This week’s launch of the 2016 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifolglio was always going to be an occasion weighted by great expectations. After all, this is the car that could actually make or break the 106-year-old Italian car maker.
There was talk of a Ferrari-derived engine and a car that would not only go toe-to-toe with BMW’s revered M3, but potentially eclipse it.
Certainly, the performance specs that were touted when it made its global debut at the 2015 Frankfurt Motor Show were impressive: a new lightweight rear-wheel-drive architecture packing a 2.9-litre twin-turbocharged V6 petrol engine that develops a big-league output of 375kW of power and 600Nm of torque – significantly up on the M3’s maximum output.
Reading on, Alfa claimed a 0-100km/h sprint time of 3.9 seconds, and back to zero in 32 metres when equipped with ceramic brakes. Top speed was said to be more than 307km/h.
Any naysayers were categorically silenced in September 2015, when a Giulia Quadrifoglio managed a lap of the famous Nurburgring in a mind-blowing 7min 39sec – making it not only quicker than all its direct rivals (9 seconds faster than the BMW M4) but also the fastest production car in the segment.
The top-of-the-range Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio spearheads a multi-billion-euro investment by the company that will spawn a range of sedans, coupes and SUVs over the next few years in a bid to lift sales volumes to around 400,000 cars a year, or six times current levels.
That said, I arrived here in Milan not thoroughly convinced that Alfa had taken a holistic approach to the Quadrifoglio – a car that needed to be better than its German rivals in every way, if it was going to have any chance of convincing the hoards of sceptics to take a chance on the Italian marque, yet again.
Alfa’s investment shows, too. The high-powered Giulia Quadrifoglio is a serious bit of kit, boasting more than its fare share of exotic materials and performance-enhancing technology.
The chassis is a combination of aluminium and steel, while the standard 19-inch forged alloy rims are adjoined by a double wishbone suspension up front and a multilink system at the rear – most of which is aluminium. There’s more lightweight metal used for guards and doors, but the roof and bonnet are fashioned from carbon-fibre.
There are more carbon-fibre bits deployed around the car including an active front splitter, rear diffuser and side skirts, all of which contribute to the Quadrifoglio’s rival-besting weight of just 1524 kilograms. By way of comparison, the M3 with dual-clutch transmission tips the scales at 1560kg, while the Mercedes-AMG C63 S weighs in at 1725kg.
There’s also a carbon-fibre driveshaft (standard on all Giulia variants) and an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission with active torque vectoring technology. Adaptive dampers, also by ZF Sachs, are standard on the top-shelf Quadrifoglio.
You’re probably curious as to why Alfa opted for a torque-converter automatic gearbox over a dual-clutch unit. Apparently, there wasn’t an appropriate transmission available in-line with the Giulia’s development schedule. Nonetheless, the engineers at Alfa’s historic proving grounds at Balocco, where we’ve come to put this car through its paces, announce confidently that “you will see it's very good.”
They’re not kidding. I’ve dialled up the Race setting on the Giulia’s rotary drive mode selector, and I’m punching it through the gears down the fastest section of this facility.
While I can’t honestly say if the eight-speed ZF is as quick as the best dual-clutch equivalents without a back-to-back test, I can tell you that with each pull of the paddle, there’s an instantaneous shift action that feels just as engaging and equally involving.
There’s a good spread of ratios, too. Shorter in the lower gears, allowing for GT3-style rapid-fire cog changing, but taller up in the higher ratios for more efficient long-distance cruising.
Along with the car’s relatively small displacement and lightweight body, it’s the transmission mapping that has allowed Alfa to claim best-in-class emissions of 198g/km CO2, while consuming 7.13L/100km on a combined cycle. It’s impressive stuff for a car with such mighty performance.
The paddle-shifters themselves are unique, and look to have been modelled off a size-twelve shoe, as they run the entire length of the steering wheel. They’re also column-mounted, rather than fixed to the wheel itself, as is the more common approach these days, but perfectly positioned in terms of distance from the wheel when you need to shift suddenly.
The 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 is an absolute gem. Right from the get-go, this is an engine that offers more bang than I somehow expected. It’s just that Alfas (at least those I have owned) of the past, even the good ones, always felt under-gunned and, frankly, a bit of a mismatch with the car’s inherent dynamic qualities.
Not the 2016 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. This is one Alfa that gets the balance between the two just right. Put the boot in, and revs build very quickly, especially in the midrange, where you’ve got all 600Nm on tap between 2500-5500 rpm.
It’s very satisfying, and it feels properly potent, but at the same time deceptive, even as you’re hurtling towards the temporary chicanes that have been place around parts of the track.
