The Alfa Romeo Giulia has been such a long time coming that there’s no little irony that I’m stuck waiting for it now. Stuck in the office, staring at the ceiling. Waiting and staring. How long have I been waiting?
Well, it has been five years since the Alfa 159 dropped, old and unloved, off a production line cliff face. But it represented only part of the waiting period, not its beginning. Before that, there was the 156 and the 155. Both were pretty. One was good.
Neither, though, was the front-engined, rear-wheel-drive saloon that we felt Alfa should be building if it wanted to be Italy’s BMW and a proper volume contender. No matter that it hadn’t actually built such a car since Fiat massaged the ailing brand into Lancia in the mid-1980s. It would, we felt sure, be like riding a bike for the evocative brand. Muscle memory would take over.
Turin itself needs no help locating the right kind of inspiration; the name Giulia, after all, is an homage to precisely the kind of model we’re talking about. The four-door Type 105 of the 1960s was the sort of car that made Alfa rightly famous: a swept-back, featherweight saloon coupled to the firm’s fantabulous Twin Cam engine via the medium of a driven back axle. The original Giulia sprouted memorable add-on trim names: the TI Super, the Nuova Super – each shifting quickly for their day. A day that ended in 1977.
Forty years is a long time for the spirit of a car to flutter about in the ether – long enough to excuse a morning spent waiting in the office for its namesake to be whisked from the dockside to Autocar’s second home under Heathrow’s flight path. At least the Giulia’s rivals have turned up. One is the standard, the other its successor. In the marine blue corner is the current BMW 320d, hewn over time like a Neolithic arrowhead and implacable, brilliant evidence of what Alfa should have been doing and then patiently fine-tuning all this time. This one is our long-term test car, and the fact that it is dirty and has an xDrive badge on the back only confirms my affection for its attitude and flint-edged purposefulness.
In the plum red corner is the car fashioned from the ground up to beat it. The XE is a very British, very Jaguar creation. It’s tempting to think of it as the culmination of a journey that began with the demise of the X-Type, but that would lowball Jaguar’s current trajectory. Better instead to acknowledge its finer points as a marker of remarkable progress – and the good bits of the Ingenium-engined, aluminium-underpinned XE are exceptional. Certainly, it is Jaguar galloping forward on self-belief, conviction and talent and gunning not just for recognition but heaps of buyers, too. It is Jaguar as Alfa would probably like to see itself: Europe’s emerging premium powerhouse, nourished by its long heritage yet now emphatically aimed at profitability.
The XE, too, in this particular instance, is all-wheel drive. It can be had with four-wheel drive because you can have the 320d with fourwheel drive. You cannot have a Giulia with four-wheel drive – which makes the second irony of a cold, contrary morning the fact that Alfa’s first rear-drive car in forever has to take on the best of its rivals with one less driven axle than either. If anything, though, that’s merely symptomatic of the mountain it has to climb. There is a phalanx of other factors – the look, the interior, the build quality, the engine, the refinement, the ride, the chassis, the practicality, the price and the prestige, each already deliberated by the competition and meticulously moved towards approval. Alfa’s ability to behave likewise – to formulate the right list and properly scrutinise it, to achieve a rich and harmonious balance and the impression of no compromise when there have been hundreds along the way – will be at the core of the Giulia’s comparative success or failure, just as previous neglect was at the nub of the Mito’s and Giulietta’s relative mediocrity.