The Alfa Romeo Giulia is here at last. The long-awaited sports saloon hopes to take on the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series, but we’ve been here before. Its predecessor, the 159, set out to do the same, and failed. Does the Giulia stand a better chance?
It has a stern challenge on its hands. Despite boasting an all-new rear-wheel drive chassis and strong yet low-CO2 2.2-litre turbodiesel, both the BMW and Audi remain fearsome challengers. The BMW is the driver’s choice and the A4, in V6 TDI guise, is a superbly smooth and well-rounded swift saloon.
But in raw performance, the Giulia isn’t that far behind the potent Audi, despite having two fewer cylinders. It boasts an engine that lugs well from low revs but which also has power at higher revs. Combined with a sharp eight-speed automatic and crisp throttle response, it delivers strong performance saloon fun.
It certainly betters the BMW, which is hindered here by its xDrive four-wheel drive system (as standard, it’s rear-wheel drive). This gives extra off-the-line bite, but the extra weight ultimately blunts performance. Neither the Alfa nor the BMW has an engine the equal of the Audi though. It’s easily the smoothest and quietest. That it delivers the best 0-60mph time despite being front-wheel drive says it all.
The Audi isn’t the sportiest dynamically, though. Its agility is the most measured, and it doesn’t really involve you in the action. Savour instead its smooth ride; if you want to enjoy the drive, pick the Alfa. Steering is quick, direction changes are rapid, body control peerless and grip levels seemingly never-ending.
That’s right – the Alfa betters the BMW for handling. Shock, horror. The 3 Series is still fun, but the xDrive makes it feel a little slow to respond at times. At least the balance of ride and handling is well-judged, though: the price you pay for the Giulia’s sharpness is a stiff ride that lacks compliance in town.
Inside, the Audi leads the way for cabin quality. It’s pure executive-level stuff, appreciably richer even than the BMW. As for the Giulia, it’s good by Alfa standards, but simply not up to the level of the others. It’s downright cheap in places. Even the infotainment screen is compromised – the 8.8in screen is the biggest of all three, but the graphics are like a 1990s computer game. The Audi is better, the BMW’s better still.
All three are roomy in the front, and they all have decent visibility. The Giulia has the most rear legroom, despite a slightly compromised driving position forcing the driver back further than they may like. Overall though, the BMW is the most accommodating. The Audi claws back some points on boot space – all three are the same on paper, but the A4’s has the best shape. It has split-fold rear seats as standard, too. You have to pay for them on the other two.
Speaking of prices, the Alfa initially looks the cheapest, until you factor in discounts; then the BMW becomes the most affordable, and the Giulia actually the dearest. The Alfa’s low list price and good CO2 performance means company car drivers will spend a lot less in benefit in kind tax though; it’s an £800 saving over the Audi for 40% taxpayers, a whopping £1600 over the BMW.
Pity the Giulia tops £400 for private buyers looking at PCP deals though. The Audi is just £360, the BMW, £381. The Audi has the best standard kit as well, although all are well equipped. They’re all five-star cars for Euro NCAP safety, but the BMW loses marks for lacking standard autonomous emergency braking.
In the final running, the Giulia puts in a strong performance, but not a class-winning one. It’s more competitive than any Alfa saloon in recent years, but its enjoyable handling is compromised by its stiff ride, and the interior quality niggles also set it back.
It’s tight between the Audi and the BMW. But the 3 Series is getting on a bit these days, leaving the A4 to take class honours. It really does feel like a downsized executive car and, although it’s less fun to drive than the other two, it’s still the most well-rounded car here – indeed, a five-star car alongside two four-star runners-up. We’re sure Alfa Romeo won’t be disappointed with that.
Specifications: Alfa Romeo Giulia 2.2d 180 Super auto (4 stars)
Engine size 2.2-litre diesel
List price £31,950
Target price £31,950
Power 178bhp @ 3750rpm
Torque 332lb ft @ 1500rpm
Top speed 143mph
True MPG 45.7mpg
Gov't fuel economy 67.3mpg
CO2 emissions 109g/km
Specifications: Audi A4 3.0 TDI 218 Sport S tronic (5 stars)
Engine size 3.0-litre diesel
List price £34,700
Target price £31,309
Power 215bhp @ 4000-5000rpm
Torque 295Ib ft @ 1250-3750rpm
Top speed 155mph
True MPG 42.0mpg
Gov't fuel economy 67.3mpg
CO2 emissions 109g/km
Specifications: BMW 3 Series 320d xDrive Sport auto (4 stars)
Engine size 2.0-litre diesel
List price £33,460
Target price £29,249
Power 187bhp @ 4000rpm
Torque 295lb ft @ 1750rpm
Top speed 145mph
True MPG n/a
Gov't fuel economy 62.8mpg
CO2 emissions 119g/km
Rob Adams is a writer for WhatCar.
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