We decided to take a family vacation this summer in Italy, starting in Florence and driving into rural Tuscany to spend a mellow week in a rental villa near some friends. I reserved a “Ford Focus or equivalent” with Hertz and, after a thoroughly unpleasant hour in the queue (“not exactly” indeed), they handed me the keys to an Alfa Romeo Giulietta with a manual transmission, two liter turbo diesel. Forza Italia! I now had one week with the sort of car that American TTAC readers often like to grouse about their inability to buy at home.
First up, the snout. To my American eyes, modern Alfa Romeo cars are very striking. You’ll not mistake them for anything else… at least if you’re looking from the front. That upside-down-triangle grill is loud and proud. While the earlier Alfa 159 accompanied it with a thin headlight bar that gave the resulting car an angry, sharp, purposeful appeal, the Giulietta softens the grill with rounded headlights and front fascia. More than one native Italian we met took positive note of the car.
Enough about styling. How about practicality? The hatchback is big. It’s not as deep as the trunk in our Acura TL but it’s usefully taller, and definitely has more usable space than a VW Golf. All our bags fit comfortably back there with room to spare. Many of the little details of the Alfa are comparable to what you might find in a Golf: switchblade key, comfortable cloth seats with limited manual adjustments, baseball-sized shift knob, etc. Still, the Italians couldn’t help themselves with style over substance. My daughter, 7 years old, had to reach up as high as she could to open the back door, since they moved the handle up next to the C-pillar. My wife, five feet tall, had trouble reaching up to close the hatch when it was open. As the driver, I appreciated the tilt and telescoping wheel. I didn’t appreciate that the clock was in tiny lettering that my passengers couldn’t see.
Interior room is great. The backseat has plenty of space for real adults. The driving position has you sitting relatively high. You have a very good feel for your four corners, which is deeply necessary when navigating some of the smaller streets in old Italian cities and towns.
On to the driving! The diesel has all the benefits and drawbacks that you’d expect. The low redline means you’re shifting much earlier than your gasoline-trained instincts tell you. Likewise, you can run at a much lower RPM than any small gasoline engine would ever tolerate. The computer nags you to shift early, seemingly trying its best to keep the engine under 1200rpm. At a low engine speed like that, you can put your foot down and damn near nothing happens at all. The engine’s personality completely changes around 2000rpm, when the turbo spools up and you suddenly feel the power. Shift before the redline and you’re still in the power band and life’s good. This contrasts, for example, with the Hyundai Veloster (1.6 liter non-turbo, manual) that I test drove a few months ago for giggles. Wind the Veloster up to the redline, shift, and you’ve got nothing. The Giulietta does much better (as, I hope, does the Veloster Turbo). For what it’s worth, the Giulietta’s gear and clutch feel are nothing particularly special. There’s none of Honda’s awesome snickety-snick shifting, and the Giulietta’s clutch grab point is a bit nebulous.
The real standout feature of the Giulietta is its suspension. During our vacation, we ranged from cobblestone streets to zippy autostrada, from smooth twisty cutbacks to bumpy gravel side roads. The Giulietta’s suspension is all about trying to preserve some dignity when faced with punishing roads. Yes, you’ll feel it when driving over crap, but the Giulietta damps out a lot of the vibrations while still keeping things relatively tight. The few times I did some “spirited” driving through the twisties, the car felt comfortable and composed. Still, this is no racing car. Does the Giulietta have “passion and soul” and lovely growling exhaust notes as Top Gear’s James May notes of earlier Alfas? Maybe the gasoline engines do, but for the diesel, no. It’s a nice car, but you won’t fall in love with it.
Deep down inside, I’m a gadget guy, and this is where the Giulietta let me down. The base-model stereo in our car had no aux input for my phone. According to the owner’s manual, you only get that ten-cent jack with the much pricier “Blu & Me” package. (And, at least on the Fiat 500 I once played with at a Texas dealership, Blu & Me doesn’t include Bluetooth A2DP for stereo music streaming. Boo, hiss!) This was probably the most obvious place where some Fiat Group beancounter blew it for everybody.
Once I figured out how to convert the onscreen menus to English, I saw a long list of adjustments, but no way to fix the things that were most annoying. Foremost, the car raises holy screaming hell if one of your passengers unbuckles before the car has come to a complete stop. Also annoying: the car insists on asking you to shift early and often. What you can do, however, is change the car from “normal” to “dynamic” mode. According to the owner’s manual, this increases max torque by 10%, which you’d never notice. However, it replaces the shift indicator light with the Alfa “DNA” logo. Yes indeed, 10% less guilt definitely improves driving dynamics.
Other gadgety features: the Giulietta will turn the engine off when waiting at a light. Once you push the clutch in, the engine starts back up all by itself. Despite this, if you were dumb enough to turn the key with the car in gear and the clutch engaged, the starter motor happily tries to drag the car along; the ignition doesn’t require you to have the clutch pedal down. (Yes, go ahead, ask me how I figured that out.) The Giulietta has a hill holding feature that works pretty well. It has a rear sonar parking assist to help you nudge your car as far back as it can go. The lights and wipers also have automatic modes. It even auto-restarts the engine if you stall it. (Yes, sigh.)
What about mileage? About half of our driving time was on the autostrada, half on local twisty roads. According to the trip computer, we averaged 5.8 l / 100 km (40.5 mpg). This is the same as the Giulietta’s official “city” mileage rating. (Wikipedia has all the stats.) The Giulietta’s official “combined” rating is 4.7 l / 100km (50 mpg). My freeway driving was pretty sedate, since I wasn’t keen to get ticketed by the autostrada’s ubiquitous speed cameras, so this means that mountain driving, with the turbo spooled up and driving with proper engine braking, is unsurprisingly detrimental to this car’s mileage. At the end of the trip, before I handed the car back, I spent roughly $100 filling the tank for 800 km of driving, with maybe a quarter of a tank left. (What great range!) To drive the same distance and style in my Acura TL, with it’s super-unleaded-mandatory V6, I would have expected to have averaged 20 mpg, yielding roughly the same dollar-cost-per-mile, assuming you’re comfortable with my comparing U.S. gasoline prices with a big V6 sedan against European diesel prices with a smaller turbo 4-cylinder car.
In Europe, the value proposition of the Giulietta is clear: high mileage and excellent interior space in a car that fits into smaller places while giving you decent amounts of “sport” and “style”. Today, in the U.S., the closest car you can buy to the Giulietta is the new Dodge Dart. It’s the same basic platform, but of course you can’t get the diesel or the hatchback. The big question: if cars like the Giulietta diesel or the comparable BMW 180d Sport were offered in the States, how well would they sell? Based on my week in the Giulietta, I’d imagine they could do quite well.