The Alfa Romeo Giulietta has always been a slightly flawed beast that got away with murder on account of its looks.
Like a prototypically lascivious femme fatale, the Alfa has always possessed that very Italian ability to cover weak spots with a thick veneer of charm. All the while you loved it because hey, at least it looked more interesting that a Golf...
We should know, given we lived with a pre-update QV hot version for six months as we established our Melbourne office. We dubbed it Ralph and came to like it dearly both in spite of, and perversely because of, its flaws.
But now a new Romeo has arrived. The launch of the 4C coupe this week heralds the start of the brand's renaissance as it embarks on a pursuit of BMW. A bold Italian assault on German luxury.
The Giulietta doesn't fit into these plans for now, but that doesn't mean Alfa hasn't seen fit to give the small hatch an update featuring, chiefly, a substantially upgraded cabin.
Now available in a simplified three-variant range, the regular Giulietta is poised to better compete with ‘semi-premium’ rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf Highline, Peugeot 308 Allure and Renault Megane GT-Line.
Here we test the mid-range 125kW/250Nm Distinctive, which kicks off at $33,000 plus on-road costs, or $35,000 with a TCT six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox.
But perhaps appropriately, given our opening paragraph, this one also features a ‘QV Line’ pack that adds between $3500 and $4000 (depending on which variety of 18-inch wheel you choose, the darkened units are extra) in exchange for making it look very much like an actual QV hot hatch with different wheel designs, only without that car’s 177kW/340Nm turbo engine lifted from the 4C baby supercar.
Either way, that’s either perilously close, or identical to, the opening price of the six-speed manual QV, which retails for $39,000, and the new TCT auto version with an extra 4kW of power, which sells for $42,000.
For your extra money, the QV Line pack gives you sportier suspension; Brembo brakes from the QV with red calipers; 18-inch alloys; gloss black mirrors, door handles, front grill, fog lamp covers; tinted headlights; side skirts; darkened headlights and a QV Line logo.
In the cabin there is a flat-bottom steering wheel with red stitching, and the QV’s kick-plates and dash panel, along with silver sports pedals and a darker head-liner.
Add to this cost the optional 6.5-inch touchscreen with satellite-navigation and 3D mapping that costs a further $1500 and that price differential between the TCT Distinctive and QV narrows to as little as $1500.
That’s not a lot, especially when you consider the 1.4-litre force-fed petrol with 125kW at 5500rpm and 250Nm at 2500rpm falls 52kW/90Nm short of the QV’s 1.75-litre turbo. Alfa is promising warm performance with a claimed 0-100km/h sprint time of 7.6 seconds — 1.6sec slower than the TCT QV.
Regular standard equipment includes rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone climate control, LED daytime running lights, all-round parking sensors and electrically adjustable, heated leather seats. There are six airbags and a five-star ANCAP rating.
Read the full price and specifications breakdown here.
All told, it’s a lovely and upmarket cabin. The modern touchscreen multimedia system with satellite navigation and Bluetooth audio streaming (at last) is a sizeable step up on the old layout. It's relatively modern to look at and simple to navigate, though the Bluetooth can take a moment to re-pair. We also wish it was possible to dial inputs into the navigation system while moving.
The leather seats lack a little in side bolstering but the materials are opulent and the soft-touch plastics delightful. So are the 'Acqua' and 'Benzina' labels on the water and fuel gauges.
The quality is generally of a high standard too, and touches such as the bulky ventilation dials and the dashtop cubby are both welcome, though cabin storage beyond this does include a small centre console, small and shallow cup-holders and slim door pockets.
The rear is a little tight on space, though the seats feel premium and there are decent door pockets, air vents and a ski port with cupholders. The seats also fold 60:40.
Alfa Romeo claims a combined-cycle fuel consumption figure of 5.1 litres per 100km, though we averaged in the mid-sevens, albeit incorporating some harder driving and lots of urban commuting.
It’s a perky enough warm hatch, albeit one with a sluggish throttle response — likely a result of the TCT — and a dearth of torque down low. Get it up past the 3000rpm mark it it revs more freely, in a quiet and undramatic manner.
It relative lack of power also means it doesn't torque steer like the dearly departed Ralph did, and puts what power it does have down more effectively on exit.
The TCT gearbox comes with a manual mode and plastic paddleshifters, but it changes up automatically as you near the 6500rpm redline. The changes are swift enough for this type of car and the regular dual-clutch issues of low-speed judders and odd spots of indecision are kept controlled.
That’s in the Dynamic mode of Alfa’s DNA system, however, which sharpens up the driveline and adds steering resistance. In N (Normal) mode, the Alfa feels a little sluggish given its eagerness to take the edge off the throttle response and save fuel.
In D mode, the steering around becomes a little heavy around town for some tastes.
Truthfully, and we don’t want to sound like anti-modernists, but the superior driver engagement inherent to the (in this case $2000 cheaper) manual gearbox would likely alleviate some of these gripes.
Neither the body control or chassis adjustability matches a Megane GT-Line or, for that matter a Ford Focus Sport. The 1269-kilogram (kerb weight) Giulietta doesn’t feel especially nimble or light on its wheels.
That said, there’s a decent compromise between tautness and softness in everyday commuting, though we found some moderate jarring over rapid-fire corrugations.
The 330mm front/278mm rear Brembo brakes have very good stopping power, reining in the car without fade, even if the actual brake pedal feel is somewhat wooden, even in D mode.
From an ownership perspective, Alfa Romeo offers a three-year/150,000km warranty as standard. Roadside Assistance is also provided 24/7 for three years, but the brand doesn't offer capped-price servicing, unlike many key rivals.
All told, the ‘QV Line’ Giulietta is more of a warmed-up and luxurious hatch with a huge dose of style and character — albeit, less engaged in TCT form than as a manual — than a properly sporty number.
But the price, up to $40,500, is perilously close to a full-fat QV, and that’s this car’s main problem. You can get some very swift and nimble ‘proper’ hot hatches for that, or a low-grade Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Audi A3 or BMW 1 Series.
Would you buy one? Well, the new cabin is now much more competitive against the best of the best, and it remains a stylish and generally competent car. At $36,500 with navigation, but without the QV Line pack, it's better value.
Even still, choosing one over a Golf or 308 would be a case of heart overruling head, and even if you were of that disposition, the rorty little QV is well within reach…