YOU’RE SUPPOSED to make it look hard? I thought you were supposed to make it look easy,” said extreme skiing world champ Doug Coombs as he watched a fellow competitor huff and puff his way in a series of staccato hops down a competition face.
First published in the April 2017 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953
Coombs flowed down the steeps like a water droplet, effortlessly finding the path of least resistance, smearing and melding turns into the contours of the mountain.
I’m minded of that quote right now as I attempt to hold station with a well-driven Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. The Italian car is all sinew and suppleness, as if gently pressed to the road’s ruts, compressions and decreasing radius corners by a benign celestial hand.
The Mercedes-AMG C63 S I’m driving instead adopts a different philosophy, attempting to bludgeon Australia’s impertinent topography into submission through sheer surfeit of Newton metres; hopping, kicking, shunting and when in doubt, defaulting to a full Wagnerian sonic assault. It doesn’t keep up. It can’t.
Nor can the BMW M3 Competition receding in my mirror. Both are attempting to smash a hammer through butter when what’s needed is a hot knife.
HAVING driven the Giulia Quadrifoglio on track and solo on Aussie roads, pitching it straight in at the deep end against its most formidable rivals seemed a perfect way to temper our enthusiasm. Years of continual development have honed the AMG C-Class and the M3 to an obsessive focus, both cars bringing to bear an almost unfathomable depth of engineering experience and generations of good gene selection. Alfa Romeo’s task was to stand comparison with that, to hit the ground running at a frenetic pace from a virtual standing start.
Poaching talent from Ferrari was a good start. Ex-Maranello engineer Philippe Krief headed up the development program, bringing in chief technical officer Roberto Fedeli, whose credits include the LaFerrari and F12 Berlinetta, and Gianluca Pivetti, the engine man instrumental in the prancing horse’s transition to turbocharging. Isolating their respective teams from lazily delving into existing FCA inventories has resulted in a car that’s quite extravagantly new.
The chassis, engine, even the infotainment system is new. The five billion Euros ($7bn) invested into the clean sheet ‘Giorgio’ platform will spawn another eight vehicles, with two specialist sports cars promised, and it’s even configurable for a mid-engine layout.
As tempting as it is to dismiss the Ferrari influences as mere marketing hype, it’s not difficult to discern Maranello’s imprimatur in the way the Giulia goes down the road.
The twin-turbo 2.9-litre V6 has the same technique of ramping up torque as you ascend the gears as first debuted in the California T, while the steering, with an 11.8:1 ratio, gives the car front-end pointiness that’s redolent of a 488 GTB. And herein is the key to the Giulia. Unlike the hideously compromised, parts-bin Alfa sports sedans that we’ve been fed in recent history, the Giulia operates from a clean sheet.
A foundation of fundamental engineering rectitude. Where Alfa used to be relied upon to arrive at a decision tree and go the wrong way, the Giulia speaks time and again of getting the big choices right; that it’s been designed by people who actually get it.
Examples? Switch the DNA drive selector into Race mode and the Alfa bangs through upshifts with an evocative wallop. So too does the C63 S. Pitch both cars into a corner, accelerate through the apex and the Giulia understands that steering angle is being applied and will snick up a cog without the thump, delivering meaningful throttle authority earlier. The C63 S will instead continue to shock the drivetrain on upshift at the corner exit, tipping the car into scrappy oversteer.
It’s no wonder, really, seeing the AMG attempts to pour the most torque through the narrowest rear tyres of the trio and also asks them to cope with the burden of the most weight. Where the Alfa – and, indeed, the M3 – features a lightweight carbonfibre roof to lower the centre of gravity, the AMG plumbs a vast slab of glass into the place a car needs the weight least.
The hip point of the Alfa is set lower in the car, the chassis is lighter (with a more advantageous wheelbase proportion), and there’s active aero at the front end, a carbonfibre propshaft, and a best in class power-to-weight ratio.
The accumulation of marginal gains such as these combines to genuine effect through a corner. The Giulia’s brakes are mighty, the clever pre-fill and brake temperature mapping part of a system called Integrated Brake System, co-developed with Magneti Marelli. Combine that with front tyres as big as the Merc’s rears and a 50:50 weight distribution helped by that lightweight all-aluminium engine and the Alfa pulls a few metres advantage over the Mercedes long before the apex.
What it can’t quite match is the AMG’s beautiful consistency of control weighting, the millimetric precision of the German car’s initial brake pedal modulation and steering tip-in.
Likewise, Alfa could learn a good deal from the way C63 demonstrates, on-screen, exactly what each drive mode is doing to ESC, steering, suspension, exhaust note and so on.
At first acquaintance, there appear two suspension settings in the Alfa selectable by the button in the centre of the rotary DNA dial. In fact there is a rather opaque three.
