gut says that amongst those in the market for the Giulia Quadrifoglio, at least 10% would rather have the manual. However, I also suspect that out of that 10%, 80% would begrudgingly settle for the automatic, while 20% would find it a deal-breaker. So in the end, my highly unscientific guesswork arrives at 2% which is not far off from Bigland’s one percent figure.
On the outside, the Giulia exhibits the classic traits that make Alfa Romeos unique: it’s simultaneously beautiful and mean, its compact muscular stance whispers “drive me” without being loud or trying too hard. One easily sees the influences of the 155, 156, and 159 sedans before it.
In the interest of full disclosure, my current daily driver is a 2016 BMW 3-series, and I really do like BMW’s current designs across their model lines now that Chris Bangle’s influence has completely been erased. But the Alfa Romeo Giulia, especially from the front, evokes a more emotional response.
As beautiful as I find the Giulia to be though, I can’t help but feel that Alfa held back a little bit on the design. They could have been more daring and taken more risks to create something more original, but I get the feeling that they intentionally played it just a bit safe in hopes of gaining market share.
The interior is another story. It is hands-down the most beautiful driver-focused interior in any sedan today. I’m not impressed by chromed plastic bits, or lots of knobs and buttons to create an illusion of luxury. I like a clean, minimal, high-quality interior that rewards the driver, and that’s exactly what the Giulia’s interior provides. Unlike my 3-series, the infotainment display does not permanently stick out of the dash like an afterthought. Instead it’s well integrated into the console and is invisible if you turn it off.
The leather/Alcantara seats are standard and provide excellent grip and support for my average frame. Even better yet are the optional paper-thin carbon fiber Sparco racing seats which may be the only seats I’ve sat in that merit the adjective “sexy”. The stitching detail throughout is a tasteful touch and the instrument cluster is an elegant homage to the double-binnacle Alfa Romeo design from the late ‘60s with two big analog gauges for revs and speed.
The steering wheel is the right size without being uncomfortably thick as can be the trend in some high-performance cars. Right behind it are two large, graciously sculpted aluminum shift paddles that flirt with your fingertips.
Alas there is one detail that is unfortunate in an otherwise sea of excellence: the multi-function buttons on the steering wheel feel a bit cheap. Which is strange given that so much attention was paid to everything else. To be fair, I’m nit-picking. Having been spoiled by the rest of the interior, this detail sticks out.
The Driving Experience
The Sonoma Raceway is a technical track with a nice mix of high-speed straights, tight-corners, esses, and elevation changes. After two or three laps with one of the Alfa Romeo test drivers giving me a nausea-inducing thrashing, it was my turn to take it out on my own.
Alfa calls its dynamic stability control system DNA with three settings: D for Dynamic, N for Natural, and A for All-weather. The Quadrifoglio also adds a Race mode which turns off the nanny systems completely. To get familiar with the Giulia, I took the first few laps in Dynamic mode.
The first impressions are terrific. There is simply no turbo lag. I don’t know what kind of dark magic the engineers conjured up, but the twin-turbo six combines the direct response of a normally aspirated engine with the flat torque curve of a turbo. This combo makes for insane acceleration, and the redline in first and second gears comes up extremely quickly, catching me by surprise on more than one occasion. In manual mode, the auto transmission will not upshift for you, even if you hit the redline.
Deceleration is equally impressive and addicting. With each lap as I carried more and more speed down the straights and into tight turns such as the hairpin at Turn 7, the massive Brembo brake system annihilated my momentum each time with no sign of fade.
As fun as the ludicrous acceleration/deceleration is in the Giulia, what really impresses the most is the mechanical grip and the lateral G’s it can handle. The physics-taunting grip is made possible in part thanks to a torque-vectoring system which distributes power optimally between the two driven wheels. More importantly though, the chassis is the result of a top-down approach by Alfa Romeo. This results in phenomenal performance. Unlike some other manufacturers that take their normal mass-market sedan and drop in a huge engine before compensating with insane amounts of electronic aides, Alfa Romeo designed the Giulia platform around the 505 HP Quadrifoglio engine. This makes for an optimal pairing of the engine and chassis, and it also means that the non-Quadrifoglio Giulia benefits from the engineering that went into the Quadrifoglio chassis.
