Italy\'s answer to the VW Golf and German luxury hatches is like an Alfa of old - both good and not so good.
The Alfa Romeo Giulietta is a name that’s been around for some time, with the first arriving in the 1950s and establishing Alfa Romeo as a broader automotive brand capable of delivering a diverse range of motor vehicles.
Many generations and iterations of the Giulietta have come and gone but it wasn’t until 2010 that the new model arrived with a great deal of anticipation.
The Giulietta, which competes alongside everything from the Volkswagen Golf, BMW 1 Series and Audi A3 Sportback, had until earlier this year been offered in petrol only, so it was with much expectation that we got behind the wheel of the $40,990 2.0-litre turbo diesel coupled to a new six-speed dual-clutch transmission (TCT).
From the outside the folks at Alfa Romeo have, as usual, delivered the goods. This is one car in the segment that clearly stands out from the crowd. It’s easily distinguishable from its German competitors and does well to outshine the ageing Swede.
The front is host to Alfa’s well-known triangular grille, which flows nicely from the sharp lines through the bonnet. It’s not the sort of shape that you’d instantly fall in love with but it definitely has style and character.
Although the Giulietta is a five-door hatch, the two rear doors are blended into the body with the handle sitting up high as a harmonious extension of the rear windows. The rear is a bit more conservative as far as Alfa Romeo’s go, but it still makes its mark with the LED lights turned on.
Sit inside and the story is a little different. There’s an abundance of hard plastics, and unlike its tech-savvy competitors such as the BMW 1 Series, the Giulietta’s media interface consists of an old-school stereo system with a black and red display.
It still works and has full Bluetooth telephone and audio streaming capabilities, but don’t expect satellite navigation, artist display or anything that requires more than two colours.
There are a few nice switches, though, which add to the sporty nature of the Giulietta. The driving mode switch button is reminiscent of something pilots are probably more use to dealing with and there’s a good overall sense of that enthusiasm throughout the cabin.
The cloth-trim seats, both front and rear, are comfortable enough for the daily commute and you can indeed fit four adults inside without much complaint, but don’t get too excited about the middle rear seat.
Our test car did have some consistent rattle inside, which originated from the central air-conditioning vent at highway speeds when the aircon was left on. Initially we decided the easiest solution would be to turn the aircon off but Brisbane’s summer doesn’t allow that for long.
You could say it's just part of the Alfa-ownership experience that thousands have embraced for decades.
Interior wise, the Giulietta's real shortcoming could easily be fixed with a newer and more sophisticated infotainment system. Generally we would suggest that a third-party replacement stereo headunit would be the way to go here, but the Alfa’s system is well integrated into the dash, so that may prove a challenge.
The JTDM 2.0-litre turbo diesel engine is a good unit. With 125kW of power and 350Nm of torque, the gutsy diesel makes use of a six-speed TCT transmission. It gets the Guileitta to 100km/h from a standstill in a respectable-for-an-oilburner 7.9 seconds, and Alfa claims it sips just 4.5L of diesel per 100km for the combined highway and city cycle.
We strayed above 6L/100km mark during our week behind the wheel, which included plenty of city work and dynamic testing.
Driven via the front-wheels, the diesel tends to provide a consistent sense of torque steer if you force the issue and get all its torque at just 1750rpm. It’s not a point of concern if you modulate the accelerator pedal but it can catch you off-guard if you plant it on a hill or out of a corner.
Alfa Romeo’s dry dual-clutch transmission, which is the handiwork of Fiat powertrain technologies, can be likened to the first-generation DSG system produced by Volkswagen. It’s rather crude in traffic and the gearshifts can feel harsh at low speeds. In two instances our test car even stalled on us going from reverse to drive coming out of a steep driveway.
The engine stop-start system, which turns off the engine when stopped to save fuel, is also not very user-friendly as it takes far too long – compared with its competitors – to restart the engine from the point when you lift off the brake pedal to go for the accelerator pedal. The petrol models, which start from $36,990 for a 1.4-litre turbo manual and go up to $41,990 for the Quad Verde hot hatch with a 1.7-litre turbo, are much quicker at the stop-start system.
Nonetheless, once you get the hang of how it works and come to anticipate the TCT's shift points, it’s not too bad. In fact, once you start treating the Giulietta as a sporty hatch the gearbox comes to its own and begins to fire off rapid shifts and then (and only then) it all starts to make sense.
Around town the ride is typically European, a tad too harsh on our poorly surfaced roads but the upside is great handling dynamics when pushed. It’s not a 1 Series, which is rear-wheel drive and tends to be more engaging, but it’s certainly on par with the equivalent Golf and C30 for grip and agility.
The Giulietta is not a generic or bland small European hatchback that you buy because you need a mode of transport and have a few more dollars to spend. It’s a choice you make because you want to own an Alfa Romeo. It’s a choice you make because you want to drive something with character and soul.
It’s almost cliché to say that Alfa Romeo’s have a soul, but whatever it is, there’s something that you get with an Alfa that you don’t tend to get with other mass produced cars. It’s as if every Alfa Romeo is built slightly differently and has its own personality.
So, as we did, you may well find yourself forgiving the Giulietta for some of its niggles.
But if you don't mind buying into a more conservative image, the Volkswagen Golf is a more accomplished - and cheaper - semi-premium hatchback.