NOT so long ago, it was all about speed for Alfa Romeo.
Get in, hang on, enjoy the performance, and who gives a continental about the tree huggers and their emissions. And never mind the cabin bereft of comfort and features.
Then came the Brera about six years ago. This thing still takes your breath away. Yet its driveability never quite lived up to the drop-dead gorgeous skin – and don't even try to get anyone taller than Frodo into the back seat.
Fast forward to 2011, and Alfa believes is has the product to put it back on the mainstream premium motoring map.
Giulietta replaces the 147 and borrows its name from some sporty Alfas of the 1950s, and slots in between the three-door-only MiTo and the mid-size 159. With a base model price of $36,990, and an amped-up $41,990 Quadrifoglio Verde derivative, Alfa has Volkswagen's high-end Golfs in its sights as well as some of the German big guns.
The Italian carmaker wants its Australian distributor, Ateco, to have a serious crack at the market with the Giulietta and they believe they finally have the right mix.
Backed by improved reliability, good looks and a level of finish that is up there with the best from Germany, Alfa Romeo looks to have added another genuine option in a heavily popular premium hatch genre.
Minimalist functionality is striking in the Giulietta. You're not overwhelmed by joysticks, buttons and gizmos, yet you rarely long for any additional creature comforts – apart from getting the Bluetooth system to work which regularly asked us to “try again later”.
From the moment you grab the door handle there's a welcoming feel to the hatchback, almost un-Alfa.
The door handles feel strong and reliable, and even the sound of the door closing makes you confident of its longevity.
There has been a noticeable improvement in cabin materials. A gloss finish across the dash is a dominant feature. It raises the interior ambience and takes your attention away from some of the plastics on the console.
Storage space is limited, although aided by a handy little top locker on top of the dash and a horizontal bottle holder in the glovebox, while there are some groovy-looking toggle switches, which are apparently inspired by racing cars from the 1960s, that control the fog lights and the stop-start function.
There is always the constant reminder that you're driving an Italian offering. The words for petrol (Benzina) and engine coolant temperature (Acqua) are featured in the gauges.
Sporting seats are supportive, and the driver is aided by telescopic steering wheel control.
Alfa is trumpeting the interior space, which does belie the dimensions on paper. Adults will appreciate the back seat space, and Alfa measurements show with a 183cm driver, you can still fit a 184cm passenger in the rear with impressive knee and headroom – though they will be close to the sloping roofline.
On the road
We've seen this 1.4-litre four-potter previously on the MiTo, and our latest experience proved similar in the Giulietta.
The habitual routine after turning the key is to opt for Dynamic mode. The DNA system enables you to choose between Dynamic, Normal and All-weather. Dynamic sharpens the throttle response, makes the steering heavier and boosts output, while all-weather optimises braking sensitivity and gives you slower acceleration response.
In anything but Dynamic, the Giulietta feels mundane. Get about 1500rpm in Dynamic and it delivers the trademark fun-to-drive performance that has made Alfa popular the world over.
You can really tear into the corners with confidence with minimal body roll as you push to get the most out of the chassis with strong acceleration.
The six-speed manual can feel clunky, but it performs reasonably well – we'd just like a little more sporting noise from the pipes.
What do you get?
The line-up for standard gear is kind but fair, given the price tag. On the list are 17-inch alloys, leather-trimmed steering wheel, CD stereo with MP3 connectivity, Blue&Me Bluetooth system, steering wheel controls, climate air-con, parking sensors and cruise.
Throw in the highest Euro NCAP safety rating you can get and there is no need to head for the extras list.
There's a few to choose from in this hotly contested segment, including the Audi A3 TSI Attraction $41,000, BMW 1 Series 120i $43,400, Mercedes B-Class B200 $46,600 and the big gun, the Volkswagen Golf 118 TSI $29,490.
Boot space is the same as a VW Golf, and with enough space for four adults, the Giulietta will find favour with families, empty nesters or singles.
The hatchback opening makes for useful flexibility, along with the 60-40 split-fold seats. We managed to fit in an adult size bike while still having one seat in place with ample room to spare.
Resale value may be an issue. Alfas of bygone eras have suffered with longevity, but this new breed (courtesy of Fiat ownership) should see things turn around. Time will tell there.
You won't have to wait for thrifty fuel consumption. Our test was about seven litres per 100km which is just above the official figure. The turbocharging may cause some insurance issues for younger drivers.
While not immediately striking, the Giulietta is an attractive package. The rear end is Brera-like, and combined with long coupe-like windows and a flared waistline it's a hatch that stands out from the crowd.
Our test machine was in a white colour scheme, and we're not sure if you can really drive an Alfa that's not red.
Still to face the test of time in terms of mechanical reliability and build quality, early signs are positive.
The turbocharged four-cylinder is a punchy little performer and a rewarding drive when you push up higher into the rev range.
This is the best all-round package we have seen from Alfa Romeo for some time.
Model: Alfa Romeo Giulietta 1.4.
Details: Five-door front-wheel-drive premium hatchback.
Engine: 1.4-litre turbocharged MultiAir four-cylinder generating maximum power of 125kW @ 5500rpm and 250Nm @ 2500rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
Performance: 0-100kmh 7.8 seconds.
Consumption: 5.8 litres/100km (combined average).
Bottom line: $36,990.
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