2020 Alfa Romeo Giulia and Stelvio Review: Slight Tweaks, High Stakes

Why the fuss over a few model-year changes? Because Alfa's got some ground to make up.

2020 Alfa Romeo Giulia and Stelvio
Alfa Romeo

No one has to tell Alfa Romeo its return to North America hasn’t gone as planned. Back in 2014, the storied Italian brand was eager to make up for lost time, aiming to sell 150,000 vehicles per year in the region by 2018. Instead, between 2014 and 2018 Alfa moved 37,113 vehicles (don't even ask about 2019), or around 25 percent of its goal.

It's a shame, because Alfa's base-model Giulia sedan and Stelvio SUV are the most entertaining-to-drive cars in their respective classes. The Quadrifoglio performance versions are the most characterful beasts available for the money, with animalistic sounds and an anachronistic, living-on-the-edge sensibility—thrilling performance plus uncertain build quality—that established players have largely tuned out of their own cars via excruciatingly-refined R&D. “Passion first,” Alfa Romeo still seems to say, “and only then Consumer Reports.”

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To enthusiasts that sounds romantic; to the practical, not so much. Let’s not overstate it. We're a long way from 1975, when an Alfetta sedan’s perfect balance and gorgeous Giuseppe Scarnati design were enough to soothe a buyer as he rode in the flatbed to one of three mechanics in the U.S. who knew how Spica mechanical fuel injection worked. Alfa’s modern cars are eons less finicky, but for buyers slapping down 40 grand, a leap of faith on an unproven model is a helluva lot to ask.

2020 Alfa Romeo Giulia, By the Numbers

  • Base Price: $39,345 (+$1,295 destination); Quadrifoglio: $74,445 (+ $1,595 dest.)
  • Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder | eight-speed automatic transmission | rear-wheel drive with available all-wheel drive (Quad: 2.9-liter turbo V6 | eight-speed automatic | rear-wheel drive)
  • Horsepower: 280 hp @ 5,200 RPM (Quad: 505 hp @ 6,500 rpm)
  • Torque: 306 lb-ft @ 2,000-4,800 RPM (Quad: 443 lb-ft @ 2,500-5,500 RPM)
  • 0-60 mph: 5.5 seconds; 5.1 seconds AWD (Quad: 3.8 seconds)
  • Cargo Space: 13 cubic feet
Alfa Romeo

2020 Alfa Romeo Stelvio, By the Numbers

  • Base Price: $41,345 (+$1,295 dest.); Quadrifoglio: $80,445 (+$1,595 dest.)
  • Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder | eight-speed automatic transmission | rear-wheel drive with available all-wheel drive (Quad: 2.9-liter turbo V6 | eight-speed automatic | all-wheel drive )
  • Horsepower: 280 hp @ 5,200 RPM (Quad: 505 hp @ 6,500 rpm)
  • Torque: 306 lb-ft @ 2,000-4,800 RPM (Quad: 443 lb-ft @ 2,500-5,500 RPM)
  • 0-60 mph: 5.4 seconds (Quad: 3.6 seconds)
  • Cargo Space: 18.5 cubic feet | 56.5 cubic feet with rear seats folded
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Aiming Higher

Considering a new, downscaled product rollout plan, Alfa still has some runway to make its case. A smaller SUV is on the way for 2021—and beyond that, an even smaller one for 2022—both of which should generate some desperately needed foot traffic in dealerships and ratchet up sales volumes. But that leaves nothing much going on in the year of our performance lord 2020.

In lieu of anything wholly new, or even mostly new, the gap year is driving Alfa to make strategic changes to the interior, infotainment system, and driver assistance kit of the 2020 model-year Giulia and Stelvio ahead of their respective mid-cycle refreshes. (Those are due in 2021.) It’s not customary for an automaker to make such a big deal about small model-year improvements, but when one of the largest markets in the world is on the line, they’ll force an exception.

What's more, from a product-planning standpoint these are crucial upgrades for driving sales. According to a recent McKinsey report, premium-brand customers will increasingly make buying decisions based on connectivity and interior design. The arcing dash in the Giulia was already a striking feature—the Stelvio's is good, though not quite as artistic—so it follows for Alfa to focus on shoring up the rest of it ahead of deeper tweaks to come.

