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by Nigel Tunnell-Jones

Propeller shafts. They’re probably not a make or break item on your average car buyer’s checklist these days, but the long absence of driven rear wheels from the Alfa Romeo brand seemed to coincide with a general decline in regard for the company’s offerings.

While the Fiat-engineered models sold as Alfa Romeos in Australia since the late ’90s – including the 156, 147, GTV and Mito – have attracted their share of followers, many lovers of the brand have been pining for a return of the feeling possessed only by cars designed by pre-Fiat Alfa Romeo; the feeling Alfas offered when the company made front-engine, rear-wheel drive cars.

Well after 25 years, prop-shafts are again featured on Alfa Romeos, carbon-fibre ones at that. The Giulia, launched in 2016 as a five billion euro attempt to reinvigorate the brand and provide cars that live up to the legend built over 107 years, is now on offer to bring back those craving Alfa magic to the fold. It’s also here to draw in those born too recently to know what the fuss over the old models is about.


Constituting Alfa-ness

While we’ve mentioned the absence of rear-wheel drive, it’s not all about which end of the car is driven – the front-wheel drive Alfasud and its derivatives won a lot of hearts for its dynamics and verve (and broke a few for other reasons) and acted as a chassis benchmark for some more popular cars. The ‘magic’ offered by the pre-Fiat takeover cars is what we’re looking for.

What exactly is it? There are plenty of opinions.

It’s safe to assume that a large percentage of people these days have never experienced a pre-Fiat Alfa; all left on the roads are now over 25 years old and they weren’t mainstream cars to begin with.

Some suggest that what made their cars special comes from the old company’s engineering and development focus. The brand was born at the race track and still holds the title for the most motorsport wins of any marque in the world.

It was producing engines with double overhead camshafts in 1914. It introduced variable valve timing to road-going vehicles long before more popular manufacturers marketed it as the latest thing. Technology like four-wheel disc brakes, five-speed transmissions and all-aluminium engines appeared on its cars years before they were seen on more popular manufacturers’ product lines.

Others suggest human-like attributes. They’ll say an Alfa will keep you company each journey. They’ll make you smile while steering through corners and can make music when you shift gears. They’ll also throw throw tantrums when they’re not looked after or driven properly. Above all, the idea is they were built to be loved.

An Alfa mechanic I know had the most considered thoughts on the brand: “Alfas of that era knew what they were and were completely unapologetic about it. They were built for drivers by a company that was fiercely proud of its products.

“If you don’t understand Alfa Romeo’s intention and can’t treat the cars accordingly, you will have a thoroughly miserable experience. However, if you do understand them and can drive and maintain them accordingly, the cars become an extension of your physical self and your personality.”

Whatever that magic is, it’s strong enough to create language. ‘Alfisti’ is the name given to those emotionally attached to Alfa Romeo cars. How many other brands – cars or anything else – have created similar terms?


Measuring up

The new Giulia is here and many Alfisti want to see how it stacks up when placed in direct comparison with the cars that generated the brand’s goodwill in the first place.

Plenty of Alfas are worthy of comparison. The 105 series from the early ’60s is an obvious one with its singing twin-cam engines, rifle-bolt gear change, brilliant dynamics for the time, and gorgeous looks in coupe form.

The Alfetta coupe is also fondly remembered thanks to its styling and a drive experience like nothing comparable when new, largely due to its near 50/50 weight distribution which came from its rear-mounted transaxle.

It also makes sense to just pick up from where Alfa left off. The last ever front-engine rear-drive Alfa Romeo, designed before Fiat took over engineering, was the Alfa 75.

Launched globally in 1985 on Alfa’s 75th anniversary, it’s an important part of the company’s history and possibly one of the best Alfas. However, there are very few left on the roads and the model is only starting to edge towards the collector status that has seen earlier models leap up in value.

Based on the Alfetta’s rear transaxle architecture with some modern updates at the time, the 75’s target was the BMW 3 Series and its competitors, just like the current-day Giulia. Initially available in Australia with just the 2.5-litre Busso V6, the 75 range grew to include the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine Twin Spark in 1988 and a 3.0-litre version of the V6 took over as range flagship. Alfa kept the 2.5-litre six but with a three-speed automatic transmission, one of the few self-shifters produced by the company back then.

While it’s a pointless exercise to compare cars built 26 years apart by going through a specification checklist – the cheapest cars on the market will have far more safety and in-car communications gear than anything from that era – it’s still worth comparing them to see if the Giulia has inherited some of the magic that the 75 still undeniably possesses.


