European small cars have dramatically dropped in price in recent years, with the Alfa Romeo Giulietta the latest example.
Where its Continental rivals – the Renault Megane and Volkswagen Golf – both start at around $21,000 plus on-road costs, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta has a permanent driveaway sticker of $25,000. Add dealer delivery and government statutory charges to its rivals and they come within cooee of the Alfa Romeo’s pricetag, though both Renault and Volkswagen also often run keen deals.
The entry Alfa Romeo Giulietta features a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine developing 88kW of power and 206Nm of torque. They’re almost identical figures to both the 1.2-litre Megane and 1.4-litre Golf turbos.
With the base Giulietta, though, only a six-speed manual transmission is available where its competitors both offer an automatic gearbox. Alfa Romeo claims a 9.4 second 0-100km/h and 6.4L/100km consumption in mixed conditions, both figures of which are at the pointy end of the class.
As with the base Golf and Megane, the standard Giulietta only gets hubcaps to cover its 16-inch steel wheels, but it is the only one of the three to get automatic headlights and wipers. Other equipment includes a leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, power windows, and a trip computer.
Stepping up to the $27,450 (plus-on road costs) Giulietta Progression only really adds alloy wheels to the standard equipment list, leaving the $24,990 Golf 90TSI Comfortline and auto-only $26,990 Megane GT-Line to trump it for equipment.
Both rivals feature much of the equipment found in the $29,350 (also plus on-road costs) Giulietta Distinctive tested here in manual form. It adds larger 17s, fog lights, rear parking sensors, portable TomTom satellite navigation, dual-zone climate control, auto-dimming rear view mirror and sports seats.
Perhaps most criticially, both Progression and Distinctive offer a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission as a further $2000 option, though when on-road costs are added the cheapest automatic Giulietta is around $33,000 all told…
Optional packages on the Distinctive, meanwhile, include leather seats with front electric adjustment and heating for $3000, or if combined with a sunroof for $4000, plus xenon headlights as a stand-alone $1500 extra.
Both the Progression and Distinctive grades add the company’s MultiAir variable valve timing system to the 1.4-litre turbo engine, raising outputs to 125kW (at 5500rpm) and 250Nm (at 2500rpm). Both manual and auto claim a 7.8 second 0-100km/h, the former transmission with 5.9L/100km consumption in mixed conditions, the latter posting an even more impressive 5.2L/100km.
A 2.0-litre turbo-diesel is available for another $3900 in both grades with an automatic dual-clutch transmission only – $33,350 Progression, $35,250 Distinctive – reducing consumption to 4.5L/100km but increasing the acceleration time to 100km/h to 8.0 seconds.
In addition to competitive performance and consumption figures – if not quite so competitive equipment for the price – the Alfa Romeo Giulietta is also one of the lightest cars in its class (at 1259kg) and boasts a large 350-litre boot.
Comfort is similarly impressive in the back seat. Although there’s class-average headroom and legroom, the Giulietta matches only the Golf in the class by including a rear air vent that is arguably critical in our warm climate.
Interior quality certainly lends itself to the more affordable end of the small car class, though. Slimline air vents, in addition to the vertical speedometer and tachometer needles with chrome outer rings, and piano-black climate controls all look good.
The plastics are mismatched, however, with smooth and soft-touch upper dash surfacing contrasting with the hard and grainy door plastics. The driving position of the manual model tested is dreadful, with no footrest and a too-high clutch pedal leaving the driver’s left leg clear of the seat base. This is despite height and tilt adjustment of both the steering wheel and seat base.
Incredibly, the Giulietta lacks Bluetooth audio streaming for its eight-speaker audio system, only USB, AUX and voice control are available. The Microsoft-based Blue&Me system is unintuitive, too, with functions embedded deep within the trip computer menu between the speedometer and tachometer, though there's no central colour touchscreen anyway.
The chrome-tinged ‘DNA’ toggle on the centre console – denoting Dynamic, Normal and All-weather drive preferences – is seemingly based off a child’s toy, as it feels slightly loose and clicks between the three modes.
Unfortunate, then, that the switch needs to be utilised each time the car is turned on. The ‘N’ mode the Giulietta defaults to on start-up delivers incredibly dull throttle response that makes it stall-prone and feel sluggish off the line. In that mode, though, the steering is at least nicely light, in addition to being quite sharp off the centre position. The ‘D’ setting sharpens up the throttle, disguising the engine’s turbo lag, though it’s the steering that becomes dull and heavy here.
There’s no getting away from the fact the Alfa Romeo engine is much less tractable than those in its Volkswagen and Renault rivals. In terms of straight line acceleration, the Giulietta feels keen and brisk, although the engine’s grainy soundtrack is a shadow of aurally stunning Alfas past. Worse is the lag that sees the engine need revs on board to deliver meaningful momentum. It means rowing the six-speed manual, which has a long throw shift pattern and is slightly rubbery but isn’t too unpleasant.
The suspension tune of this Alfa Romeo certainly encourages more enthusiastic driving. Along with the sharp steering, the Giulietta sits flat in tight corners and is complemented by fine front-end grip. Being Italian, it might be expected that the chassis wants to play in corners, perhaps being keen to move its rear-end around, yet it feels completely secure and planted, at least on smooth roads.
On a typical country road the Giulietta bounces around a bit, occasionally feeling too taut and sometimes feeling too soft. It’s a curious mix, though the around town ride of this Alfa Romeo is more settled than in its bumpy road composure at speed. There’s a little bit of harshness over sharp-edged bumps, though, a possible consequence of 45-aspect 17-inch tyres versus the chubbier, more absorbent 55-aspect 16-inch tyres on the base car.
More comfortable ride quality is only one of the reasons the base model Alfa Romeo Giulietta is more convincing than the higher grade Distinctive tested here. Although stylish, roomy and characterful, some driveability and interior quality issues become larger negatives as prices rise through the range.