Having tried, and been rather impressed with, the ball of energy that is Alfa’s 170bhp, 1.4 "MultiAir" engine a couple of weeks back in the Mito, we couldn’t help wondering what kind of Alfa options were available if you needed a bit of extra space and you know, practical stuff - like rear doors.
The answer is this - the Giulietta. In newly launched Sportiva trim for good measure. It promises you the best of both worlds. It’s got the same aesthetic body kit, wheels and sporty interior as its rip-snorting Cloverleaf - sorry, Quadrifoglio Verde - spec big brother, but without the extra purchase cost, insurance and thirst that car’s more powerful engine incurs. But even in a heavier car than the Mito, this MultiAir engine is unlikely to leave you feeling short-changed in the performance department.
A car to pull at the heartstrings
Even in family-friendly 5-door hatchback form, there is something special about an Alfa Romeo. It’s difficult to quantify specifically but the Alfa’s real power is to make many people who aren’t usually interested in cars give it a second glance.
Perhaps it was to the pearlescent white paint of our test car. Or those stunning 18-inch bi-colour blade alloys - which we were fretting over every time we got within 2ft of a kerb. But overall it comes down to the fact that compared to something like a VW or a Ford, an Alfa still seems just a little bit exotic.
It’s from Italy for a start, which makes people think it’s cool. And Alfas aren’t the most common cars on our roads, which makes them feel just that little bit more individual a choice too. The little details - that floating shield grille, the hidden rear door handles, the badging on the wing and those beautiful rear lights (even better at night) - all catch the eye, too.
Yes, the new Golf is a great car, but what we can’t deny is the positive looks we noticed members of the opposite sex giving us when we drove the Giulietta alone. The same people who hadn’t batted an eyelid when we rocked up in the Golf. Childish and sad you may think that is, it made us feel good. And that’s all part of the Alfa appeal.
Beauty that runs only skin deep?
Pull open the door and it looks like things are only going to get better. There’s decent space in the Giulietta, certainly your rear passengers and suitcases will like you more than if you put them in the back of a Focus. Up front, those little Alfa details jump out again. The seats look absolutely fabulous; trimmed in leather as standard in this Sportiva trim, they’re contrast stitched across the centre section in red. The wheel, too, is red stitched, while the gear knob could have come straight out of a 60s Italian race car – a small, perfectly spherical piece of aluminium with the gear gaiter pattern engraved on it. It continues on the dials inscribed with the words "Bezina, Acua and Giri". Why does saying fuel, water and revs sound so much cooler in Italian?
Can you sense a "but" coming though, can’t you? Unfortunately when you actually climb in, things start to fall to pieces a bit. The first problem is those seats, which don’t feel anything like as good to sit in as they look. They won’t go low enough for a start and they seem too hard generally with an odd hollow in the small of the back to get comfortable. The pedal box is tight too, with a plastic shroud protruding into the space meaning there’s no space for a decent clutch foot rest and forcing your clutch foot to the right when it’s not doing anything. With our size elevens, the combination of the above meant we found the driving position quite uncomfortable.
You’ll also begin to notice little things that let the quality down - like the fact the indicator stalks have come from a Punto and that the Blue&Me phone and voice control system is pretty much the same as the one in the Panda - yet seems to work less well here (we repeatedly failed to be able to hang up calls when the person on the other end had put the phone down first). At least you get Alfa/Fiat’s port on top of the dash for the optional, but hardly expensive (about Â£250) TomTom satnav system.
Without heart, we are mere machines
But as Alfa’s current tag line suggest, at the heart of every great Alfa has been a great engine. And with its latest range of "MultiAir" engines, Alfa appears to have another cracker on its hands.
This one features both turbo-charging and direct-injection, technologies that you’d expect to deliver more responsive performance with increased efficiency too. But MultiAir itself is a unique Fiat/Alfa development, which uses an electronic system to control the valve opening (and thus the air and petrol intake into the engine) without a throttle valve.
Boring technical bit over, what you need to know is that this means out on the road you pin the throttle and the car flies forward like someone’s shoved a red-hot poker up its bum. We thought the Golf’s new 1.4 engine made a strong case for the performance of the modern, downsized petrol engine. The Alfa murders it with 30 more horsepower. Best of all it sounds great and likes to rev too where a lot of turbocharged engines don't, but it also has great mid-range pull, so it’s a real overtaking beast. Consider us fans.
There are a couple of downsides to the driving experience though. Firstly, as we mention in the Mito review, the engine and general driving characteristics are shown best in Dynamic mode, accessed via Alfa’s "DNA" drive selector switch. It’s true here in the Giulietta too, with the Dynamic mode liberating an extra 30nM of torque from the engine and weighting up the steering to a level where it at least feels like the steering wheel and front wheels might be physically connected. Problem is, the throttle response is then a bit aggressive when you’re not on it, which can make starts a bit lurching if you’re not paying attention.
And the temptation to constantly wring the Alfa’s neck - which is when the car feels most in its element - is probably why we only saw 27mpg. Rounding things off, those pretty big wheels make the ride borderline uncomfortable on a lot of roads. And coming straight after a week in the Golf, the Giulietta felt somewhat unrefined.
The Alfa Giulietta Sportiva, equipped with this 170bhp MultiAir engine, ultimately feels like a car that’s caught between two poles. In dynamic mode, it makes a reasonable go of impersonating a GTi, but if we compare it with our current favourite Ford Focus ST, Astra VXR and RenaultSport Megane 265 we’d be recommending you spend your money on one of those if you really want true performance kicks out of your family car. Or try the full-fat Quadrifoglio Verde model, which is the true hot hatch in the Giulietta range.
So instead, this Sportiva model is a nice family car with a bit of spice, right? For those moments when you’re on your own, the sun’s shining and the road’s smooth it’s great. But back in the real world, when you don’t want to use Dynamic mode all the time, are stuck in traffic, are dealing with pot-holed roads and have a car full of family its star shines less brightly. Its ride is frankly just too hard at times, the damping too poor, for British roads. The steering in normal mode is too light and lacking in feel, the pedal box is too cramped, the tech behind the best at this level. Looking for a nice family car and buying with your head? Sadly, there are better cars in the class.
But the appeal of Alfas has always been about their being something other than the obvious, rational choice. And if you need a family car, but still want something to occasionally stir your heart, we can well understand why you might plump for a Giulietta Sportiva. Objectively, it might not be the best car in the class. But subjectively, on the right day and the right road there are few cars in this class that will make you feel as special.