BRAVO ALFA?

Seemingly from out of nowhere, Alfa has given us a supersaloon that could be a world-beater. There’s only one way to test the theory, so we’ve put it up against its toughest foes. Time to pinch yourself?

by JETHRO BOVINGDON    PHOTOGRAPHY by ASTON PARROTT

The Col du Grand Saint Bernard.

I don’t know why, but I’ve always wanted to explore this pass that runs over the ridge between Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa. So it’s with some glee that I tap ‘Aosta, Italy’ into the navigation menu of a Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe. At the foot of the col on the Italian side, Aosta will be our base for the next couple of days. It’s 566km from Stuttgart Airport, the C63 S and me, and a lot further for evo staffers Will Beaumont, Aston Parrott and Louis Shaw, who are driving from the UK in an M4 fitted with the Competition Package and a Lexus RC F.

God knows how much petrol we’ll use, and I shudder to think of the cost in road tolls we’ll collectively accrue, but the effort seems necessary and eminently sensible considering that we’re converging on a special road and, we hope, a very special car. That car will arrive with Dan Prosser at the wheel. Dan is never more than two days from a business-class flight and has bravely agreed to fly into Milan (seat 1A), get a chauffeur ride across to the Balocco test track, collect a new Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio and drive it across to Aosta. I haven’t looked at a map but assume it’ll take all of 20 minutes. His sacrifices to make these tests happen never fail to astound.

But the horror of slightly slow Wi-Fi in the BA lounge, the two or three people cluttering up the fast-track security line at Heathrow and the stiff neck from a relaxing doze in the ever-so-slightly-too-upright seat (1A) will be worth it. For the next couple of days will reveal just how good, bad or indifferent the Giulia Quadrifoglio really is. Early impressions from the launch  suggest it’s pretty darn good, but under the intense heat of battle-hardened rivals, there’s always a slight paranoia that any Alfa will wither into another limp and crushing disappointment.

There are no such worries with the C63 S Coupe. Even just creeping through the arteries of the airport and out onto the Autobahn, it feels fabulously exciting. The 4-litre twin-turbocharged V8 is wickedly noisy, the light, fast steering creates a sense of urgency, and the gearbox snaps up and down the ratios with precisely administered violence. The whole car is erupting with energy and seems to flash a knowing smile. It’s a serious performance car but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. By the time I’m 6km into the 566km, I’m certain the Giulia is in for a tough couple of days: a baptism akin to having its head stuffed into a barrel of water by three burly blokes who have no intention of letting it up for air.

In fact, you might think us a little unfair. This version of the C63 S is a big step on from the saloon, with a unique rear axle, huge changes to the front suspension and wider front and rear tracks. The M4 Competition Package and Lexus RC F are also very obviously missing two doors and hence naturally have an advantage in terms of rigidity and, perhaps more pertinently, focus. These are sports cars first and foremost. The Alfa Giulia is a saloon car with sports car attributes thrust upon it. However, there is method in our line-up. We want to know if the Alfa is great. Not just okay. Not just good. And we want to make that judgement in the harshest possible environment. The toughest roads coupled to the very best cars that £60,000 or so will buy you. If the Giulia can live with an M4 Competition and C63 S Coupe, it’s fair to say it will eat a standard M3 and C63 saloon whole. The Lexus, meanwhile, is coupe-only.

I’m pondering this thought for much of the tortuous journey across Switzerland and I have to say it almost seems absurd to be heading towards a showdown with an M4, C63 S, RC F and an Alfa. I know the Quadrifoglio has been a staple of motor shows for a little while now and there have been videos of it howling around the Ring, even an official lap time of 7:39 – or 13 seconds faster than a standard BMW M4 – but somehow I never really thought it would happen. You know, really happen. But it has. You can now buy a new Alfa Romeo saloon with a Ferrari-derived 2.9-litre twin-turbocharged V6 producing 503bhp at 6500rpm and 443lb ft at 2500-5500rpm.

You want more numbers? Okay, it does 0-62mph in 3.9sec and 191mph and it costs from £59,000. In the UK it comes as standard with an eight-speed automatic ’box that drives through an electronically controlled rear differential featuring two clutch packs to allow precise control of how much power goes to each wheel. It can overspeed the outside wheel for proper torque vectoring. The bonnet and roof are carbonfibre, as is the propshaft and the Quadrifoglio weighs 1524kg dry. You can also add things such as carbon-ceramic brakes (£5500) and carbonfibre-backed seats (£2500). It all sounds ridiculously promising, doesn’t it? It has pedigree, too. No, not some tenuous link with great Alfas of old (I believe they made good cars in the 1930s), but because chief engineer Philippe Krief and many of his team recently helped create the Ferrari 458 Speciale.

