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The long awaited return of Alfa Romeo to the saloon segment has finally come, as has the use of the Guilia name.

In the mean time the landscape has changed somewhat since the 159 and 166 last graced the roads, with BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz all reaffirming their position at the head of the premium table with new iterations of the 3 Series, A4 and C-Class. This period of absence also saw Jaguar dip its toe in the market and shake up the top order with the dynamic XE, while other manufacturers have pushed to join this table chiefly in the shape of Volkswagen and Ford, but the lack of Italian flair was becoming ever more noticeable.

Understanding what makes Giulia

The Giulia comes in two flavours, the sensible standard compact exec and the febrile 503bhp Quadrifoglio, or Cloverleaf. For some bizarre reason the UK will only get these Alfa Romeos paired with an eight-speed automatic gearbox, while Europe gets a smooth and rather deliciously slick six-speed manual 'box.

As for the engine range there are two diesels and three petrols to choose from, with the diesel range consisting on one 2.2-litre all-aluminium engine in two outputs - 148bhp and 178bhp - both of which produce a fleet-friendly 109g/km and claim to do 63.8mpg. As for petrol engines the Giulia can be had with a 2.0-litre engine in 197bhp or 277bhp forms with the latter only available in Veloce trim, while topping the range is the Quadrifoglio with its Ferrari-derived 2.9-litre Biturbo V6.

The Alfa Romeo saloon is available in four trim levels – Giulia, Super, Speciale and Veloce, while those after the Cloverleaf get a few more worthwhile features. The entry level Giulia trim equips the Alfa with 16in alloy wheels, cruise control, rear parking sensors, a chrome exhaust pipe, LED rear lights and a wealth of safety technology - including autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning and forward collision warning - as standard. Inside there is manually adjustable front seats, a leather clad steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, automatic wipers and lights, and Alfa's infotainment system complete with a 6.5in display, DAB radio, and USB and Bluetooth connectivity.

Upgrade to Super and 17in alloys, aluminium door sills and part leather seats are included alongside an uprated infotainment system with a larger 8.8in display and sat nav, while opting for the Speciale adds numerous luxuries to the package. These include 18in alloy wheels shod in run flat tyres, bi-xenon headlights, electrically adjustable and heated front sports seats, a heated steering wheel, electrically folding door mirrors and a sporty bodykit. 

The range-topping Veloce model gets an unique set of alloys, an upgraded braking system, front parking sensors and lovely crafted aluminium paddle shifters. Those after a more thrilling drive can opt for the lunacy of the Quadrifoglio, which not only gets you a 2.9-litre V6 punching out 503bhp and the ability to propel the Giulia to 191mph at full chat, it also gets a wealth of additional equipment as standard too. These include 19in alloys, more powerful bi-xenon headlights, blind spot monitoring system, interior ambient lighting, a bespoke leather and Alcantara upholstery, a rear-view camera and a quad-exhaust, not to mention Alfa's clever active aerodynamics package, active torque vectoring system, chassis control and dedicated race mode.

Discovering what makes Giulia passionate

Initially the Giulia is quite annoying, progressing upon further acquaintance to really rather encouraging. The irritation stems from a raft of superficially minor issues that still contrive to diminish your enjoyment of the car. 

You can’t turn off the stability systems, there’s no such thing as the correct wiper speed in light rain, the hazard lights trigger much too soon under moderate to heavy braking, the temperature in the car at times sometimes seemed to be at significant variance to that displayed on the screen and the sat-nav screen is decidedly low rent compared to what is now found in its BMW and Mercedes rivals. Out there in the real world where cars are lived with as well as driven, this stuff matters.

However, it shouldn’t be allowed to cloud the fundamental fact that this not only the most competitive Alfa Romeo saloon since the last Giulia was launched more than half a century ago but, crucially for anyone with Alfisti blood lurking in their veins, the most likeable, too. The detailing may need some work, but the fundamentals are mainly excellent.

So you start with a flawless driving position (at least for left-hand drive cars) and, at least by compromised modern standards, excellent all round visibility. The engine is noisy at idle and under full load, but otherwise quiet, quieter for sure than equivalents found in the C-Class and Jaguar XE, but probably still behind BMW and Audi. The instruments in their classically hooded binnacles are clear, though not that attractive.

The wheels won’t have completed their first revolution before you notice the ride quality. It is eerily good for this kind of car and not just on smooth Italian roads.

We found some horrendous potholes and goggled not only at the suspension’s talent for absorbing each event, but the structure’s ability to isolate each one within a single corner of the car. The springs feel soft, but superbly damped, the platform itself exceptionally stiff, which is exactly how it should be for this kind of car. I hope these standards have been maintained for right-hand drive production cars.

Cruise around in it and you’ll notice too how little wind noise there is, and how deftly the gearbox interacts with the engine. You might in theory lament the absence of a third pedal, but in reality, I doubt very much that one would materially improve the driving experience.

The acid test for a new Alfa, however, comes in the hills. The good news is that it passes, the bad is that it does so with a merit at best leaving a distinction a distant dream.

On the positive side, the car maintains its ride height beautifully, making it feel poised and stable at all times. The all new electronic power steering disappoints, though; it’s too quick, too aggressive off centre and almost entirely lacking in desirable feedback.

It makes it difficult to feel the front of the car and judge precisely the correct lock required to angle in to a quick curve. This is a shame because the car seems to have a nice balance, gentle understeer appearing to want to flow into equally benign oversteer before a barrage of needlessly early electronic interference unceremoniously shuts down that particular avenue of entertainment.

Can Alfa Romeo unseat the big German trio?

If you’re bored with the traditional German establishment you might also find there is much to be commended in a Giulia.

Mercedes and BMW offer more complete cars, but they lack the Giulia’s novelty value and, to a certain sort of fashionable, sporting customer, the image too.

Its shortcomings are minor in nature, but sufficient in number for the knowledge of how much better it could have been to irk, but there’s nothing I’d call a deal-breaker here.            

I can see this Giulia and its variants going some distance to undoing the decades of damage suffered to date by this once fabulous marque. For Alfa Romeo, it will come not one moment too soon.

 

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