I remember a time, back toward the end of the 1900s, when sports sedan enthusiasts still cared about things like steering feel, chassis dynamics, and genuine driving pleasure. We would talk about how a car changed directions or how you get the back end to just slightly rotate around by using the car's delicate throttle response to meter out the perfect amount of power and break the tires loose without blasting them into smoke and noise. Those days, however, are gone. Now we worship an Englishman on TV who destroys tires, hyperbolizes every aspect of a complex automobile into Twitter-like sound bites in-between sexist and racist jabs. This is the world we live in. Cars like the BMW M3, once king of the class, are now built to satiate the power-hungry miscreants who are more concerned with racing Mustangs at stoplights than enjoying a canyon road. Luckily, for those of us with more classic tastes, Alfa Romeo is bringing a sports sedan to our shores that will remind us why we love driving.
It's been 22 years since Alfa sold the 164 sedan in the United States. Back then, we had the e36 M3, the Mercedes C36 AMG, and even a fairly decent Swedish airplane company was building sports sedans. These were drivers' cars. Social media didn't exist, so there wasn't a venue for showing off dyno numbers and burnout videos to the world. Even Motor Trend, when talking about the greatness of the C36, remarked that accelerating from a stop "isn't inspiring." It wasn't made for that, and the customers who bought these cars understood.
I traveled to Sonoma Raceway, formerly Infineon, formerly Sears Point, in Sonoma, California, to drive the car on the legendary, identity-challenged, 12(ish)-turn road course for the launch and official spelling verification of the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. The landscape, track, and surrounding roads are so perfectly suited for car launches, you wonder why every event isn't held here. Then, you creep through every perfectly cambered, tree-lined switchback in bumper-to-bumper traffic after paying 14 bucks for a coffee and a quince gluten-free scone; suddenly things become clear again. But, hey, my exorbitantly priced breakfast got 32 likes on Snapchat.
On paper, you might be forgiven for thinking the Giulia Quadrifoglio is simply an Italian copy of Munich's muscle sedan. The recipe is roughly the same. Take an entry-level luxury car, called simply Giulia, fit it with a 505hp twin-turbo 2.9L V-6 sending power to only the rear wheels, make sure it has 50/50 weight distribution, and wrap it in design language sexy enough to make sports car drivers stare. Alfa Romeo is especially good at that last part.
The Giulia, in all trim levels, is a beautiful piece of design—especially the Quadrifoglio. Sedan styling these days is derivative, to put it politely. While the Alfa's profile and basic proportions might look like everything in the class, it's the details that make the difference. The bulging carbon-fiber hood stretches a bit further than most and drapes down into the aggressive front fascia. The overhangs are short and fenders wide. There are intakes and outlets all over the Quadrifoglio, letting you know this thing generates heat and needs to breathe. It has an active front air dam at the front, large rocker panels below the doors, and a big diffusor at the rear, the earmarks of performance these days. The atmosphere appreciates the sculpted design as much as the eye, with Alfa Romeo claiming best in class aerodynamics. It might be similar in size and shape, but it won't be confused for one of the Germans.
I will admit to being skeptical of the engine; a car with a just so slightly smaller displacement but making an additional 61 hp should have even worse driveability than an M3. Luckily, that isn't the case. The modern M3, which evolved from a car known for incredible throttle linearity, thanks to individual throttle bodies and fastidious tuning, now has a throttle pedal often described as digital. Apparently Bimmer believes in the old adage of "If you ain't speedin' up, yer slowin' down," which is reflected in the all-or-nothing power delivery of its current M engines. The Quadrifoglio's engine won't be mistaken for naturally aspirated; probe the throttle under 3,000 rpm and the lag can make the car feel a little lazy. Once you get to 3,500 rpm, things start getting exciting. By 4,000 rpm, the Ferrari-derived 90-degree V-6 is pulling and wailing like a race car. The sonorous roar of the Alfa is another area where BMW could learn a few things. The Giulia doesn't have an electronic sound generator—it makes its own soundtrack.