On paper, then, the Quadrifoglio has the £60,065 M4 Competition Package comfortably covered. Even with a 19bhp boost over the standard car, its 444bhp at 7000rpm and 406lb ft from 1850rpm look a little off the pace. The £59,995 RC F is hopelessly outdone in the numbers game but it’s here because it does things its own way and is full of quirk and character. Its 5-litre V8 is normally aspirated and produces 470bhp at 6400rpm, which sounds strong. However, torque is rated at 391lb ft at 4800-5600rpm and it’s a hint that despite the large capacity, the motor needs revs before it delivers. Even then, with 1765kg to haul around, it’s never quite as nutty as the BMW.

Of course, the Mercedes is nuttier than Grace Jones dipped in Nutella and then rolled in 100kg of cashews: 503bhp at 5500-6250rpm; 516lb ft at 1750-4500rpm. It weighs 1725kg but nobody seems to have told the engine. It flings the car along like a crisp packet in a storm. It’s expensive at £68,710, though. I take one run over the pass before heading to the hotel. The scenery is better than I’d hoped and by the time I’ve climbed up from Martigny on one side and descended back into Aosta on the other, the Merc’s brakes are done. Tomorrow is going to be good, I think.  

I want to drive the Giulia. Of course I do. Sadly, it won’t arrive until a little later and so I head to the Lexus for the run to the 2469m summit of the Colle del Gran San Bernardo. It sounds better in Italian, right? The RC F really is an oddball. In detail it’s sabre-sharp and has an origami-like complexity, but the overall shape is heavy and slightly bulbous. The interior has touchpads, haptic feedback, rotary dials, buttons of all shapes and sizes and a weird mix of materials. You can select three driver modes – Normal, Sport S and Sport S+ – and the optional torque-vectoring differential has Normal, Slalom and Track modes. Then there’s the stability control, with Sport and Expert modes (as well as simply on or off). It’s all slightly baffling after too little sleep in an uncomfy bed (maybe Dan can work it all out when he arrives after his 12 hours under a feathery duvet), but it’s also bizarrely appealing. The question is whether it’s different for the sake of it or offers a genuinely compelling alternative to the Mercedes and BMW.

The big V8 starts with a boom and the LFA-style TFT dash screen sends a little shockwave of excitement up my spine. I select Sport S+ and the main tacho rotates so the red line, set at 7000rpm, is at top dead centre. Sport S+ also primes the VDIM stability system to Sport and gives the steering a bit more weight. Finally, I go for Slalom mode for the torque-vectoring diff, as I suspect the car will need all the agility it can muster as we flick and weave up the pass. The Lexus has the eight-speed Sport Direct Shift automatic that was first introduced with the IS F, and although it’s much improved, it doesn’t quite have the snap of the best dual-clutch ’boxes. It’ll be interesting to see how the Alfa’s auto compares. One thing’s immediately clear and that’s how busy I’ll be on the paddles – this V8 feels almost devoid of torque after the C63 and it’s hard to believe its lungs measure 4969cc.

On the Italian side – the Swiss border is right at the top – the pass starts off in a tunnel of pine trees. It’s not especially wide, but the surface is good and after a couple of big hairpins and long climbs, the road starts to bunch up. It’s not a Stelvio-style hairpin-fest, thankfully, but the corners come thick and fast with good variation. The RC F needs first gear on the tightest corners and feels breathless on the steepest inclines, but it scythes through the quicker combinations with real composure and Slalom mode certainly gives the big coupe surprising agility. It snaps into the turns, the rear of the car really pointing it towards the apex, and then you can simply stand on the throttle. Without the burden of turbocharged torque, traction never seems to be an issue at all.

It sounds wonderful when you find room to keep the revs soaring, too – there’s a deep, snorting induction noise that’s unlike anything else. The brakes feel slightly stodgy but they’re not really tested as gravity sucks the speed away every time you lift the throttle here. By the time we reach the peaceful lake at the top of the pass, I’m pretty impressed. On track the RC F feels heavy and a bit reluctant, but it seems to work nicely in the Alps. Of course, the Merc and BMW were never more than about 3cm behind on the climb up, but the RC F has cemented its place in the test. It proves there’s life beyond the German establishment.

