Monday 22 August 2011

Driven #35:- Alfa Romeo Giulietta

I owned an Alfa Romeo for an unacceptably brief period of time, but I can still legitimately say that; “I have owned an Alfa Romeo”. Being truthful, though, I haven't. My Alfa was a late 156, a beautifully styled, gloriously appointed machine indeed, but quite a long way removed from the “proper” Alfas of the old school.

I mean Suds. I mean Alfettas and GTVs, and the forgotten 90 and Six. Some may have had more memorable styling than the others but, universally, the engines, engineering and spirit of the Alfa was endemic in every one of them. Today, a name from their illustrious past graces the catalogues again, but is it a desperate cash-in or a triumphant return to past glories?

To be fair, the core appeal of the Alfa has never really diminished. In fact, the 156, 147 and GTV of the last fifteen years have kept the good name very much alive in the collective psyche, and certainly had less divisive looks than the “challenging” 75 and 33 that went before. This was crucial, as these days an Alfa is chosen for its charisma, its innate style and charm rather than trivia like competence or reliability. Or indeed residual value. I would never have owned my 156 had it not been insanely cheap.

They're making quite a concerted effort at pushing the brand, at the moment. The Alfa range is getting more and more full, and increasingly relevant with splendid follies like the Brera coupe being quietly shoulder-barged aside in favour of winning more presence in more competitive sectors. The little Mito has been gamely battling for recognition, with some success, in the MINI / Audi A1 arena, and, stylistically at least, the new Giulietta is brewed from a similar recipe.

Foremost, it's an agreeably individual looking machine and all the recent Alfa trademarks are present and correct; the shield-shaped grille, the concealed rear door-handles and upswept greenhouse. When viewed in a car-park full of Golfs and Focii, the Giulietta looks like a Saville Row suit in the middle of a Primark jumble sale. It certainly draws the eye.

But, then again, it suffers in the same way as virtually every other car on sale today; arising from the simple fact that cars have become so bulky that it's extremely difficult to give them the lithe, elegant proportions that were commonplace until fairly recently. Of course, this is a gripe that I level at every single car in the world today, but the Giulietta is still quite a bulky machine when you look at it with a little perspective. 

Those lovely, sculpted, optional telephone-dial wheels, for example, are eighteen inches across, yet the they fill the arches no better than the fifteens on my Rover. But, aside from the difficulties presented by modern packaging constraints, Alfa have done enough with the detailing and managed that coupe roofline skillfully enough for the Giulietta to be probably the most visually appealing car in that annoying premium-ish sector of the market, knocking the invisible Golf and styled-by-braille new 1-Series into a pair of cocked hats.

It's a slightly more mixed story on the inside. It's blacker than a blackcurrant and graphite milkshake in here, and I approached the drivers seat with trepidation as it is upholstered in a strange, neoprene-like, ribbed-for-her-pleasure substance, but which actually made for a very comfortable perch. I extended my daft, gangly legs straight ahead whereby my feet missed most of the pedals completely, I then realigned myself with my left foot straight ahead for the clutch, and my right jutting sideways for the throttle. Ahead of me I see a quartet of analogue dials with a Fiat parts-bin LCD in the centre. And that ain't the only Fiatry in here.

Fiaticity abounds, in the column stalks (with their nasty sharp edges), the shared Microsoft integration technology, even the format of the instruction manuals. Disappointingly, though it shows in the quality, too. Your hands naturally want to explore all the dark crevices of the interior, and there they will encounter sharp edges on the reverses of several panels and where the constituent parts of the steering wheel meet. It's a real shame, and one that would be frustratingly simple to remedy, especially when the materials used are actually pretty reasonable.

 Including the strange “is it plastic or is it metal?” expanse of the centre dash, made from an indeterminate matter but which is perfectly presentable, which houses the stereo-controls. The entire ensemble possesses a tangible retro appeal, it feels somehow related to the Nuova Fiat 500 but one can't deny that the feel and smell of the interior, together with the sound that the doors make when they close, are dangerously close to Fiat Brava territory.

