Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia, America-snubbing diesel edition.
You can, right now, go out and find three different, modern Alfa Romeo models to drive. That seems an odd thing to write: Alfa Romeo's reappearance in the American market after a decade-plus absence has been until recently so halting and unsure, so full of exaggerated promises and missed deadlines and small-volume product, that its return has felt tenuous only when it didn't feel outright doomed. And, full disclosure, I've only ever driven modern Alfas, which also feels odd to write because I have some dim sense that on the car-enthusiast list of transgressions, not having first-hand experience with and significant reverence for the fabled Vintage Alfa Magic—that ineffable sense that a quirky old Italian car has somehow become vital, primal, more super-powered appendage than apparatus—falls penultimate only to Not Liking Cars, and only by a very little.
And so while I had never personally experienced the Magic, I believed in it, mostly because I had on several occasions seen the rapture in the eyes of an Alfista as he fervently canonized some half-crapcan he sold 20 years ago simply because someone mentioned the brand, or perhaps the weather.
Of those modern Alfas, the pocket-Ferrari Alfa Romeo 4C lets you chase some glimmer, but in a way in which it always remains just over the horizon; despite that car's naked sex appeal and passionate, boomcracking noises, it is fundamentally aloof. The Stelvio crossover is a shockingly good entry in the Fun-to-Drive Crossover, Hey I'm Being Serious, category. And then there's the Giulia, which, praise be to Nicola, indeed has the Magic.
- It's properly sexy. That is a high bar to clear when you're talking about the company that gifted the world with the Tipo 33 Stradale and the GTV6 and the 1900 SS Zagato. But the Stelvio, despite the faintest hint of BMW 3 Series peeking from beneath the profile, is a recognizably new and inherently sensual exterior design, tilted and carved just so to create an imposing presence without tipping into overbearing. I tested a diesel-powered Giulia several weeks back while on vacation in Italy, and as the wife and I pulled into the driveway of the little agricultura in the Tuscan hills for the first time, our host's eyes stayed glued on the navy-blue model and his first words to us, before even "Ciao," was an appreciative, "THIS...is an Italian car." Sums it up.
- Because I tested the Giulia while on vacation for a week and not during a whirlwind press trip, I essentially just kind of lived with the car in the day-to-day, using it only when necessary except for occasionally driving it just for fun like I'd do with any other entertaining car. I declare it extremely live-with-able. The interior is spacious, comfortable, well laid out, and simply and impeccably handsome, lacking the showier tech- and display feats of some of its competitors, which I actually appreciate. Simple is good in a driver's car.
- Furthermore: There's plenty of trunk room for groceries and luggage, at the same time; the A/C, while less powerful than the industrial freezer-strength units in a Mercedes-Benz, admirably handled 100-degree days; and the infotainment system was standard FCA, which means the most intuitive (to me) user interface on the market. Everything was in Italian and I still had no problem using it.
- Italian driving, pretty much anywhere but especially around and through a 900-year-old mountain-fortress town with roads made to accommodate one horse some of the time and a bicycle the rest, renews one's appreciation for how infinitely space can be divided, because you are always inches away from hitting something—a cyclist in your lane; an oncoming car, also in your lane; a cow, insisting you're in its lane; a 1,000-year-old building inexplicably jutting into the middle of an 800-year-old road. That appendage-not-apparatus part applies here; there is an inherent awareness of where everything begins and terminates, and that the car moves essentially as you move.
- The combination of chassis and suspension feels lovely everywhere, which is also no small thing, since the other parts of Italian driving incorporate the high-speed Autostrada as well as areas where cobblestone roads suddenly transform into overgrown dirt roads, and Auto Grill parking lots with the inherent logic of a riot. The steering is lightly but significantly weighted, perfectly direct in its communication. The feeling of piloting the car is one of tactile, pliant, predictable, encouraging composure under all circumstances.