Several times I was caught napping (too busy looking through the next corner) only to be woken by the engine bouncing off the limiter.
There’s very little turbo lag to contend with in the Giulia, only really noticeable in the two painfully slow hairpins. And while power delivery is silky smooth and satisfyingly linear, initial pickup isn’t quite in the neck-snapping class. I don’t see this as a negative observation, but rather a confirmation of the throttle/dynamic balance I spoke of earlier.
A key trademark of Alfa Romeos has always been the exhaust note, particularly with their V6 engines. One of the most memorable was the GTV 2.5 of the late 80s. It sounded like a full-blown racing engine, even at modest speeds.
The new Giulia Quadrifoglio sings its best note from within Race mode. It’s raspy and there’s no mistaking it for anything less than a high-performance machine - but I’d argue it’s simply not loud enough, nor does it have the kind of bad-boy character that bellows out of an AMG C63.
The handling, though, is truly sublime. It’s not that there’s no body roll, because there is, but it's only fractional and seems to make the car flow and respond more predictably than its competitors. You can lean on it hard, too, and it won’t bite – just settles and asks you to push even harder.
It’s brilliant out of corners. Turn in, put the power down, and blast out with your right foot flat to the boards. Then you’ll want to do it again with even more commitment, and there’s no nasty side-effects when you do so.
Traction is also very strong, and the top-shelf Pirelli P-Zero Corse tyres grip like a vice. But if the rear end does let go, it’s more of a gradual reaction, and there’s more than enough forward warning for corrective steering action, should you want to avoid drifting.
Some of it comes down to the exceptionally quick steering rack that Alfa has equipped the Giulia with. It’s sharp, pin-point accurate, and there’s a reasonable level of power assistance, so the steering itself feels relatively light. It’s also got good on-centre feel and there’s a real keenness for rapid directional changes.
The optional carbon-ceramic brakes worked well, even after countless loops and severe punishment – usually without the normally required cooling-down laps. Mind there was a fair bit of smoke coming off the rotors whenever the cars pulled in for a driver swap, but they just went back out there for more.
It only takes a lap or two before you realise the Giulia has been properly engineered for high-speed performance work. Body control is beautifully sorted, and you can feel the car’s 50:50 weight distribution working with you, especially through the really fast sweepers.
We’re still undecided when it comes to ride quality, but the well-tuned suspension easily soaked up the kerbs at Balocco. Of course, without a shakedown on ordinary suburban roads in Australia, it’s difficult to make any sort of call on ride quality with the Cloverleaf Giulia.
Dynamically, this is an exceptionally well-sorted car that makes track-work like this feel all-too-easy. Even when pressed, there’s no nervousness - it does exactly what you ask of it without any nasty surprises. It’s a real confidence booster for anyone behind the wheel having a real crack.
So it drives brilliantly, but will the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio turn heads?
Proportionally, it might draw some inspiration from the German brands, but aesthetically, it’s a very different proposition. It’s more alluring by swapping sharp edges for smooth curves.
The forged alloy wheels are exquisite, and while it’s unmistakably Italian, it still maintains a solid level of masculinity with features such as the quad exhaust tips, rear diffuser, long bonnet and various carbon-fibre bits.
The cockpit is like nothing ever seen in an Alfa Romeo. If anything, it’s closer to Audi’s handy work, only not quite as well-finished, or as well put together.
That said, it’s a clean design, devoid of almost all buttons and switches and ergonomically sound. There’s a smoked trapezoidal infotainment screen that sadly falls short of its rivals on two counts: size and resolution. Although, it is relatively intuitive, using a large rotary dial to scroll through the various menus.
Twin-stitched leather, carbon-fibre and metal accents adorn the Alfa’s cabin, but some of those materials lack the final polish of those used by the German luxury brands.
That said, like the lightweight sports leather/Alcantara seats with carbon-fibre shells are fantastic and the three-spoke steering wheel, which incorporates a red starter button is perfect, as is the low-set driving position and pedal box.
It’s only a first drive, but I think that finally, Alfa Romeo has a produced a world-class sports sedan worth of the storied badge and capable of going head-to-head with its German rivals.
The Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio is an exciting car to look at and even more exciting to drive. The dynamics and engineering are exceptional. It’s also blisteringly quick and easy to drive.
But to succeed in a crowded market, it will require a sensible pricing strategy that takes into account its minor shortcomings and fresh-faced arrival in the segment.
If Alfa gets that right, there should be plenty of devoted Alfisti willing to take a punt on the Giulia with their hearts and wallets.