The Giulia’s biggest test: Can Alfa’s new family saloon hold its own against the German might of Audi and BMW?
Alfa Romeo is back. Okay, it never really went away, but cars like the Mito and Giulietta have done little to reinvigorate the Italian marque in the last decade.
So, for this test at least, attempt to erase those forgettable cars from the knowledge bank in your head – which shouldn’t be difficult – and cast your eyes on the stylish new model it hopes will cause a stir in the family-saloon market.
They have such high expectations for this car, in fact, that they’ve even given it one of the brand’s most iconic names – Giulia.
It’s been launched with a bold aim: to take on the might of Audi and BMW – so that’s the test we’ve created here by pitting it against a comparable A4 and 3 Series respectively.
An Italian with intent: The release of the Guilia marks Alfa’s return to the market as a serious challenger to the German brands that are dominating sales. But is it good enough to run an established Audi and BMW close?
Instead of focusing on the high-performance variants, we’ve gone for the mainstream choices you’re likely to buy – the ones fitted with economical diesel engines that are designed to devour miles at ease.
And as those engines are of the latest breed, they should be among the safest to choose to avoid any diesel emission crackdowns on the horizon.
The Giulia, A4 and 3 Series selected for this test all cost in the region of £31,000-to-£34,000 and claim to be able to return well over 60mpg.
So can Alfa Romeo really become a viable option in one of the most German-dominated car markets to date? There’s only one way to find out… put them head to head.
Alfa Romeo Giulia (front, white), Audi A4 (left, red) and BMW 3 Series (right, blue)
On the road…
Some might not be thrilled at the thought of the Giulia coming with a four-cylinder diesel engine, but it helps make it the lightest car of the trio, and it pulls well from low revs.
It also keeps pulling well, all the way up the scale, so on a wet day it wasn’t far behind the six-pot 3.0-litre diesel in the Audi A4.
You might think the xDrive in the BMW, denoting four-wheel drive, would lead it to roar away in the wet conditions but the extra weight counted against it to the extent that the rear-wheel drive Alfa kept it easily at bay.
The Audi won the sprint, and did it very smoothly with that lovely diesel engine pouring out the torque and power through the front wheels.
Of the three cars on test, the Giulia is the most competent in the bends, and the most enjoyable to drive in the twisties The BMW (left) has the best compromise of handling and ride quality. The Audi A4 (right) is more softly sprung so feels less responsive in the corners – the payoff is a silky smooth ride
But the Giulia comes right back when the road starts twisting and turning. It’s incredibly agile, with fabulously light and engaging steering, making this one of the best handling cars in the class. The ride suffers slightly but it’s a mighty impressive performance.
The Audi can’t keep up with it, since it’s designed more for comfort than all-out pace, but it means the A4 has a delightfully gentle ride to while away the miles.
Even the BMW couldn’t live with the Alfa through the turns – even with the German’s four-wheel drive. The Giulia really is that good. The pay-off is that the 3 Series offers the best compromise of handling and ride of any of these three.
The Alfa interior is a vast improvement on what we’ve seen from the brand – recently and probably ever – but it still falls short of the German rivals
From the driver’s seat…
All three are easy to get comfy in, with decent space, good visibility and, officially at least, identical boot space.
But it’s in the cabins where we start to see a gap appearing.
The Alfa Romeo is better than previous Alfas, and the cabin has delightful style.
However, in terms of class and quality it’s just not up there, not with the BMW, which has a solidly German cabin, and most definitely not up with the Audi, which has a cabin which is in a class of its own.
The BMW is functional and everything works as exquisitely as you would expect from a premium German brand The Audi is the pick of the bunch, though. The interior is stylish, feels wonderfully well made and has the best array of tech
The Alfa – as you might expect – has a few niggles. In this model with the automatic gearbox, the paddles behind the wheel are infuriatingly close to the indicator stalk, which results in a few fumbles at knocking the stick up or down when you want to tell other road users that you’re about to change direction.
The Audi stands apart thanks to the 7-inch touchscreen that comes as standard along with good connectivity. It’s slick and it works well, better than the rather clunkier but bigger 8-inch screen in the Alfa.
The Alfa set-up just looks dated already, and there’s no chance of connecting Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
The 3 Series gets the smallest screen here, at 6.5in, but when it’s controlled by iDrive, and you get lots of stuff like sat nav as standard, it’s just unbeatable.
What you’ll pay for any of these three is partly based on your negotiating skills. If you can haggle like a good ‘un then the BMW would be the cheapest, followed by the Audi, with the Alfa as the most expensive – which is the exact opposite of the list price sequence.
However, take in company tax, which you might be highly likely to need to in this sector, and the Alfa becomes the cheapest one to run over three years, about £1,600 more than the BMW, with the Audi somewhere in the middle.
That’s if you’re paying cash, but buying on finance will put the Audi back at the top of the pile.
Despite this to-and-fro, all three cars come well equipped and all three get the top five stars in the Euro NCAP safety tests.
Winner: The Audi A4 is our choice car in this head-to-head. A brilliantly comfortable ride and lots of quality edges the others
Cars & motoring verdict
So is the Alfa the best option here?
For what you’d want from a family-sized diesel saloon, no.
The pick of the bunch for us is the Audi A4, particularly with this luscious 3.0-litre engine. It is the closest thing to a luxury limousine of the cars here, and could embarrass models in the league above.
Second place: Anyone looking for a more dynamic alternative to the A4 wouldn’t be disappointed with the BMW 3 Series. It’s a close runner-up
If you wanted an exec car that handled rather sharper, then the BMW 3 Series wouldn’t disappoint – particularly because it can still deliver a compliant ride.
But if you wanted a car that handles insanely wonderfully then it’s the new Alfa Romeo Giulia all the way.
Not only that, but you have a torquey, economical diesel engine that pulls seriously hard throughout the rev range.
We’d love to see it win, as it’s the best looking car here by some margin, but Alfa Romeo is not really there yet.
They’re getting there, but against such entrenched opposition it may take a revised model before we can genuinely expect it to be the winner.
And before you leap into any of these three, remember there’s another contender to weigh up that didn’t make this test trio: Jaguar’s XE. Make sure you test drive that too.
Third place: Notice we didn’t say last place? That would do an injustice to the Alfa, as it’s not that far behind anymore. It is the best to drive and is the most handsome of the three. Interior quality and cost, for the moment, let it down