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FRANSCHHOEK – It's been more than a decade since Alfa took a tilt at the compact executive saloon segment with its beautiful but flawed 159. Now, after several years of saloon stagnancy, a resurgent Alfa Romeo has set its eagerly anticipated Giulia loose on this highly contested sphere, and it has the dominant Germans square in its sights. It's a task that requires a fine balance between the emotional appeal that's been the backbone of the brand's offerings and the solid competency that's seen the German Big Three maintain a cast-iron grip on that particular slice of the market. Can the Alfa Romeo Giulia tread that fine line, or is it yet another passion over proficiency?

Unmistakably Alfa

If there's one area where Alfa consistently gives its rivals something of a gauntlet across the chops, it's in the aesthetics department. And in that respect the Alfa Romeo Giulia cuts a very distinctive figure in a sea of buttoned-down peers. The signature shield grille and narrow headlamps sit above a deep, sculpted bumper with twin air inlets to form a purposeful face that leads to the billowing sheetmetal of a bonnet with strong creases and vent detailing cut into its form. The silhouette takes in a cab-back, sweeping roofline that, in conjunction with a notchback tail, lends the car a sporty air. The rear, although neat in isolation, is a little less distinctive, although the prominent twin exhaust ports do beef things up a bit.

Impressive innards

Granted, it's difficult to get a proper idea of just how durable a car's fit and finish are in the confines of a day's driving, but the initial impressions of the Giulia's cabin are positive. There are plenty of slush-moulded trim panels that impart an upmarket feel and the dash, with its sweeping tier layout and coweled dials, lends a spot of pizzazz to the ambience. The cabin's fixtures remained creak-free during our drive on routes with varied surfaces, furthering the impression that Alfa's tilt at German opposition is a serious one.

Perhaps the most noteworthy feature is the soft-bevelled central infotainment screen. Well sited and crisp, this unit begs for a sat-nav system that, unfortunately, only features when opting for the higher Stile specification package. Despite that rakish roof, headroom aft is plentiful and legroom is similarly impressive with my six-foot frame comfortably accommodated behind a front seat set for an even taller driver. If there's one criticism to be levelled at the cabin it's a driver's seat position that's more elevated than is fitting of a car with such sporting intentions. Still, it's something that could very well appeal to died-in-the-wool Alfisti for whom the marque's "sit up and beg" driving position is a nostalgic nod to Alfas past.

Well mannered on the motorway

Taking the fight to the Germans has meant that Alfa has had to temper the Giulia's passion with a modicum of manners, and to this end it appears to have worked fairly well. Refinement is commendable, with just a spot of tyre roar and wing mirror-generated wind noise during blustery conditions being the only exceptions to a cabin that's otherwise quite serene. The ride, although perhaps not as cushiony as that of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, is still quite supple and only becomes flustered when the road surfaces really degenerate. Factor in seats that are firm yet supportive, with just enough bolstering so as not to be love-handle-punishing, and the Alfa Romeo Giulia proves itself an adept motorway companion.

Pleasing when pushed

Nestled in the engine bay is Alfa's all-new, aluminium-block 2,0-litre turbopetrol four. Featuring direct fuel injection and variable valve timing, this unit develops a useful 147 kW and 330 N.m of torque, sending drive to the rear wheels via a lightweight carbon-fibre propshaft.

While its soundtrack may not have the effervescent crackle of the firm's old twin spark units, there's still a satisfying rasp when flooring it and with maximum torque chiming in at 1 750 r/min it feels stronger than the numbers suggest. The eight-speed torque converter transmission to which this unit is coupled is quite a smooth shifter, but unless you twirl the powertrain management dial into its dynamic setting hard acceleration unearths a slight hesitancy as gearbox and engine momentarily draw breath before surging on.

Dynamically the Giulia is quite entertaining; its supple springing gives way to a degree of body roll that, while noticeable, is not disconcerting. It conspires with fast-racked, direct steering to lend the impression that the car is more of a willing partner than a reluctant bit player when spearing into bends. Front-end grip is good – the car announces the point at which traction is dwindling with a hint of skip – and feedback through the communicative steering is pleasing.

Value for money

The Super's R625 000 price tag sees it sitting squarely in Mercedes C250/BMW 330i territory, while being substantially undercut by Audi's A4 2,0T FSI. It is, however, well equipped with Super specification ushering in such features as auto lights and wipers, 17-inch rims, part-leather upholstery, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, dual-zone climate control and a Bluetooth-enabled infotainment system. It also incorporates a 6-year/100 000 km maintenance plan, besting that of the Bavarians and equalling the Merc's cover.

Verdict

In the Giulia, Alfa Romeo has created a pleasingly rounded addition to the compact executive saloon segment that manages to both cosset and converse with its pilot. Compared with its forebears, the balance of its talents has skewed more towards cosseting than the outright communicative, but that's a minor price it has to pay in order to compete against the Germans in this segment. Even so, it may be more prudent to view the Giulia as a very appealing alternative to the likes of such less mainstream offerings as Jaguar's XE and the Lexus IS. Either way, the Giulia is deserving of consideration in this sphere and given Alfa's normally niche, off-centre appeal, that's really saying something.

Look out for a road test of the Quadrifoglio Verde model in the April issue of CAR magazine.

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