Alfa Romeo returns to the super-saloon class, but does the Giulia Quadrifoglio have enough about it to dislodge the Mercedes-AMG C63 and BMW M3 off their perches?

Few car makers inspire such unwavering loyalty and enthusiasm from those who purchase their products as Alfa Romeo – and fewer have been so guilty of taking such passion for granted in the recent past.

Ah. The Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. In the 25 years since the last rear-wheel-drive Alfa saloon, the 75, ceased production, we’ve seen Italy’s once world-leading automotive power under-invest and neglect the true sporting values of its brand – and watched as the company’s fortunes have declined.

Green cloverleaf motif features prominently, although Alfa has now dropped the ‘verde’ part from its old ‘quadrifoglio verde’ performance model nomenclature

Alfa Romeo gave us a procession of relatively plain-handling front-wheel-drive cars, such as the Alfa Romeo 156, Alfa Romeo 147, Alfa Romeo 159 and Alfa Romeo Brera, while its German rivals began to fully capitalise on the dynamic advantages of a rear-wheel drive layout.

Now for the brave new dawn. As part of a huge investment plan running until the end of the decade, Alfa will renew its entire range, putting each new model in a market-leading position on power-to-weight ratio and driver appeal.

Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio front grille

So what sort of platform, product and cutting-edge technology has so many billion euros of investment bought FCA?

The Alfa Romeo Giulia is certainly a relatively light, advanced and powerful saloon offering the kind of material construction, suspension technology and powertrain sophistication that not only brings it into the compact executive saloon segment in a particularly strong position, but should also allow it to remain competitive with its German rivals for years to come.

ESP is sensitive in its most imposing mode but can be progressively knocked back until it’s all off

The car’s underbody construction is predominantly steel, with aluminium and composites used in places to save weight. All Giulias get aluminium suspension arms and subframes, cast aluminium suspension towers, aluminium doors and wings and a carbonfibre driveshaft.

The Quadrifoglio version adds a carbonfibre bonnet and roof to that material mixture, as well as a carbonfibre front splitter with active aerodynamic functions.

Alfa Romeo quotes a kerb weight for the Quadrifoglio of 1580kg, which does indeed give it the class-leading power-to-weight ratio for which Alfa aimed, judging by the company’s claims (and ignoring the even more niche-market Vauxhall VXR8 GTS, whose base car, the Holden Commodore, goes out of production this year).

But a word of qualification here: if the Giulia really is the lightest super-saloon on the block, it probably won’t be by much.

We weighed the car at 1700kg on MIRA’s scales, making it 125kg less than the 2015 Mercedes-AMG C63 but also 90kg more than the 2014 BMW M4 DCT.

Holding up the other end of the Alfa’s 318bhp-per-tonne figure is a twin-turbocharged V6 which makes 503bhp at 6500rpm and 443lb ft from 2500-5000rpm. Alfa’s engineers describe the all-aluminium unit as being ‘inspired by’ Ferrari’s 3.9-litre twin-turbo V8.

The fact that the motors share identical – and slightly oversquare – cylinder bore and stroke measurements, an identical 90deg bank angle, very similar compression ratios and turbochargers supplied by IHI would all suggest the relationship is closer than they’re letting on.

Other features include adaptive dampers, a torque-vectoring rear differential working through a pair of clutches that can send 100 percent of drive to either rear wheel, double-wishbone front suspension, a weight-saving ‘by-wire’ electromechanical braking system and a new Magnetti Marelli central electronic chassis management computer, the function of which is to make the car’s various secondary electronics work in harmony.

It all sounds like the stuff of a car ready to upset the German super-saloon hierarchy.

All UK cars come with an eight-speed automatic gearbox as standard, and our test car had 19in alloy wheels and carbon-ceramic brake discs fitted as options.

Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio interior

There was a time when you would have expected an Alfa Romeo to have an idiosyncratic driving position, partly due to the swap to right-hand drive and partly due to Alfa not thinking hard enough about such things.

No such dramas today. The Giulia’s seating position is straight and can be near or far and low or high. It has a perfectly sited steering wheel of brilliant size and girth, and which extends further than that of any rival. It’s even pretty round, by the standards of the class.

I’m no big fan of seeing carbonfibre trim inside a car like this, but I love the fact that you can see the bonnet is made of it from inside the cabin

It probably helped that our test car came with £2950 carbonfibre-backed Sparco seats (we haven’t yet tried a Quadrifoglio without them), but lesser Giulias still have a sound driving environment, which extends to readable dials and mostly logical switchgear.