Like every other car in the category, you can select different driving modes to alter the reactions of the car. Alfa refers to it as the DNA Pro selector. By selecting different driving modes—Dynamic, Natural, Advanced Efficiency, or Race—you adjust everything from throttle response and shift points to active damping and aero. Everything is tied together by another acronym, the CDC or Chassis Domain Controller. Once a mode is selected, the CDC will get as nitty-gritty as adjusting the torque-vectoring rear differential and stability control. Selecting Race Mode defeats traction and stability control entirely.
On the road, we have no doubt that Advanced Efficiency Mode, which utilizes a seamless cylinder deactivation scheme, will return huge dividends in both efficiency and a greater sense of well-being. I used it long enough to know that there is no booming noises, shuddering sensations, or surges of power when the engine is running in less than six-cylinder mode. Natural Mode does provide comfortable cruising when driving in moderate traffic, but let's be honest, you mostly care about Dynamic and Race.
On the twisting roads that cut through the mountains and canyons in the Sonoma area, Dynamic Mode is by far the most appropriate. Throttle response is not only sharpened with more aggressive pedal mapping, but the transmission keeps the engine spinning at an rpm more attune to driving than just cranking an air-conditioner compressor. As Race Mode deactivates stability control completely, that was reserved for later track work.
Alfa Romeo's engineers are rather proud of the car's lightning-fast steering. This is the quickest ratio I have driven in anything short of an open-wheel race car with the instantaneous just-off-center reaction to match. There is zero on-center dead spot in this car's steering. This might be an eye-opener to potential customers and a major cause of high blood pressure for salesmen on test-drives. It takes a little time to get accustomed to just how reactive the steering is. In most cars, you turn the wheel a bit, you feel the resistance build up, you turn the wheel a bit more, and then the car starts to turn. Then after all the squishy bits in the suspension load up, your car finally takes a set. Not the Quadrifoglio. As soon as you add torque to the steering wheel, the car initiates turn-in. There is still a decent amount of steering gain as the car loads up, but it's linear and consistent, again unlike some of the competition.
Braking feel is matched well to the steering and throttle, at least on the road—more on that later. In normal driving, where some of the high-performance versions of competitors feel as pedestrian as the mass-market model they are based on, the Alfa still feels special. It delivers a constant stream of feedback in the form of tactile and auditory stimulation you would expect in an exotic, or maybe more to the point, what you remember from a classic sports sedan. And like those classic cars, the Giulia has plenty of suspension travel and uses it with perfectly matched spring and damping rates. In Natural Mode, the ride is compliant enough to trick you into think you might be in a luxury sedan, however, in Race mode, the ride is never punishing. This car may have taken a while to get here, but it is so well tuned it was well worth the extra time and attention.
Now matter how twisty and technical the drive route became, it was clear that even the base model of the Giulia is capable of covering ground faster than the law or your sight lines allow. My theory is, the Quadrifoglio is subsidized by the traffic lawyers association, as this car is likely to represent a whole new revenue stream for its members. Where most modern sports sedans are so isolated they make it easy to creep up in speed, this car coerces you to. The Quadrifoglio quickly won a spot on my list of cars I'd love to own until they won me a date with a judge. Fortunately, this time I had a date with a racetrack instead.
Sonoma Raceway is a great venue to drive a car like the Quadrifoglio, but I'm pretty sure I remember the straights being longer. I started out with a quick ride-along and was lucky enough to sit shotgun with Fabio Francia, aka the driver who used a Giulia to set the fastest time in a sedan around the Nurburgring. Signore Francia is intimately familiar with the car and clearly had done a few laps around Sonoma before I got in with him. He's fast to say the least, but aside from just holding on, I noticed a few things instantly. The eight-speed automatic transmission, while clearly not a manual and not even the sexiest choice for a self-shifter on paper, is remarkably capable on the racetrack. The difference in shift speed between this and a dual-clutch are imperceptible without equipment and is certainly faster and smarter than I. The steering is light, especially when compared to an M3. Even in Race Mode, the steering has just enough weight to make it load up naturally while not feeling like wrestling a python. Again, this is something we can partially blame on customer focus groups; I talk to enthusiasts all the time who think heavy steering is communicative steering. The truth is, as we lose actual steering feel, all that extra effort just decreases the signal-to-noise ratio and you end up with less information about what's happening up front. If you don't believe me, drive a 911 with a manual steering rack back to back with any car with heavier yet power-assisted steering in the last 20 years. Anyway, the steering, by modern standards, is sublime.