The fantasy of an empty Colle del Gran San Bernardo drenched in sunshine is just that, sadly. For now, at least, it’s chilly, drizzling, and there are scores of cyclists who are outraged that we’ve dared arrive at their road. Aston busies himself with the static photography and detail shots as we wait impatiently for the sun to break through the clouds and the Alfa to arrive. As it happens, we don’t have to drum our fingers for long. Dan has made good time and the gloom breaks almost as soon as the Giulia rolls to a stop.

Even the indignant cyclists can’t resist gathering around the Quadrifoglio for a better look. There’s something rather old-school about the shape of the Giulia, but the carbon detailing, the stance and those delicious telephone-dial alloys create a powerful and evocative impression. It squats over its rear tyres (bespoke P Zero Corsas) and looks like launch control is engaged even at a standstill. There’s just so much pent-up energy, like it’s bursting to prove that the bad old days are gone and this is the future of Alfa Romeo. A future that doesn’t have to be propped up by a distant past or misty-eyed nonsense about ‘character’ that really translates as ‘it’s a bit crap but isn’t it pretty?’

You like to imagine that when jumping into a new car, you savour every second, take in every detail. In reality it’s a bit more hurried – an excited fumble with your brain quickly assimilating all the important info. Love the steering wheel. It’s big but feels just right. Hmmm, starter-button placement just like in a Ferrari. Ooooh, long paddles fixed to the steering column, just like in a Ferrari. No manettino, but there’s a rotary dial down to the left of the gear selector marked ‘RACE’ at 12 o’clock, ‘d’ at 10, ‘n’ at 9 and ‘a’ at 7. This is Alfa’s DNA Pro system, which is linked to Chassis Domain Control. It’s a fancy way of saying you can dial the Quadrifoglio from mild to wild, with Advanced Efficiency allowing cylinder deactivation, Natural losing that feature but retaining the Comfort suspension setting, then Dynamic and Race bringing greater steering weight, brake response, and firmer suspension. The Race function disables stability control completely, provides overboost and brings the noise. Even more so. Depress a button in the middle of the dial and you can back the dampers off again, even when in Race or Dynamic. Just like in a Ferrari.

The engine sounds good. The volume isn’t quite C63 S but it’s not far off and its deep, rorty beat manages that Italian trick of being rude yet cultured. It feels aggressive right from the off. Just selecting D on the auto ’box emits a thunk that you’d never get in the smooth Lexus. It’s a not-so-polite reminder that you’re in a car with some serious firepower. Which is nice.

We’re going to head down the Swiss side of the pass now and surprisingly it’s much, much bumpier and maybe half a car’s width narrower, too. I select Dynamic and the softer suspension setting in anticipation of the bumps and lumps and roll away as gently as is humanly possible in a new 503bhp Alfa that you’ve been gagging to drive for an eternity. First impressions are of incredibly fast and super-accurate steering, a sense of amazing agility and massively oversensitive brakes. This car – a late pre-production example – has the optional ceramics and they require the lightest of touches to operate with anything approaching finesse. That’s a shame, as the rest of the car feels instantly on your side. Even after the Lexus’s surprising keenness to change direction, the Giulia’s unflinching responsiveness feels hugely exciting. It seems 500kg lighter than the Lexus and the way it flicks between the bends is reminiscent of – guess what? – a Ferrari.

The damping, at least in the softer setting, can’t quite live with the steering’s speed, and as the pace starts to increase, suddenly that lost 500kg comes back with a floaty sensation and then a crash into the bumpstops. Instinctively I’m reaching for the damper button within a few miles to go for the default firmer setup in Dynamic. It’s miles better and suddenly the car feels cohesive, searingly rapid and just razor sharp. The engine is fantastic, too. It pulls hard from little over 2500rpm but it’s really worth revving it out for the reach of the top end and because upshifts executed near the limiter result in a great crack of ignition cut. The ’box is fast and aggressive, each upshift bringing a good old kick, almost like a good single-clutch automated manual. It’s not subtle, but it does suit the Quadrifoglio’s intensity.

‘What do you think?’ asks Dan when we stop to grab some more photos. This sounds awful but without thinking I blurt out, ‘It’s not shit!’ with a huge grin. I’m not trying to be cruel, it’s just a mark of how worried I was that Alfa would once again fail to live up to expectations. For me, even after a very quick drive, I know that’s not the case. It’s better than I’d hoped, in fact. Dan concurs. ‘It’s the first saloon car I’ve driven that actually feels like a sports car,’ he says. ‘The steering is so sharp and the chassis so taut, which gives the car the response and immediacy of a much lighter, lower machine.’ Speaking of which, the M4 Competition is ticking and pinging in the sunshine as if to say, ‘Excuse me, I think you need to try a lower, lighter machine before getting too carried away.’