It’s all mine

Before you read on, I should disclose the 1990 75 Twin Spark we’re comparing with the Giulia is my own car. I know it well, and unlike the Giulia, it’s had plenty of time to get under my skin.

Many questioned my sanity when I chose it to commute 70 kilometres across Sydney each day, telling me I’d better get used to constant problems and on-foot completion of journeys. However, it did over 30,000 trouble-free kilometres through very heavy traffic in Sydney before I decided to preserve it for weekend use and commute in something less special.

The 75 actually makes a great daily classic with features such as power steering, intermittent wipers, electric windows, limited slip differential, fuel injection, steering column adjustable for tilt and reach, and disc brakes all round.

Fuel economy is very reasonable, too. Its galvanised steel body means 75s can be used without rusting any more than other cars from the time. Mine received a bit of maintenance outside of servicing but nothing unreasonable – most of it was replacing 26-year old rubber components that had well and truly done their duty and undersized disc rotors upon purchase.

I felt like the most cheerful commuter in Sydney and I looked forward to driving it every day. If the new Giulia can bring that feeling to new customers, the brand has a great chance of continuing its long, colourful life and multiplying the Alfisti population.

I’m not completely biased about my 75 either. During the photo shoot, Rob Margeit was grinning from ear to ear behind the wheel and kindly offered to swap me FCA’s Giulia press car for it.


Styling

The 75’s lines were penned by head of Alfa Romeo Centro Stile, Ermanno Cressoni. While his name mightn’t be recognised by many, Cressoni later mentored Chris Bangle so the 75’s individual styling might explain a few things about the controversial appearance of BMWs from a few years back.

There has never really been anything else quite like the 75, before or since. Some will say that’s a good thing but its sinewy proportions, wedges and straight lines can grow on you if you let them, and it still stands out today. It’s certainly not dull.

The much more readable Giulia has far less polarising styling than the 75. That said, it is distinctive and works as an Alfa. It avoids the overt retro styling cues seen on the brand’s more recent offerings, making it look contemporary and a step forward as a result. Styling is a personal thing but from what I hear among other fans of the brand, Giulia’s looks have already won a few over and the car definitely attracts attention.

A look under the bonnet shows that Alfa’s longstanding tradition of making engines look stylish has come to an end. Giulia’s 2.0-litre four wears a plastic engine cover just like every other brand, unlike the pretty alloy castings and script on the spark plug cover of the 75.


Interior

If you’re one of those drivers that feels the need to dig their fingertips into the dashboard to assess its soft-feel plastic (and therefore quality and luxury credentials) you’ll hate the 75.

Its interior is a strong reminder that back then Alfa was really a sports – not sports-luxury – car brand. Unless you count the 75’s plusher stablemate, the Alfa 90, which featured a briefcase set in its dashboard.

The 75’s instruments offer all the information needed for sporty driving, remembering that when it came out only highly specified cars had a tachometer. The 75’s oil pressure gauge shows keen drivers when its large-capacity 5.6-litre sump has warmed up and the oil has thinned sufficiently for spirited driving.

The 75 featured the Alfa Romeo Control unit, which has warning lights to monitor oil and coolant levels, brake pad wear, washer bottle level, headlight and brake light globes, battery condition and park brake position.

While innovative at the time, some came from the supplier with the wrong sized voltage regulator, making the warning lights go crazy and reinforce negative stereotypes about Italian electrics. Mine has a relatively good one, with only black tape over the washer level light until I have a spare afternoon with the voltmeter.

At the time motoring writers marked it down for oddities such as its roof-mounted electric window switches and its stereo, mounted behind the gear leaver. And most passengers won’t find the doorhandles set into the armrests without a search.

Familiarity and a Bluetooth stereo make these non-issues. The fantastic UK-spec Recaro seats and dished steering fitted to this car help make its slightly long-armed (other Italian cars from the past have been much more extreme) seating position more comfortable.

As you would imagine, the game has well and truly moved on with the Giulia. The comfort, refinement, equipment and design it offers makes it an impressive package which fits right in with other cars in its segment.

The Giulia’s cabin is pleasant and airy with beautifully trimmed seats and dash top. While the lighter trim and carpet colours in this car mean it can show up dirt, it’s a nice place to sit in a world where most car interiors seem to be black or grey. Alfa has steered away from the idiosyncrasies of the past – the doorhandles are very easy to find with their pretty looking wooden trims – and it’s easy to get comfortable behind the wheel.

As with most modern cars you won’t find a clutch or shifter but large paddles behind the steering wheel are pleasant to use. The search for Alfa-ness didn’t include delving in to the infotainment system. But, in old Alfa Romeos, the driving was the entertainment so that’s where this comparison is focused.