If you’re looking for the last word in infotainment and connectivity, however, you’ll not find it here, but the heating and ventilation dials are at least straightforward.

On the whole, Alfa Romeo’s latest in-car entertainment, navigation and communications system just about mirrors the best in class: BMW’s iDrive and Audi’s MMI.

It’s as good as neither, it should be noted, but in giving it a twisting, moving and pressure-sensitive knob between two supplemental buttons, it’s controlled in similar fashion. And, you could argue, most of the functionality is there: it has sat-nav, it has a stereo and it links to your phone.

But the truth of it is that the Alfa system is an infotainment-lite set-up compared to the likes of those in an Audi, Mercedes or BMW. There are fewer features and lower-quality graphics. Somehow, though, not too much of this matters.

Materials are mostly fine. There’s carbonfibre in here that looks and feels like the real deal, with quality leather and stitching, but there are some retrograde plastics masquerading as metals, too, which gives the air of an interior from half a decade ago if you’re comparing it to the latest German solidity.

A clichéd finding, perhaps, but still true.

Rear accommodation is fine. Those Sparcos take up a little leg room and present a hard surface for your kids to bang their knees against, but let’s face it, this is a Giulia Quadrifoglio, so you can live with that.

Likewise, although we’d rather not have to, the fact that the rear seats can’t be folded on this version and that the boot’s opening is small and its cavity constricted.

On the Quadrifoglio, all these things are forgiveable; on lesser Giulias they wouldn’t be.

2.9-litre V6 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio engine

There’s a reason that the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio’s interior foibles seem as petty as they are, and it’s to do with the way the car drives. In the past you might have found an Alfa with a breathtaking engine but so-so handling, but as we’ll see, that isn’t the case any more.

It’s not that the engine is the bad sibling in this relationship – any motor that shares this much with powerplants that come out of Modena is unlikely to be.

The handbook warns you to expect ‘instability’ when selecting Race mode, but it’s actually referring to the action of the selector and not to the car’s handling

The V6 fires to a purposeful, if not spiteful, idle, with the impression that air is being moved around in gruff amounts.

It's no Mercedes-AMG C63, but it is the equal of a BMW M3 when it comes to suggested intent. Ditto when you pull away, particularly if you twist the DNA drive mode selector to D (for dynamic), which increases the exhaust woofle, sharpens the throttle response and affects which gear the transmission opts to put itself in.

On part throttle, mind, there’s an occasional hesitancy: sometimes it gives you more than you ask, sometimes less, but it’s very slight and only just enough to prick your consciousness.

The eight-speed auto’s movements are nicely matched, although at anything more than a gentle cruise we found we wanted to take charge ourselves via the column-mounted shift paddles.

Do so and the Alfa fairly flies. In perfect conditions and on new tyres it will hit 60mph from rest in under four seconds, but as a two-way average, with two people aboard and fully fuelled, there’s nothing wrong with the 4.5sec the car returned in our hands.

Turbo lag becomes negligible once you have 3000rpm or so wound on, and the V6 runs to a soulful 7300rpm, with a noise that’s smoother than that of an AMG V8 but is more involving than an M3’s.

Its gearbox operates with greater smoothness than that in either the AMG, which has a clutch instead of a torque converter, or the M3, which uses a dual-clutch automatic.

The Giulia mooches through gears with the ease of a tight torque converter auto, and is arguably better for it.

The Giulia stops well, too, even on worn P Zero Corsas and in the wet, although brake pedal feel as you come to a halt could be improved.

Initial feel is good, as is retardation, but often after you stop you have to adjust pedal pressure to prevent the Giulia creeping forwards.

Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio drifting

Here’s what surprised us most about the Alfa Romeo Giulia: it’s a sensational car dynamically – and if you’d spent any time around Alfa Romeos during the past decade, you simply wouldn’t have seen this coming.

For a start it rides well. Not in a lolloping, loping way, nor in a keyed-down, brittle way, but with a blend of impeccable body control and a deft ride that is the equal of anything in the class.

Optional carbon-ceramic brakes resist fade admirably, even after a solid five or more dry laps

There’s multi-state control for the adaptive dampers, so as you put the engine into angry mode you can still pop the suspension back to a softer setting – and you’d probably want to on most British roads.

