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Can Alfa's entry-level Giulia beat a perennial front-runner in the compact-executive-sedan stakes?

It's an unfortunate fact that Alfa Romeo has been in the doldrums for many years. It’s not since the mid-1980s that this much-loved Italian brand has been close to matching anything its archrival Germans have produced.

Audi – the youngest member of the Teutonic Trio – has followed an opposite trajectory, lifting itself from being a bit player to a serious contender in the premium-sedan segments. From the A3 Sedan to the über-luxurious A8, there’s a four-door Audi to suit all requirements, with the A4 remaining its top performer.

Alfa has been far less successful over the last three decades. There have been flashes of resurgence; cars such as the 156 have lit hope in the hearts of the Alfisti, but the flame never burned too long. However, in the new Giulia, we’ve been presented with a fresh contender to give the Sporting Heart a fighting chance.

Our road test of the range-leading Giulia Quadrifoglio Verde gave it the nod against BMW’s M3 and the Mercedes-AMG C63, but now it’s time we find out if models further down the pecking order are imbued with the same brilliant traits as the 375 kW range-topper. Incidentally, there are only two engine options in the local Giulia line-up: the 2,9-litre turbocharged V6 in the QV and this 2,0-litre turbopetrol four.

Design, outside and in

Audi has been widely criticised for its cookie-cutter design philosophy. Apart from the sporty TT and R8 – and, encouragingly, the new Q2 – there’s just too much overlap in the shapes being penned in Ingolstadt’s design studios. New models are extremely close in execution to predecessors, with Audi preferring an evolutionary rather than revolutionary approach to design. The latest A4 is a handsome proposition, but unlikely to win any innovative style awards, with lines that are simple and clean. The shape just never catches the eye in the same manner as the Giulia’s, and despite being launched just last year, this newest version comes across as more of a substantial facelift than an all-new model.

If this test was based purely on appearance, the majority of the team agreed the Italian would walk away with a win. Even in this base spec and in an unflattering grey hue, the Giulia looks elegant. The weedy 16-inch alloys and budget-car plump tyres aside, the curvaceous shape is alluring and drew a second take from onlookers. Interestingly, those spectators who approached us during the test knew exactly that it was an Alfa Romeo, proving that the brand-specific design cues are strong and carry over well between models.

Alfa’s interior treatment has certainly come a long way, too. There is an air of modernity about the cabin, with large-format instruments under traditional semi-circular cowls that flank a digital trip computer. A wide-screen colour infotainment screen has been integrated into the facia, unlike the protruding version in the Audi. But some areas left us scratching our heads. The seats in this entry-level derivative are cloth – not ideal in a car costing in excess of half a million rand – while the quality of the infotainment system’s display and some of the switchgear, too, feels a step behind the German standard.

In other areas, it’s quite clear that Alfa has been benchmarking the Giulia against the German trio. The pistol-grip gearshifter is near identical to BMW’s, as is the remote boot-release button. Control of the infotainment system is intuitive and similar in operation to the BMW and Mercedes-Benz systems. The Giulia’s seat adjustment for the driver’s chair appears borrowed directly from Audi. What’s that about imitation and flattery?

Audi often leads the charge when it comes to interior quality and ergonomics, and the A4 is no different. All switchgear operates with exquisite precision and is placed exactly where you’d expect. Although quite simplistic in layout, the look and feel is top-notch with a sense that it will last a lifetime. The A4’s interior receives the unanimous nod from our test team; as a place to spend many hours over the years, the Audi easily bests the Alfa.

Space aplenty

Inside both, there’s loads of space for professionals with small families. Both cars have rake-and-reach adjustment for the steering columns that, along with height-adjustable front seats, makes it easy for drivers of all sizes to get comfortable. The A4 does have a touch extra headroom, but the Giulia doesn’t feel cramped. The Giulia’s rear passengers are met with plenty of legroom and here it beats the Audi by a good 50 mm, although the sloping roofline eats into headroom. The trade-off is that the Audi boasts a large boot, measuring 328 litres versus a significantly smaller 256 litres for the Alfa, even though there is no spare wheel lurking under the boot board.