The BMW M4 is a bit of a conundrum. Our first exposure to its four-door brother was at eCoty 2014. We hated it. Numb, spiky and lacking any real sparkle, it seemed a pale imitation of an M car, despite its huge performance. Then we had an M4 long-term test car. It was better; a little more controlled over crests that tied that early M3 in knots, a little less likely to light up its tyres unexpectedly. Even so, it caused Dan a few heart-in-mouth moments during his tenure with the car. Mostly on the way to Heathrow. We concluded it was fabulous in very specific circumstances but still an edgy beast and strangely characterless.

The Competition Package, which has come pretty early in the F82’s lifecycle, looks to address all those criticisms. Aside from the mild power boost, it gets revised springs, dampers and anti-roll bars and features EDC (Electronic Damper Control) as standard with Comfort, Sport and Sport+ modes. The M Differential has been recalibrated, and there’s an M sports exhaust, 20-inch wheels inspired by those of the M4 GTS, and swanky-looking new sports seats. It costs £3000 for all this stuff, so the Competition Package will pretty much become the default spec. This car also has the M DCT ’box  (£2495) and ceramic brakes (£6250).

Immediately it feels more controlled than the standard M4. The ride is very firm but despite that it seems to follow the road’s contours more freely and the sharp, jagged spikes of wheelspin don’t materialise. Even on this very ragtag surface, the rear of the car stays true and accurate. It has stunning front-end grip, too. Understeer at road speeds is non-existent, even on some wickedly tight and unsighted corners. Then there are the brakes, which offer fantastic feel and a sophistication that the grabby Alfa setup can’t touch. It’s the first time I’ve felt truly confident enough to wring out this generation of M4 on the road.

So it’s better. Much better. But some fundamental problems remain. The engine is dull. Oh, you might not think so in isolation and the first time you feel it fire the M4 up a mountain. It has masses of performance. But in time you realise it’s pretty much a joy-free motor except right at the top end. On these roads you rarely find that last 2000rpm or so and the engine just becomes a power unit. Impressive, but not at all inspiring. Compared with the V8 in the C63 S, the twin-turbo 3-litre straight-six just feels stingy in terms of what it offers the driver. Then there’s the steering. It lacks the speed of the Alfa or Mercedes’ systems and it’s blighted by a gloopy quality that, again, seems to drain the fun out of the whole experience. Even in the lightest mode – Comfort – it has a treacly numbness.

Strangely, there are moments when you do find the limits and the M4 comes alive, steering shifting its weight in your hands, front end locked on and the rear moving with beautiful progression thanks to the linear power delivery. But these are so fleeting that they only add to the frustration. You get a glimpse of the old M-car magic and then it’s pulled away from you the next second. For me, the M4 remains a disappointment.

The Mercedes pretty much delivers everything you crave and pine for in the M4 in about 20 seconds. Its engine booms, crackles and howls, the AMG Sport mode for the stability control is lenient so that you can always feel the power tweaking the car’s cornering line (M Dynamic mode is very restrictive in the M4 Competition), the steering is fast and makes the car feel keen to just get stuck in. Okay, it’s light on feel initially, but you can dial into what it’s doing and very quickly you’re driving the C63 S on its door handles. There isn’t quite the mechanical grip of the M4 or the Alfa, but that hardly seems to matter. The car perfectly treads the line between control and entertainment. It’ll just about live with the M4 in terms of pace if you keep it neat and tidy, but always asks a bit more from you: to pull back a bit of turn-in understeer if you’ve been greedy on entry, to judge the amount of power the rear tyres can take and balance any slip. The whole experience just draws you in and despite the great forces at work, the car is so progressive in everything it does.

Dan, Will and I are all in agreement. The winner of this test is either the C63 S or the Giulia Quadrifoglio. Take a moment to digest that. We all believe that the Giulia is more exciting and enjoyable than the M4 Competition Package. I think it’s faster, too. The way it changes direction is quite amazing and the grip offered by the Pirelli tyres is above and beyond the rest of the cars here. The Lexus? I love its alternative take on, well, everything, but it’s just not quite sharp enough to run with the pack here. Pretty soon, everyone is loitering near the C63 S or Alfa for one last drive to decide which way it’s going to go…

I’d feared that the lure of the new would wear off over the course of this test. That the Alfa’s initial wow-factor would diminish. Instead, I find it more enjoyable the longer and further I drive. It’s true that it lacks the final polish that the Mercedes and BMW offer in terms of damping, gearshift speed and precision, and the fine detail of things such as ABS actuation, but it more than compensates with its sense of urgency, its terrific steering response and the sheer manic performance it can serve up on a great road. The only real dynamic frustration beyond the extremely sensitive brakes is that the electronically controlled diff won’t lock up in very tight corners and that allows the inside rear wheel to spin up slightly clumsily at times. However, in the quicker corners you feel it working, driving the front wheels into each corner and creating this lovely, easily manipulated balance. One final drive swings it for the Alfa. I think.