Dynamically, this car is a reawakening for the industry. Body roll, even at the limits, is very well controlled. The back end especially has very little roll. This became even more apparent from behind the wheel. Part of this is attributable to the car being designed to have a very low center of gravity using carbon fiber for both the hood and roof. The lower the mass is with respect to the suspension's roll center (this distance is called the roll couple), then naturally the lower the body roll. The other part is the geometry of the multi-link rear suspension, which determines that roll center.
The Giulia puts down power in ways that other rear-wheel-drive sedans just can't. I'm looking at you, Mercedes and BMW. An electronic torque-vectoring rear differential is somewhere between the greatest automotive engineering achievement of the year and pure voodoo. I've been known to be slightly slow off corners, either erring toward overly cautious or stepping way over the sweet spot, exiting back end first. The Giulia is controllable on the limit, and that limit for power is so high that it exits corners almost like the latest 911.
While we are talking about cornering, those short overhangs and centralized mass mean it rotates quickly and rotates around the center of the car. The localization of the weight about the center of gravity is the car's polar moment of inertia. The longitudinally mounted V-6 is positioned behind the front axle, meaning this car is essentially mid-engine. All this adds up to a large car that shrinks around you.
Everything isn't perfect, however. The braking system on the Giulia is brake by wire that can revert to pure mechanical in the event of a failure. Like first-generation electric power steering systems, this very early brake-by-wire system is devoid of feel at higher efforts, like on a racetrack, where you really need it. As such, it takes a while to recalibrate your senses to find other data channels and feel what the brakes are doing. This resulted in multiple people overrunning braking zones on their first couple of laps. Once you get accustomed to gleaning the same amount of stopping info from the dead pedal as you get from the brake pedal, things get a lot easier.
Within a few laps, I was up to speed in the slightly intimidating Quadrifoglio. This car is that one college professor everyone loathed in school but thanks when accepting awards. You know the one—the one who believes in your abilities, sees your hidden potential, but won't accept anything but your best. The Quadrifoglio will stand behind you as long as you're on your game. Start slacking, lose focus, and it'll give you a browbeating. It breaks away in more controllable fashion and is much more driveable on the limit than something like C63. But while Mercedes and maybe BMW electronics will try and make you feel like a hero, Giulia's will let you know you weren't up to the task. That is, unless you are in Race Mode; then you're on the high wire with no net. Needless to say, even on the track, I didn't spend much time in Race Mode.
The cars I drove on track were loaded with all the stuff you want for going fast. Optional carbon-fiber Sparco sport seats are as good as anything else on the market and keep you firmly planted in what Alfa designers refer to as a drive-centric cockpit. While standard steel brakes are fine for the average driver, on track I certainly appreciated the six-piston front, four-piston calipers with optional carbon ceramic rotors in 15.4 inches and 14.2 inches, respectively. (For those of you who speak metric, that's 390 mm and 360 mm.) Those rotors are apparently half the weight of the regular iron-based boat anchors spinning inside the 19x8.5- and 19x10-inch wheels. The Quadrifoglio comes equipped with the latest generation of Pirelli P Zero Corsa in 245/35 and 285/30 sizes; Tire Rack refers to these as a Streetable Track Tire. In my experience, they did both extremely well. I am thankful, however, that I didn't get a chance to test how well they work in the wet, as I have unconfirmed suspicions.
Pricing on the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio has finally been set at $73,595, including delivery. For reference, a BMW M3 is $64,995, however, Alfa is far more generous with the standard features, making a comparably equipped Bimmer hover around $78,000. A Mercedes C63S bases at $73,725 and comparably equipped will be north of $80,000. This is the point where I would love to tell you about a comparable Audi RS4 or Jaguar XE SVR, but I can't. They don't exist—at least not yet.
This car will hopefully reinvigorate the entire sports sedan category. Manufacturers, beholden to the whims of focus groups, have strayed away from what real drivers really want. They have created muscle cars wrapped in carbon fiber and lined with alcantara but have forgotten what subtlety is. The Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio is quite simply the car that all customers in this category thinks they are buying; a subtle yet sublime driving partner that brings passion back to the sports sedan.