Likewise the Dynamic, Natural and Advanced Efficiency modes of the DNA system suggest three driving modes when there’s a fourth, Race, which is selected by twisting the dial beyond Dynamic through a somewhat gritty detent.
After the Giulia’s sweetly malleable dynamics, BMW’s M3, for so long the class benchmark, feels as if the individual braking, suspension and steering teams had blown so much budget developing their wares that when it came to integrating their results into a seamless whole, there was nothing left in the kitty.
There are elements of genuine greatness, such as the mighty front end grip, and the way in which the steering weighting can be altered with the electronically assisted helm accurately synthesising the feel of added feedback. Try that in the Giulia and it feels as if the steering is running in Perkins paste, yet the lack of overall cohesion in the M3’s systems hurts its effectiveness.
Tip the M3 towards the apex and your initial confidence in the helm builds as it locks onto a line, yet to get the best from it, you need to be on your game.
Small surface changes can induce a big flare of spiky oversteer. Time and again through the test route’s trickier bends, the mid-corner speeds of the M3 were lower, the threshold of oversteer arriving sooner. Despite the biggest rubber footprint front and rear and a set of fresh Michelin Pilot Super Sport boots, the BMW couldn’t match the lateral grip the Alfa could manage.
The stiff sidewalls and beefed up springs and dampers of the Competition pack have stripped away much of the M3’s civility and this in turn dents your confidence that the car is on your side when you need it most. As you tease the limit, what ought to feel absolutely exhilarating emerges as type two fun; an exercise in bullet dodging.
The Mercedes is usually at its best when set into its Individual mode with the angriest engine and the most benign suspension, the additional mechanical grip of a few degrees of roll doing its best to help the overburdened rear end. The electronic diff punches above its weight in managing traction, and while it can entertain, the basic 54:46 weight distribution represents an implacable wall of physics that the Affalterbach brains trust can only do so much to ameliorate.
Driven in isolation on the right road, both the BMW and Mercedes deliver fireworks that would seem implausible for the Giulia to better. Yet it does.
Weight, or lack of it, is the Giulia’s trump card. Tipping the scales at 1585kg compared to 1655kg for the C63, it’s a factory lightweight straight out of the box.
You’ll brake later, generate higher peak g-loadings mid corner and accelerate sooner out. Torque vectoring at the rear integrates imperceptibly with the ESC system in Dynamic mode, where all you’ll feel is a very soft denial of throttle if you go too hard too soon from corner exit.
Switch it into Race and it backs the ESC off a very long way, so be prepared to wind a half hand of lock on very quickly. Again, the rear diff is so effective that the Giulia can soak up an almost demented level of throttle provocation before the rear P Zero Corsas transition from grip to slip.
In tighter corners the software caps the peak torque ceiling, which then builds as you ping up through the eight-speed ZF, which, when combining with the short pedal strokes, makes the V6 feel unburstably zesty.
As soon as the road straightens, the Giulia can do little to counter the sheer force of personality of the AMG 4.0-litre V8. It’s the standout powerplant of the trio, proving the old boxing adage that a good big ’un always beats a good little ’un. Making an identical 375kW but ladling on another 100Nm of torque for a peak of 700Nm from 1750rpm, Affalterbach’s big banger is never short of an answer when receivinga request for in-gear acceleration.
By contrast, even with an extra 14kW in Competition guise, the M3’s 3.0-litre straight six feels comparatively outgunned at ‘just’ 331kW.
The M3 salves some honour at the strip with the joint quickest sprint to triple figures, registering a 4.2 second time with launch control enabled, although the system allows too much wheelspin in first before snicking up to second. Equalling that time was the Mercedes, the launch control system here in effect being a torque control, carefully limiting that avalanche of physics and allowing the C63 S to drive undramatically time and again to 100km/h in 4.2 seconds. The car with the best power-to-weight ratio and the widest rear tyres scores the wooden spoon, the Giulia not featuring launch control and registering a 4.4-second run.
By way of levelling the playing field a bit, this was the quickest time of the day when the German cars’ launch control systems were switched off. All three cars registered in the low 12s through the 400m trap.
Doing the most with the least capacity might lead you to believe that the Giulia’s personality would be somewhat high maintenance and needy, but the ride quality and painstaking calibration of the ZF eight-speed auto give it a rangy, long-legged feel that adds a welcome string to its bow. It’s more relaxing over a longer drive without the insidious fatigue of having to brace against constant torso shocks and head-toss.
This perplexing degree of bandwidth is where the Giulia makes its rivals feel antiquated. Both the BMW and Mercedes will bump and thump along city streets, about as happy as a recalcitrant teenager being dragged round the stores while his mother goes bra shopping. There’s no such impost in the Alfa. If driven gently, you wouldn’t guess from the passenger seat that it was the sports flagship.
