It’s been three and a half years since the Alfa Giulietta had its world premiere at the 2010 Geneva motor show. Glenn Brooks has just been sampling the latest model, updated with an assortment of mid-life freshening features.
The 4C is Alfa's media darling of the moment but we shouldn’t forget that there are two other new models in European showrooms right now. Well, not exactly new, more mild facelifts but after some worrying quiet years it’s worth trumpeting the news that Fiat SpA is at last launching some fresh Alfas. Along with the MiTo, which has just had its first facelift since being the 2008 launch, comes a light makeover for the larger Giulietta.
This would-be rival for the Audi A3 Sportback rival was the first vehicle on Fiat Group's C-Evoluzione platform, also known as 'Compact'. This architecture was developed from a components set first seen long ago in the Fiat Stilo. It was heavily revamped for the Giulietta with new front and rear suspension systems and is also distinguished by being compatible with all-wheel drive applications (though the Giulietta is front-drive only). The now cancelled Lancia Delta replacement and its proposed Chrysler 100 twin were to have been leveraged off C-Evo but it hasn’t turned out that way - the S segment Alfa hatchback is therefore the only model to use this platform, a highly unusual situation for an industry obsessed with the sharing of modules.
The Giulietta was launched with 1.4 (105hp), 1.4TB (120hp), 1.4TB MultiAir (170hp) and 1750 TBi (235hp 1.7) petrol engines, as well as 1.6 JTDM (105hp 1.6) and 2.0 JTDM (150hp & 170hp) turbocharged diesels. The once-planned programme to export the car to the US and Canada from this year or 2014 has now been frozen, for reasons which are not entirely clear. Still, if the 4C does reach US showrooms from the second quarter of 2014 (the latest date) that has got to be very good news indeed for the future of the brand. Not pulling any punches, Alfa desperately needs more vehicle sales and its once traditional southern European heartland remains recessed.
Now the good news - the refreshed MiTo and Giulietta plus the thousand or so 4Cs which should be registered between the start of sales last month and the end of the 2013 should mean that Q4 could well be the best global sales quarter in recent years. In the UK, while the market is up 10 percent over the first three quarters, Alfa sales are off by 26 percent but last month, finally things began to turn. Registrations still contracted year-on-year but by just 2.85 percent. The numbers were 1,192 cars for September, and a year to date total of 4,496 compared to 6,115 this time last year. A marketing exec would cheerily point out that this makes an Alfa a less common sight than a Porsche (6,021 sales according to the SMMT’s numbers) but in reality, the only way is up for the Italian brand.
What is really needed is an assortment of body styles for the Giulietta. Indeed, an estate had at one time been on course for launch in 2013 but that project was one of the many cancelled as Fiat wound in its R&D spending a few years back. There is also speculation that the Giulietta's expected seven-year lifecycle will be cut short with production stopping in 2015. That would also mean the cancellation of what should have been a major facelift in 2014.
Rather than dwell on what might have been, better to look at the here and now. A subtle series of updates premiered for the Giulietta at the Frankfurt motor show just one month ago. There are new 16-, 17-, or 18-inch alloy wheels, a revised grille and chrome-effect foglight frames. Darkened headlamp filters also feature for all cars: these were formerly exclusive to the top-spec Quadrifoglio Verde model grade.
In addition to the exterior makeover, there are some changes for the engine line-up. The former 140hp 1,956cc diesel turbo has been replaced by a 150hp unit which also produces 380Nm (+30) of torque, and all 1.4 turbo petrol engines are now Euro 6 compliant.
On the inside, there are new storage compartments, what Alfa calls ‘wrap-around’ seats with revised trim, a choice of redesigned steering wheels (depending on the version) and updated materials for the dashboard and door panels, plus new door handles. The Uconnect infotainment system is also a fresh design and with can be ordered with either a 5-inch or 6.5-inch Radionav touchscreen.