- There's no way around it: the car imbued with a subtle, special glow that warms you like a wood fire on a cold day. It's like every other excellent four-door sports sedan but better, for reasons I cannot fully explain but can only describe as the difference between good vinyl and live music.
- Despite its (thankful) lack of overriding driver's aids, this car beeped like a goddamn dying smoke alarm thanks to a hyper-vigilant and utterly paranoid traffic-alert system. Too close to stop-and-go traffic, or stop-and-go traffic too close to you? Loud beeping. Did you park the car in a parking lot—meaning, within visual distance of other cars? Scary! More loud beeping, and good luck if you thought killing the ignition but keeping the radio running would stop it. The loud beeping will not be stopped; the loud beeping might even barge in and sit down to dinner for all you know. You might be able to turn it off—you can probably turn it off, somehow—but I couldn't figure out how to turn it off. (Note that when it comes to adjusting vehicle systems I am both dumb and lazy.)
- While I had no problems whatsoever, there have been a lot of reliability reports about Giulia elsewhere on the internet—news that Alfa, thanks to its lingering reputation for mechanical, er, unpredictability and its stuttering reintroduction to the U.S., can not much afford—though mostly about the high-performance, low-volume, 503-hp Quadrifoglio model. But, to reiterate: After a week with the car doing everything from sustained, 130-mph Autostrada runs to bombing through twisty, overgrown mountain dirt roads, I didn't see as much as a check-engine light.
- The small, somewhat dated infotainment display did not bother me, but it will very much bother people who care more about those things, and there seem to be many of those people.
- The interior, for all its understated glamour, has some obvious panel gaps and chintzy bits. Again, the type of quality issues Alfa can ill afford.
- Related: the 2.2-liter turbodiesel, while pleasingly powerful with 178 hp underfoot, is less refined than the package in which it sits.
- The diesel is not coming to America. This is a shame. The diesel Giulia is an invigorating driver's car and a compelling, charismatic daily driver, possibly the best overall Giulia model. True, I haven't driven the other variants, and I do have an exceptionally high tolerance for rough-idling oil-burners, but I have a hard time seeing how the other models best this one if you're factoring in fuel economy, which ... well, I was on vacation and I wasn't paying strict attention, but I blasted above 100 mph for most of the three-hour journey between Rome and Montecastello and back again, and less than 30 mph for most of the rest of the trip in between, and I only had to fill up once during the return to Rome, and only right at the end. So, with the admission that this will not stand up to the rigors of peer review: the fuel economy is very good.
The Alfa Romeo Giulia, Ranked:
- Performance: 5/5
- Comfort: 5/5
- Luxury: 4/5
- Hauling people: 4/5
- Hauling stuff: 4/5
- Curb appeal: 5/5
- “Wow” factor: 6/5 [That's not how this works, Josh. —Ed.]
- Overall: 94 percent
The Bottom Line:
The Alfa Romeo Giulia is just a lovely, wonderful, pleasing thing, not just on its own merits but because it's new and recognizably Italian in all the ways you want something to be Italian in a segment that has too long been dominated by ze Germans, with occasional and variously successful incursions by the Americans and Japanese and, recently, the English.
You'll notice the overall score belies the number of listed "Cons," above, some of them not insignificant. It's true that, in the midsize luxo-performance sedan class—which remains about as competitive as you can get—the Giulia is not the best overall car; it may not break into the top three. But it feels the most special. If you could see the look in my eyes right now, you wouldn't have to take my word for it. You might believe me when I tell you about the Magic.
By the Numbers:
- Price: Not for sale in the U.S. (£35,000 base price in England, for what that's worth)
- Powertrain: 2.2-liter all-aluminum turbodiesel four-cylinder with 178 hp; eight-speed automatic; rear-wheel-drive
- 0-62 MPH time: 7.1 seconds
- Top Speed: 143 mph
- Magic Feeling: Magic Mike (Uncomfortable) Vs. Magic Mushrooms (Awesome): Mushrooms