But then I sit in the Mercedes, and never mind the nearly ten-grand premium, it feels £25,000 more expensive. And I start the engine and it rips and snorts into life. And when it streams down the hill, the chassis feels so unbelievably easy to tease and boss. It’s the arch entertainer. Hand on heart, would I enjoy driving this thing every day more than I would the Alfa? Yes. But it’s a close-run thing. The Giulia Quadrifoglio is an Alfa Romeo we can all love not for the badge, not because it’s Italian and noisy, but because it’s a great car. I’d waited many years to drive the Col du Grand Saint Bernard and perhaps even longer to drive a genuinely brilliant Alfa Romeo. To do both at the same time? Unforgettable.

Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio
Engine V6, 2891cc, twin-turbo
CO2 198g/km
Power 503bhp @ 6500rpm  
Torque 443lb ft @ 2500-5500rpm  
Transmission Eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, torque-vectoring, limited-slip differential, ESC
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar  
Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Carbon-ceramic discs (option), 390mm front, 360mm rear
Wheels 8.5 x 19in front, 10 x 20in rear
Tyres 245/35 ZR19 front, 285/30 ZR19 rear
Weight (dry) 1524kg
Power-to-weight (dry) 335bhp/ton
0-62mph 3.9sec (claimed)
Top speed 191mph (claimed)
Basic price £59,000
evo rating: ★★★★

BMW M4 Competition Package
Engine In-line 6-cyl, 2979cc, twin-turbo
CO2194g/km  
Power 444bhp @ 7000rpm  
Torque 406lb ft @ 1850-5500rpm  
Transmission Seven-speed dual-clutch (option), rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential, ESP
Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar  
Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Carbon-ceramic discs (option), 400mm front, 380mm rear
Wheels9 x 20in front, 10 x 20in rear
Tyres 265/30 R20 front, 285/30 R20 rear
Weight 1515kg
Power-to-weight298bhp/ton
0-62mph 4.2sec (claimed)
Top speed 155mph (limited)
Basic price £60,065
evo rating: ★★★★

Lexus RC F
Engine V8, 4969cc
CO2 252g/km  
Power 470bhp @ 6400rpm  
Torque 391lb ft @ 4800-5600rpm  
Transmission Eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, torque-vectoring, limited-slip differential (option), VDIM
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, passive dampers, anti-roll bar  
Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, passive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated discs, 380mm front, 345mm rear
Wheels 9 x 19in front, 10 x 19in rear
Tyres 255/35 R19 front, 275/35 R19 rear
Weight 1765kg
Power-to-weight 271bhp/ton
0-62mph 4.5sec (claimed)
Top speed 168mph (claimed)
Basic price £59,995

evo rating: ★★★★

Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe
Engine V8, 3982cc, twin-turbo
CO2 200g/km
Power 503bhp @ 5500-6250rpm  
Torque 516lb ft @ 1750-4500rpm  
Transmission Seven-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential, ESP
Front suspension Four-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated discs, 394mm front, 380mm rear, ABS, EBD  
Wheels 19in front, 20in rear (option)
Tyres 285/30 R19 front, 285/30 R20 rear
Weight 1725kg
Power-to-weight 296bhp/ton
0-62mph 3.9sec (claimed)
Top speed 155mph (limited)
Basic price £68,710

evo rating: ★★★★

‘The RC F has cemented its place in the test. It proves there’s life beyond the Germans’

'The M4's steering lacks the speed of the Alfa or the Mercedes'


‘The Giulia is in for a baptism akin to having its head stuffed into a barrel of water by three burly blokes’

The Giulia's unflinching responsiveness and the way it flicks between the bends is reminiscent of - guess what? - a Ferrari

'It's the first time I felt truly confident enough to wring out this generation of M4 on the road.'

'The C63s doesn't quite have the mechanical grip of the M4 or Alfa, and it'll just about keep up with the pace of the BMW if you keep it neat and tidy. - But that hardly matters.'

'The Alfa lacks the final polish that the Mercedes and BMW, but it more than compensates with its sense of urgency, its terrific steering response and sheer manic performance.'