Engine and Transmission

The ‘TS’ part in the 75’s name refers to an engine that was unique upon its release and still is today. Alfa used two spark plugs per cylinder to manage emissions and raise the compression ratio for more power in the face of growing numbers of four-valve engines from competitors.

Combined with Bosch Monotronic fuel injection and variable valve timing, the result was 107kW from a twin-cam 2.0-litre four at a time when a base Falcon got 90kW from 3.2 litres.

Tall first and second gears means it doesn’t translate into much of a shove in the back from a standstill but the engine’s meatier mid- and upper-range torque means it works well where you want it – on twisting blacktop.

The rear transaxle meant gear changes required more focus than your average commuter’s appliance when it was new but it’s a very enjoyable part of the car’s character when you get to know it. Fifth-gear runs at around 3000rpm at 100km/h and there’s nowhere to shift up to from there.

Of course, the Giulia’s power delivery – thanks to modern turbocharging technology and engine management – is very different. There’s plenty of torque on offer just above idle and the engine spins easily to its redline.

Eight slick-shifting ratios mean that its 147 kilowatts and 330 Newton meters are always sent through the right gear and legal limits come up quicker than the numbers suggest for a car of its size.

Compared to the 75 there’s a lot less involvement – you can shift gears with the paddles if you feel like it and it all works flawlessly – but it’s on par with its others in its class.

Giulia’s low weight means it’s more rapid and engaging than some more powerful, but heavier, competitors. Its engine note sounds sweet and slightly rorty, but it doesn’t stand a chance next to the soulful exhaust and induction tunes of the 75 TS, which itself is shadowed by the operatic sounds of the Busso V6 versions.

However, the Giulia obviously wins by miles for refinement and quality and it’s a much more soothing car than the 75.


Ride and Handling

The 75 won a lot of praise for its ride and handling trade-off when new, but this example wears aftermarket shock absorbers which make its ride quite firm. However, its balance and roadholding is still very noticeable thanks to near 50/50 weight distribution.

It’s still loads of fun, very adjustable with steering and throttle inputs and it makes you seek out roads to drive just for kicks. Even though it’ll haul a family of four, it’ll do fine at track days and super sprints without much modification.

The Giulia has a very plush ride, even on bad surfaces, and does an impressive job of controlling its body in corners. Its chassis has also been engineered with a similar weight balance as the 75, but without a the complication of a rear mounted transaxle.

Overall it’s a much more mature device than the 75 and shows how much chassis development and rigidity has improved modern cars. It’s not as raw or involving as the 75 – these days only a few Japanese rear-wheel drive sports cars have a similar character – but Giulia’s heritage shines through and it drives with a feeling of lightness and more flair and than some of its competitors.


Steering

Both cars possess excellent, but very different steering.

The 75 featured Alfa’s first power steering system, which does a great job of helping at parking speeds, but also allowing information to come back through the wheel. It’s low geared compared to many modern performance cars but feels nice and meaty, with minimal power assistance on the move. It’s the icing on the cake of what’s great about analogue era cars, which relied on tactile, well-weighted mechanical engineering to make the driving experience a good one.

Giulia’s steering is substantially lighter and much faster lock-to-lock. However, in an era of digital cars that often communicate less, the feedback you get through the steering remains impressive. If you’re a driver that judges a car by its steering, you’ll like the Giulia.


A different game

There are aspects of the 75 that meant it wasn’t just a simple transportation device compared to other cars of its time. It required commitment to own, a competent mechanic, a degree of focus to drive and an ability to enjoy the slightly unusual, which probably put off as many potential owners as those who pocketed the keys.

These days Alfa cannot afford to narrow its appeal by selling such vehicles. All you need to do is look at Giulia’s prestige-badged competitors to see that the ‘sports’ part is something you switch on when you’re in the right mood, not something you suffer while making your way through traffic wishing for something more refined.

At the same time, Alfa Romeo can’t afford to throw away what was great about its past.

With its return to rear-wheel drive, Alfa has made a very competent sports luxury sedan that, even with the base spec engine, can compete on its own terms with other brands in the segment. It’s not a race car cloaked in street car clothing but it’s comfortable, fast, noticeably light in its feel and enjoyable to drive. It retains the feeling that it was made by people who enjoy their jobs and, perhaps, life in general.

And don’t forget, there’s always the ballistic Giulia QV for those that crave something with a whole lot more drama.

For me, I’d love to exchange my current commuter for a Giulia Super to rack up the kays in. Just as long as I can keep the 75 in the garage for some weekend fun.

Click on the Photo tabs for more images by Sam Venn.

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