In Dynamic mode, the system is supposed to be more aggressive and let you get the car a little loose. Though it does that, I still found it too intrusive, especially in terms of how much power it cuts as you’re trying to crank out of a tight turn. It seems to take the steering angle as input and acts conservatively when you try to dial in a tight turn while getting on the power, which is totally unnecessary given how good the chassis is. Fortunately switching to Race mode and thereby turning off the traction control you can eliminate this issue immediately. The car is extremely communicative and predictable. When you get the rear loose it’s not a surprise and you’re fully in control. You have the full 505 HP at your command as you power out of a tight turn, and it feels as if the Giulia is your highly adventurous partner-in-crime. The more you push the Giulia, the more it encourages you to test your own limits.
So what about that automatic transmission? Before answering that, I think it’s important to remind ourselves of a couple of facts, as obvious as they are. First, today’s automatic transmissions are much faster than any manual. Second, if you’re like me you don’t care about the first point, you want to have fun shifting the car yourself.
Put another way, if your goal is to be fastest around the track, an automatic is perfect for you. If you want to maximize your fun in the canyons, a manual is best. So how did the automatic feel on the track? I have driven my fair share of high-end sports cars with dual-clutch transmissions, such as the Ferrari FF and F12, the McLaren 675LT, and the Lamborghini Huracan, so how they feel and behave is not new to me. It’s therefore with much embarrassment that I confess I did not even realize the Giulia’s transmission was not a dual-clutch system until days after my track session when I was rereading its spec sheet. The auto transmission in the Giulia is not your traditional slush-box by any means. There is no sense of it sapping power in any gear, and shifts feel instantaneous and confident. I’ve been told the ZF 8-speed system is highly configurable and programmable, so somehow by the magic of software Alfa was able to achieve this level of performance that rivals a dual-clutch transmission. If I were in the market for a high-performance sedan, I would fall into the category of those who begrudgingly buy the Giulia despite the lack of a manual. Everything else about the car is just so good that for me it would be silly to dismiss it on this one point.
Lastly, a key ingredient of the overall driving experience is the exhaust note. A trend that I find quite annoying about high-performance cars today is the synthetic, manufactured exhaust note that has the authenticity of a Gucci bag on Canal Street. This competition between manufacturers to make their engines sound the biggest and meanest is comical and reminiscent of gigolos on Ostia Beach shoving potatoes in their Speedos to impress the opposite sex, only to become caricatures of a stereotype. It’s refreshing that Alfa Romeo held back and didn’t force an artificially big exhaust note on the Giulia. Sure, no modern car sound will raise your hair the way trumpets on Webers mated to a twin-cam 4-cylinder Alfa engine from the ‘60s or ‘70s do, but the Giulia has a deliciously sporty aggressive note that is at the same time honest and not contrived.
The big question in people’s minds is “Is it an M3 killer? (or C63, or S5, or blah, blah, blah)”. My answer is: “who cares?” Seriously, unless you are a professional race car driver or you spend all your weekends on the track improving your driving skills, you will not come anywhere close to the limits of any modern sports car. I think a better question is “Why should I buy the Giulia over the M3/C63/etc.?”
A clear advantage in the Giulia’s favor is that it’s different, it’s beautiful, it doesn’t blend in. Fortunately FCA knows that is not enough to win American buyers. They know looks and individuality will only go so far as savvy buyers demand quality and performance, hence the massive investment they have made in the development of the Giulia in the platform, engine, technology, and attention to detail. It is brilliantly executed, and its performance figures unequivocally qualify it as the new standard to beat. You buy the Giulia because it turns you on. You keep it for its excellence and engineering.