The Giulietta is imbued with Alfas' much trumpeted DNA system. OH NO, IT'S AN ACRONYM! Was my initial fear when I saw this, as it's so often a sign of a manufacturer dicking about for the fun of it, to try and create some kind of USP. I began my drive with the system set to N; Normal. Start up with the conventional, folding-blade key, and a familiar JTD percussive thrum ensues. Not an overly sporting noise, but these days we're told that we're not allowed frenetic twin-cams with Weber Carbs any more, so it'll have to do.

It's an all new engine, this 163hp, 2.0 diesel unit, though it makes very much the same sound as the JTD in my 156 did. It, too is linked to a six-speed, manual gearbox, cogs-swapped in a slightly rubbery fashion via an entirely pleasant spherical metal gearknob. It performs like any other diesel, turbo-lag brings a slight reluctance from movement, before a wave of torque sweeps you forward towards a 3500 rpm gearchange. Throttle response is nicely measured, which is more than I can say of the brakes, which are somewhat snatchy. 

I find it increasingly difficult to assess the handling of cars of this ilk because, owing to the surfeit of rubber wrapping their fashionable fairground-wheel diameter alloys, grip tends to far outstrip the available power. As a result some of these cars can take corners at quite advanced speeds, without necessarily boasting the dexterity to do well on the race-track. The Giulietta is one such car, it appears to handles perfectly well, and any shortfall is disguised by the masses of grip on offer. I did notice a tendancy for the rear end to leap out energetically if you brake heavily mid corner-though.

What it doesn't do, though, is ride properly. I suspect that the main culprit is those big wheels, the primary ride is very reasonable, if a little bouncy, but the secondary, small-bump absorption, is as subtle as a brick up the nose. Potholes send you thoughts of imminent expenditure on wheel-refurbishment and spinal surgery, and expansion joints echo through the entire hull. Tyre noise, too, is pronounced, on even roads that I know to be smooth surfaced. 

So, how about Dynamic mode? Well, I now know Dynamic to be Latin for “lunges artlessly” because that's exactly what happens when you engage it. At first it feels like the system simply does away with the first inch or so of throttle movement as, whatever position the accelerator is in, the car will suddenly accelerate when you flick the switch. But then you notice that it actually does far more than that.

You notice it more pronouncedly when you pull away from low speeds. In normal you can tickle the pedal a bit and the car will duly gather momentum, but with Dynamic dialed in the car takes a deep breath and then explodes forward with the merest hint of pressure on the throttle. Sounds like fun? Well, yeah, for the first few minutes, but then it becomes a pain.Try to inject yourself onto a road from a T-Junction, or negotiate a tight mini-roundabout and you're constantly a hairs breadth from wheelspin, the power wrestling against you even on a moderate throttle opening. It makes driving with any decorum or smoothness hard work. 
And then you discover why. In certain markets the dynamic setting activates an overboost facitlity for the turbo and torque is suddenly increased from 320 to 350nm. No bad thing. But wouldn't it be better employed if it only activated when it was useful? To aid quick overtaking in higher gears, for example. As it stands the overboost is always there, so the car lunges forward dramtically whenever you stroke the accelerator, imbuing the driver with fists of ham and causing all your passengers to projectile vomit in unison.

I saw several other Giuliettas being driven while on this test, all of which were overtaking unnecesarily while the the driver held on tight for dear life, and all of which had vomit dripping down the insides of the windows. Please, Alfa, disable the overboost for the first couple of gears; it forces people to drive like arseholes.

It's a shame they decided to call this software tomfoolery Alfa DNA, because that actually slightly mocks what the core values of the company are all about. Yes, Alfas are supposed to be dynamic, but in a subtle, balletic, mature way, not in a high blood pressure, beat-everyone-away-from-the- lights way. 
But, I suppose, that was then, this is now. What's done is done, we won't be seeing another Alfasud Sprint any time soon. It's good that Alfa Romeo are still around, even if the whiff of Fiat is stronger in the air than ever before. 
For all its faults, the Giulietta remains a handsome, characterful addition to the marketplace, and one which could be great if a only few rough edges were polished off. It's certainly inherently more fun and loveable than much of the competition, it's a bit style over substance, perhaps. A bit like cappuccino. But then again I enjoy Cappuccino. And I get the feeling that under all the froth there is a pretty damn good espresso trying to get out.