At speed, the Alfa is the quietest, with active cylinder deactivation shutting down a bank under part load. The Mercedes’ engine almost mutes itself at cruising speed, although there’s a bassy combo of tyre and suspension thump. The M3 is comfortably the noisiest, with a higher-pitched, more insistent tyre intrusion that suggests a good deal less in the way of sound insulation. It also attracts the most wind noise.
The flipside is that the M3 is the easiest car of the three to manually paddle shift and drive by ear, being by far the loudest at flat chat, albeit via some artificial amplification. The Alfa and BMW both offer a better rear seat experience than the Mercedes, with its flat and short rear bench, sunroof-pinched headroom and hard-backed front seats that toes can just squeeze under.
The Giulia’s cabin is a decent stab, with classic Alfa twin-cowled dials and a neat black-panel screen cleanly integrated into the fascia sweep, with standard carbonfibre trimmings. But the plastic gear selector is inexplicably ghastly and drilling down to details reveals flimsy switchgear and some seemingly parts-bin bits.
The driving position is excellent, and the steering wheel, with its starter button sitting in the place of a Ferrari-style manettino a nice touch. The rim’s not too thick, which is a welcome tactile relief after the Germans, the M3 in particular setting you up perfectly if you ever need to throttle Mike Tyson. The Alfa also opts for long, column-mounted paddles, while the Germans stick with smaller, wheel-mounted shifters.
The perceived quality of the Mercedes and BMW cabins are both a notch or two superior and while this will hardly be news, it hints at one of the Giulia’s biggest challenges.
There’s a vast gulf in the retail experience between Alfa Romeo and BMW/Mercedes-AMG and as much as we like to pretend that this isn’t a valid point to make in comparison tests, it’d be ignoring the elephant behind the plastic plants to try to state otherwise.
Even overlooking the fact that your prospective $145K purchase could be sitting cheek-by-jowl with a Jeep Compass, both BMW and Mercedes have a virtually unassailable head start in seducing with the silky traction of big budget brand equity. Alfa Romeo is, there at least, stalled in the traps.
Prior to this comparison, the result seemed something of a foregone conclusion. BMW and Mercedes-Benz have so much experience at the pointy end of this sector that the Alfa looked set to be cast as a plucky trier, due an encouraging few words of patronising good cheer before being sent on its way to trickle out of dealers to tragic Alfisti.
But in the final analysis, there’s one car that’s quicker than the others on a challenging road, has a manifestly superior ride, delivers higher highs, a more engaging chassis, markedly the best power-to-weight ratio and which has clearly been designed with a more profound understanding of the needs of drivers. That it also carries the lowest asking price ought to seal the deal.
The Giulia Quadrifoglio is a towering achievement and one that has lifted the dynamic bar to a level that neither of its German rivals can quite approach. If you judge a sporting sedan based on those criteria, then this review is not a particularly close-fought battle.
Naturally, Mercedes and BMW would contend that had they been gifted a five billion Euro windfall – which is more than the entire development programs of the E-Class and 5 Series combined – to design a clean-sheet sports sedan, they’d have done an even better job than the Giulia. The fact is that they didn’t and they haven’t.
This freakish, once-in-a-generation act of financial serendipity, orienting some of the smartest brains in the automotive industry under one flag, has served to punt the Alfa straight onto pole and, equally enticingly, is going to force BMW and Mercedes-AMG to up their respective games.
Step back and adopt a broader take on the overall ownership experience, and it’s possible to make a generally convincing case for the Mercedes-AMG C63 S.
A mere $12K separates it from the Giulia, but the car with the three-pointed star easily justifies that ask in terms of perceived quality and resale value. It’s a reassuringly weighty antidote to buyer’s remorse, delivers a great deal without demanding much in the way of input. It also benefits from the biggest budget where connectivity and tech are concerned, and is the only one that you can also opt for in a wagon body.
So where does that leave the BMW M3? A little off the pace, if we’re honest. It’s still a fierce thing, thuddingly fast and as the only car here sold with a manual gearbox it merits consideration as the purist’s choice. If you live for that moment when you arrive at a deserted wet hairpin with all the driver aids switched off, this is your car. Yet the M3 feels old here, even in this remedial class Competition guise. It a little overmatched too, ceding 44kW, a stack of torque and what feels like a couple of years of development to both rivals.
In any other company the lack of polish of its major controls wouldn’t attract scrutiny, but the judging criteria suddenly became a lot harsher and it’s going home with bronze.
Alfa Romeo has been absent from the top tier of performance sedans for better than four decades, yet the Giulia Quadrifoglio isn’t shy about capitalising on the nascent reserves of goodwill for the industry’s most frustratingly endearing underperformer. The Giulia weaponises its heritage, albeit via a certain degree of cultural appropriation from Maranello. The basket case that emerged a winner seems too pat, too cheesy to be true, but we’re calling it.
And the most surprising thing? The Alfa makes it look easy.
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