Italian Roads, Italian Cars

To experience the changes in action, and get reacquainted with the company’s sister ships on Italian roads, Alfa flew us to Italy’s Puglia region along the Adriatic coast. Coincidentally, we crisscrossed lands on which generations of Spinelli ancestors once frolicked, drank pitch-black Primitivo wine and plied their trades. One of my great-grandfathers made saddles, another was a fisherman, a third signed a document deeding all of his land to a nefarious priest. Not quite a reader, him.

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Anyway, on to the cars. Both the Giulia and Stelvio are still lovely machines that get better the harder they’re driven. Their powertrains and underpinnings are unchanged for 2020, and setting off down the coast, familiar feelings return. The Giulia’s steering is quick, intuitive and well weighted; naturally the Stelvio’s steering feels similar, if more distant, considering its extra size and weight and larger wheel-and-tire package. The Giulia is dynamically crisp, carving up B-roads like the chisel of Pugliese sculptor Niccolò dell'Arca, who could mimic the delicacy of a flowing robe in solid marble.

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The Stelvio carries its bulk behind a natural athleticism, its shared-with-Giulia 2.0-liter, direct-injection turbo four humming away, though with far less aural gusto than Alfas of old might have done. That 280 horsepower, 306 pounds-feet MultiAir slinger pulls mightily for its displacement, though it’s slightly behind the curve in throttle response at low revs. The Stelvio demands extra vigilance, but still skates gingerly along ancient trails past olive and lemon groves, spryly dodging tractors and lazy donkeys. Both models use the ubiquitous ZF eight-speed automatic that falls out of step with the conditions on occasion, though it largely held up its end of the dynamics chain. It's best in manual mode—but you knew that already.

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2020 Alfa Romeo Giulia

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2020 Alfa Romeo Stelvio

Alfa's Interiors Are On Point

Inside, designers added more user-friendliness to both Giulia and Stelvio, specifically improving the number and quality of places to put stuff. A redesigned center console opens more space for storage, and a new wireless phone charger is a convenient touch. Water bottles no longer smash into the HVAC stack, which should help further reduce annoyance-friction. Laminated windshield glass reduces interior noise. The gorgeously feelsome steering wheel is back, with a few changes to accommodate new driver-assistance controls. Most other touch points in both vehicles have been enhanced with better materials, including a leather wrapped shifter and knurled aluminum infotainment knob. Playing to Alfa's heritage, a red-white-and-green badge mimicking the Italian flag now adorns the console.

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2020 Alfa Romeo Stelvio 

Alfa Romeo

2020 Alfa Romeo Giulia

I’m a sucker for shrouded analog gauges, and the 2020 models retain the traditional binnacle, adding a new 7” diagonal TFT screen at center that’s easier to read vehicle info and follow navigation thanks to a new, simplified layout.

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Most important for the cars’ market competitiveness, Alfa made big changes to the infotainment system, long a subject of legitimate gripes. A new 8.8-inch touchscreen display now matches that of the BMW 3 Series. The updated Marelli-powered system (Alfa doesn’t use FCA’s terrific UConnect) is far better than before, easier to navigate with clearer graphics and configurable widgets, all boosted by a faster processor. That does make the nav more responsive, although a few times in complex roundabouts, “nav lag” still caused us to miss exits. Still, I recently drove the Ferrari F8 Tributo along a similarly rural route and its recently updated system was more proactive by an extra beat.

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Formerly behind the curve in advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), both models get new new Bosch-provided Level 2 functions for 2020. That is, highway assist, traffic jam assist, active lane keeping, lane departure warning, blind spot monitor assist, as well as traffic sign recognition and drowsy driver detection. The systems are in line with the industry average for the segment, and lane-keeping system worked well on highways and b-roads with clear markings, but bailed out when lane lines faded or were paved-over.

There are a handful of other shiny lures—new metallic exterior colors with names like Lunare White and Verde Visconti, fresh body-color trim options for the Stelvio, and requisite carbon fiber jewelry for the Stelvio Quadrifoglio. Will these small changes make a difference in Alfa's sales? Probably. Will it be enough to bridge the gap between now and a proper refresh? In the words of my bisnonno Lodovico, the one who put blind faith above common sense: Magari!