On the move

On-road, the differences between these two machines become quite marked. High-profile tyres may look comical on a car of this size, but they help give the Giulia a ride quality that few of us expected of the Italian. It rides beautifully, with the dampers and tyres working in harmony to isolate the passengers from unwanted intrusions into the cabin. There is a slight compromise in the levels of outright grip, where the Giulia tends to shift on its tyres at the very edge of the grip limit, but the rear-wheel-drive chassis still feels imminently controllable.

The steering rack is quick – surprisingly so at first – but you learn to deal with the immediacy of response and, thanks to not having to cope with any torque like the front-wheel-drive Audi’s system, it feels unfiltered. That same sense of urgency has been applied to the brake pedal, which slows the car rapidly if you so much as breathe on it. The overly sensitive action, usually an Audi hallmark, takes some getting used to and requires a delicate touch not to leave occupants lurching in their seats. This does mean that the Alfa can be somewhat difficult to drive smoothly in stop-start traffic.

In contrast, the Audi feels more firm through its suspension (the cause isn’t helped by the fitment to this test car of optional 18-inch alloys on 40-aspect-ratio rubber). It’s still comfortable; however, from inside the cabin the suspension can be heard working. The ride quality improves as speed increases and, when pushed, the A4 displays a level of outright road-holding that few owners will ever exploit, though the front-wheel-drive chassis feels inert and lacks adjustability or feedback. As expected, asking the front wheels to steer and deal with 320 N.m of torque does pose its drawbacks, and the helm can wriggle from aggressive throttle inputs.

Against the clock

With near identical mass and power outputs, 140 kW in the Audi plays 147 kW in the Alfa, and you would expect standing-start performance to be similar. In reality, the Giulia is nearly half a second quicker in the benchmark 0-100 km/h sprint, and it holds that performance advantage in in-gear sprinting. The absence of paddle shifters on the steering wheel is noticeable, as this really is a car that urges the driver to take charge.

While the Giulia’s engine and transmission are well matched, even if it does occasionally feel as though eight gears is a few too many, the A4’s transmission remains lethargic on pull-away. Once moving, though, it is the twin-clutch setup of the Audi that is smoother in operation than the torque-converter used in the Alfa. Particularly in dynamic mode, the Giulia’s shifts are snatchy and abrupt.

In our braking test, there was little to separate the two, each delivering excellent stopping times; the Audi, though, was more consistent and achieved a fractionally better average time. The A4 also counters its slight performance deficit with a much better return at the pumps, using 7,4 L/100 km on our standardised fuel route versus 8,2 for the Alfa.

TEST SUMMARY

A few years ago, it was almost unthinkable to compare an Alfa to any of the Teutonic Trio, especially in this market segment. Many have tried – most notably in our market, Jaguar, Volvo and Lexus – and, to varying degrees, failed, as the Germans have only strengthened their stranglehold in the compact-executive space. What we have in the Giulia, however, is a real alternative to Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

History has shown us that, while we’ve always wanted to, we shouldn’t really get our hopes too high with new Alfa models. As a result, perhaps we were not expecting the entry-level Giulia to be as good as it is. Of course, there are the not-so-small matters of after-sales service and second-hand values to consider; matters that, while outside the physical scope of this test, remain important considerations.

There’s no doubt that, with its larger dealer network and higher perceived brand cachet, the Audi will win in both regards. While we always vote with our heads instead of our hearts, and we deservedly give the win to the excellent A4, it was the Giulia that charmed us with its engaging dynamics.

The stoic Audi is the better car here, but only just. Unlike the more engaging Italian, the A4 is methodical and business-like about its approach to motoring and delivers a substantially better interior and perceived build quality. Were Alfa Romeo able to apply more polish to a car that already does so much well, it would soon have a winner on its hands.

*From the May 2017 issue of CAR magazine

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