Jump straight out of a few other Fiat Group models and you’ll instantly note the same HVAC controls, as, say the 500L. That’s no bad thing as they don’t look cheap in any of the Group vehicles they feature in. I’d rather not have animals' skins in any car but in the Giulietta the leather looks great, especially on the steering wheel where the stitching impressed by being perfectly aligned.
There were multiple examples of the Alfa being a beautifully built car but in the press loan vehicle there were, sad to say, some inconsistencies. Such as some visible scratches in the hidden black plastic rear exterior door handles. A change to a mock-rubber surface would work better. The same applied to the surround of the barrel where I could see marks from others’ mis-aimed attempts to put the key in the ignition. Small things yes, but would it happen in an A3 Sportback, B-Class, 1 Series, CT 200h or even a V40? Exactly.
The few bits of easily-scuffed trim aside, the Giulietta sells itself in the showroom as it just feels so wonderful to sit in. Fiat Group cars always have an appealing scent - more Moulton Brown than Lush - the seats grip your sides perfectly, all the controls are logically placed, and the new steering wheel is somehow even better than the former one. Italian words for the engine’s fluids levels are an unusual touch in the instrument pack too. If you’ve ever got to thinking that premium in the C segment always seems to add up to different variations on not dissimilar Audi-BMW-Benz interiors, the Alfa could well be for you.
The Giulietta is even more of an enthusiast’s car now that the JTDM2 engine features, especially as it’s mated to a manual gearbox with six perfectly spaced ratios. The torque surge kicks in from low revs, the sound is music to the ears - not quite in the same class as the old five-cylinder diesel but pleasingly sonorous all the same. I have been impressed on numerous occasions by the tiddly 875cc TwinAir turbo in its various power outputs, but the new 150bhp JTDM2 is without doubt Fiat Group’s best current powertrain.
What lies ahead for the Giulietta and for Alfa Romeo in general? To answer the first question, there are increasingly less secretive whispers among Fiat's suppliers about a rear-wheel drive replacement. Yet a large question mark remains over where exactly such an architecture is being developed: Turin? Or Auburn Hills?
If a new RWD/AWD Fiat-Chrysler architecture IS under development, that would explain why Fiat is so reluctant to discuss its plans for the future of the Cassino plant - it would make a lot of sense to refit it to build the next Giulietta. Make sense if a larger RWD/AWD model, a replacement for the long-dead 159 would also be manufactured at the presently hugely under-utilised Cassino. Such a model would be the much delayed Giulia which was supposed to be the big-volume car to push back into the US and Canada. This project was once known by the 953 codename, then it became 944 and now, there might even be a new Progetto code.
The fact that plans for these and several other future Alfas appear to be in flux suggests that the firm's management at last believes that spending big on R&D for additional models - models that could theoretically bring in serious money - is the way to go. And what about those models? These would be RWD/AWD rivals for the Audi Q5 and big-profit/image-underlining SQ5 in 2016, to be followed in 2017 by sporty rivals for the next Q7 and its Q8 derivative.
Plans do change. But, family-controlled OEMs such as Fiat SpA play the long game. The Agnellis are smart. They also realise that the barbed jokes about Fiat being a tidily profitable Brazilian company which possesses some bothersome, some might say indegent operations in Europe, ring true. La Famiglia has made no secret of its wish to eventually parlay a merged Fiat SpA-Chrysler Group into a floated off entity. Such an event may not take place until the latter years of the second half of this decade - maybe what we see now from Alfa Romeo, to be followed in 2014 and 2015-2017, might be the quiet commencement of what could be a high-volume and Audi-esque big margins future.
To be brutal, that Alfa Romeo, as a division, hasn't been axed when it was represented by until recently a mere two-model line-up MUST mean that there are major plans afoot for a multi-model programme of future vehicles. In five years' time, the then Duetto/Spider will be approaching its mid-life update and RWD could be a given for the brands' model line-up. At that point, could we be looking back on the now as when Fiat's funding masters chose to take a successful gamble on this esteemed brand? Call it Italy's Jaguar - there's lots of history and lots of emotion, and if major investments in high-priced and rewarding to drive future products are indeed being made - the pay off should eventually be grande.
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