There are three types of car buyer. The first regards a car as nothing more than a domestic appliance. The second buys a car not just for functional reasons but also as an object of some desire. These people will often buy German cars, not because they are better (sometimes they are not) but because conditioning makes such buyers think they are.
And the third group? These are the buyers who genuinely understand what is good about a car, who appreciate it for what it is, who can identify with the designers' and engineers' intentions. They care less of what others think, and more of their own relationship with the machine. It is for these buyers that an Alfa Romeo should exist.
Alfa Romeo is 100 years old this year. It has had a turbulent history, peppered with fabulously beautiful, characterful and capable cars and a fair number of utter clunkers. The recurring theme has been one of frustration that, so often, Alfa Romeo gets its cars almost right but blows it in the detail. Yet still the marque gives enthusiasts a warm glow. The goodwill is huge. We want Alfas to be great. The current range is likeable but not great, for various diverse reasons. Except that the range has just gained a new member, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta which replaces the 147 hatchback.
This new Giulietta comes only as a five-door hatchback, but like other recent Alfas with rear passenger doors, it disguises them by concealing the handles. The handsome 156 was the first Alfa to do this, and the Giulietta also reprises the way that car's waistline ridge fades out and reappears half way along the flank. Apart from this, the horizontal tail lights and the way the front grille "shield" is slightly recessed, the Giulietta, from £21,000, looks like a bigger, more grown-up Alfa Mito.
There's much use of aluminium in the new suspension, including a sophisticated multiple-link system at the back. Stung by much criticism of the Mito's stodgy, anaesthetised steering, Alfa Romeo has placed the motor for the Giulietta's electric power steering on the steering rack instead of on the column. This should overcome the snags of excessive resistance to quick movements and the smothering of subtle changes in weighting. Inside, a pair of typically Alfa cowled instruments is set on a dashboard shaped around horizontal, curved lines. It's maybe a touch over-styled but has the merit of not looking like any other car's facia. Interior space is as you would expect from a Golf-sized car, and a panoramic glass roof is optional.
Right. Is it a proper Alfa? Currently no other car uses the same structure and suspension, which is a good start. The top Quadriofoglio Verde (QV) model uses a unique engine, which generates an impressive 235bhp from its 1.8 litres thanks to turbocharging and very clever valve timing. The two more modest petrol engines are both of 1.4 litres and, again, turbocharged; they are fine examples of today's downsizing trend, with 120bhp or, in the intriguing MultiAir version with electro-hydraulically-operated inlet valves, 170bhp with very low CO2 output. There are 1.6 and 2.0-litre diesels too. The QV is the fastest, obviously, but don't expect the sharp responses of a hot hatchback. It's good, but emotions aren't stirred quite enough. In an Alfa, that matters.
The 120bhp Giulietta goes rather better than you might expect, but the Giulietta that tells us that a modern Alfa can truly be a proper Alfa, is the 170bhp MultiAir. In this car it all comes together: lots of energy from a crisp, sonorous engine right across the rev range, an ability to soak up bumps and humps, and – joy! – it dives keenly into corners, steers with precision and transparency and flicks joyfully from one bend to the next. It's lighter in the nose and on its feet than the QV, and the more entertaining for that.
With fingers lightly crossed, because it was tried on Alfa's test tracks and not British roads, I'd say the Giulietta MultiAir represents a proper return to the form an Alfa should have. To drive, it's the best Alfa in years. Fed up with obvious Germans? Here's the answer.
Audi A3 1.8 TFSI: from £19,145.
Smooth turbo engine, but less power and sophistication than the Alfa. Beautifully built yet bland in character and driving qualities.
BMW 120i: from £21,835.
Matches Alfa for power but takes 2.0 litres to do it. Good fun to drive, cramped in the back, far from beautiful. Rear-wheel drive is unusual.
Volkswagen Golf GT 1.4 TSI 160: from £20,240.
Combines turbo and supercharger effectively for instant response, ample power and good economy. A junior, softer-edged GTI.