Alfa Romeo's Giulietta is indisputably Italian
Cars are part of so many people's lives, but as an enthusiast it's sometimes hard to communicate your passion to others.
Consider a typical pub or dinner party conversation: "Oh, so you're into cars. What do you drive?"
You might have pure petrol running through your veins and answer "Ford Focus ST" or "Volkswagen Golf GTI". Both impressive to the initiated, neither likely to grab attention in casual conversation. Now try "Alfa Romeo Giulietta Quadrifoglio Verde". Instantly, everybody knows you're serious.
Superficial, I know, but isn't that part of the appeal of Alfa Romeo? It's a brand that everybody knows is for people who are passionate about cars. It has heritage and even non-car people connect with it instantly.
Actually, the name of this car has heritage several times over. The Alfa brand needs no introduction, of course. Giulietta dates back to 1954 and belonged to one of the marque's prettiest ranges of coupes and sedans. The Quadrifoglio Verde (QV, or Cloverleaf) badge has its origins in the 1923 Targa Florio race, when Alfa driver Ugo Sivocci - also know as "Eternally Second" for reasons you can guess - painted a huge cloverleaf symbol on his car for luck and actually won the event.
Great pub and dinner party stories.
Does the Giulietta QV have the depth of character to back up that enviable image? This $54,990 machine is now one of the older hot hatches on the block, so it doesn't have the polish and sophistication of a Focus ST or Golf GTI. But it does still have fire in its belly: the 1750 (there's another great name from Alfa's history) turbo engine pumps out 173kW/340Nm and you can only have it with a proper three-pedal, six-speed manual transmission. It has substantially bigger brakes than lesser Giulietta models. It's even relatively thrifty, with combined economy of 7.5 litres per 100km.
You do feel compelled to drive like an Italian in the Giulietta QV. The car does get all that power down through the front wheels quite effectively, thanks to the so-called Q2 differential - not a mechanical limited-slip unit, but rather a system that uses the front brakes to grab individual wheels to mimic the effect of one. Hey, whatever works.
The Giulietta chassis offers a nice combination of fluid handling with impressive ride, but the steering feels wooden. Wooden in different ways actually, once you start to apply Alfa's DNA control system. DNA offers three settings for the steering, engine and traction/stability control: Dynamic, Natural and All weather (see what they did there?). The D and N settings are different enough that you do tend to flick between them, despite the frustratingly long time you have to hold the rocker switch down to do so. The steering certainly gains a lot more weight in D-mode, but what it doesn't get is a lot more feel. Shame, especially for an Alfa Romeo. You cannot turn DNA off completely, but in the sportiest setting it does allow a lot more movement before the stability control steps in.
Inside, the Giulietta is gorgeous: the dashboard architecture is elegant and simple, and our car came with the optional ($3500) leather upholstery package, which is beautifully executed. But again, there's a little pain to accompany the pleasure. The harsh red dot-matrix graphics on the information displays look desperately old-fashioned compared with its newer rivals' fancy colour screens and infotainment systems. Alfa persists with the Microsoft Blue & Me USB interface for media devices, which is slow but does at least now play an iPod or iPhone. Bluetooth is standard, but call response is sluggish and the sound quality poor. This is a car made with such a lot of love, but there are so many niggles.
I am tempted to say the Giulietta QV is the thinking person's alternative to a Volkswagen Golf GTI, simply because the Alfa is far from the obvious choice these days (if it was ever). But that's not fair because a thinking person would choose the German car: it's virtually perfect in every important department.
So let's call the Giulietta the emotional person's choice in this segment. It's a car that proves you can't have excitement without a little frustration. You'll never know whether you love it despite its flaws or because of them, because sometimes fractious relationships are the ones with real fire.
Drive a Giulietta QV and nobody will doubt you are committed to cars.