On a good smooth surface the Giulia is fine in its firmest mode, while on broken surfaces it’s ideally planted in its softer mode.

If anything, its ride and handling blend feels most like that of a sporting Jaguar (which we mean entirely as a compliment), so it is set up beautifully for British roads.

The steering suits our roads too. It’s quick to steer, at 2.25 turns between locks, but there’s no hint of nervousness, and although there are more feelsome racks in the sports car world, the Alfa’s thin, firm rim means that its messages filter through to the driver better than they do in almost any of the competition.

The Giulia is pleasingly balanced, too. Thanks to a very even weight distribution it resists overloading its front tyres, while the rears can be exploited by the car’s ample power.

In good conditions there’s a lot of traction; in poor conditions very obviously less so. But all the time the Giulia Quadrifoglio is a car of rare poise and ability.

A Mercedes-AMG is harder, a BMW less composed overall – and you can forget everything else in the class when it comes to running the Alfa close.

The Giulia is a peachy car to drive in the dry. You can trail the brakes to keep the nose planted on the way in to a corner if you like, but it’s agile enough to resist understeer unless you turn in wildly too fast. Once turned its always pleasingly balanced.

Eventually it’ll hook up the clutches by the rear differential and fall into a massively adjustable slide, but how much it slides is really up to you.

It doesn’t hook up as cleanly as it would with a conventional limited-slip differential, but it’s more refined than one, more of the time. And it’s precise with it — not a hoon-machine like a Mercedes-Benz C63.

In the wet it’s a rather different matter. The Alfa, thanks in large part to its tyres, tramlines and aquaplanes rather a lot under acceleration.

It still generates decent grip, but it lets go very easily, if nowhere near as progressively as it does in the dry.

The Alfa’s wet time was achieved on a resurfaced, grippier track, the Merc’s on an older surface.

Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

Alfa Romeo aimed for a quietly punchy value offering with the Giulia Quadrifoglio, which is tasked with doing a reputational reconstruction job for the firm.

References to the original Alfa Romeo Giulia of the 1960s will mean little to a good many of today’s performance saloon buyers, for whom the 156 GTA would have been the closest that Alfa ever came to offering an alternative to an M3 (and it wasn’t very close).

Alfa undercuts its German rivals on showroom price but fares marginally less well on residual value over three

So it’s wise for Alfa UK to have chosen to undercut not only the pricey Mercedes-AMG C63 S but also the equivalent BMW M3 Competition.

It also takes the sting out of the predictably circumspect depreciation forecasts (having paid a bit less up front, private buyers on finance shouldn’t actually lose any more on the Giulia, over a typical three-year period, than they might have on the more expensive AMG).

It’s a pity, though, that those taking dealer finance probably won’t find the Quadrifoglio as cheap on a monthly PCP deal as some of its better-supported rivals.

Including the active rear diff, adaptive dampers and eight-speed auto, the standard equipment level is generous enough to give you things you’d be expected to pay extra for in rivals.

The Quadrifoglio comes with a 58-litre fuel tank, which is slightly smaller than some of its rivals offer, but the 35.7mpg touring economy it returned on our test more than makes up for the shortfall.

4.5 star Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

If the last sporting Alfa Romeo you drove was a 4C, you’d have been forgiven for not holding on to huge reserves of hope for the impending arrival of the Giulia Quadrifoglio.

And, like some of our testers, you’d have been wrong. Gloriously, magnificently and spectacularly wrong, because the Giulia is one of the most magnificent driver’s saloons in a decade.

Everything you’d want a fast Alfa Romeo saloon to be. A triumph

It does it all: it goes, it stops, it steers and it sounds good, and it does all of those things with just the right amount of conviction and aggression. It is never too hard, never too soft, never not poised or agile enough and yet it never feels nervous at a cruise.

No car is ever perfect, of course, and there are areas – such as the quality of the cabin and the feel of the  brake and throttle – where the Alfa could use some finessing.

But it only allows one rival to get ahead of it, and that’s a rival with a sensational engine and immense engagement for its driver.

Even so, and by any reckoning, the Giulia Quadrifoglio is a magnificent piece of engineering. As such we rank it second in our top five behind the Mercedes-AMG C63 S but ahead of the BMW M3, Alpina B3 Biturbo and Vauxhall VXR8 GTS.

Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio First drives