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Sometimes, basic is best

Wednesday, 29th August, 2018 4:51pm

Sometimes, there is some serendipity when it comes to testing cars.

Normally, a road-tester’s diary is solidly mapped out months in advance, setting a carefully timed schedule to working through all the various new models being launched in a year, with time set aside to properly experience and evaluate them. Once in a while though, an inevitable monkey-wrench gets thrown in the system, and sometimes that can make for a delightful surprise.

Just such occurred this week. A test car I had been expecting to collect got cancelled and so a replacement had to be found. Alfa Romeo came up with the goods, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. It was actually something much, much better…

You see, car companies almost inevitably hand out the ritziest models possible for evaluation by the press. It stands to reason - they want to put their best corporate foot forward, they want us to try out all the expensive new options to see if our views can convince you to put your hard-earned on the line, and there’s a general feeling that the more leather and buttons a car has, the happier the reviewer is going to be.

This last-minute Alfa was not like that. It was a Giulia, but not one I’d driven before. In fact, it was a Giulia 2.2 JTDM Super, the most basic and affordable Alfa Romeo Giulia saloon you can buy.

Now, that requires some context. It still costs €43,995, and it does come with a fair amount of equipment, including an eight-speed automatic gearbox, six airbags, lane departure warning, collision warning and autonomous emergency braking, split-zone air conditioning, cruise control, rear parking sensors, keyless ignition, an 8.8 inch infotainment screen with Apple Car Play and Android Auto, 17 inch alloy wheels, and leather trim for the steering wheel. Not bad, eh?

It did lack some things, though. The seats were covered in cloth, not leather. There were no gorgeous, tactile, alloy gearchange paddles mounted behind the steering wheel.

The 17 inch wheels are the smallest available on a Giulia. The diesel engine had 160hp, instead of the 190hp of the last test version I drove. It was, in a word, basic.

It was also, in another world, wonderful. Sometimes you suspect that a car’s strengths are either masked by all the extra toys and equipment, or you’re just overwhelmed by trying to try everything out that you miss the inherent goodness or badness of the car. Not so here.

In fact, in this most basic possible form, the Giulia showed just what an excellent car it is.

It also showed off how right Alfa Romeo has gotten the build quality on the Giulia.

The car I was driving was not a pampered press fleet example, but one temporarily robbed from Alfa Romeo Ireland’s staff fleet, and was already a year old with 9,000km on the clock. Not very high mileage, perhaps, but enough that you might expect a car to start feeling its age a little.

The Giulia was having none of it, though. We’ve quibbled in the past about the quality of some of the Giulia’s cabin fixtures and fittings, but while the tactility may still be an issue, the fact is that in this well-used example, there was not a single squeak nor rattle.

It gets better. On those 17 inch wheels, the Giulia’s ride quality is much improved, and it glided over rough roads with a delicacy that those versions running on 18 inch and 19 inch rims just can’t manage.

The smaller tyres also exhibit less of the annoying dragging sensation, when on full steering lock, that the higher-spec cars suffer from.

Refinement is also really very good. There is some tyre drone at higher speeds, and a flutter of wind noise that appears to be coming from somewhere around the right hand rear door, but the engine is exceptionally quiet, other than from a cold start.

It’s also surprisingly powerful for what is the basic model. 160hp doesn’t sound like much, but this basic motor has the same 450Nm of torque as the more powerful 190hp version, so it actually has more or less the same real-world performance. It’s economical too — we easily broke through the 5.3 litres per 100km (53mpg) barrier, admirably close to Alfa’s claimed 4.9 litres per 100km.

And then there’s the handling. You need to take a few miles, and a few corners, to get used to the Giulia’s steering. It’s very fast across the lock, and can almost feel skittish or even twitchy at first (and it also means a huge turning circle, one of the car’s few shortcomings). Take your time though, and you soon settle into a rhythm with it, giving the wheel a small roll of the wrists, rather than a large input from the elbows, and finding that when you do that, the Giulia responds with delight, with gusto, and with lots of lovely feel and feedback. Excellent though the likes of the (outgoing) BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class are, I think the Alfa has them beaten for sheer driving enjoyment.

So, what have we learned here? We’ve learned that the most basic of all Alfa Romeo Giulia models might just be the best of them. We’ve learned that if the basics of a car are right, then the lack of extra toys, buttons, and touchscreens matters not.

And we’ve learned that Alfa Romeo seems to have gotten its build quality sums to add up properly this time.

An accidental road test, then. But one that left us wanting more…

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