Gi­u­lia vs ri­vals

Alfa Romeo Gi­u­lia takes on the BMW 320d, Jaguar XE on a HUGE TopGear track


Wel­come to the TopGear track on a gi­gan­tic scale. But will the new Alfa Romeo Gi­u­lia go straight to the top of the leader board?

Through the sharpest part of Ham­mer­head. Sharp left, wind of the lock, a touch of throt­tle, sharp right. And… stop. Red light. Move away, avoid the bus com­ing in from the left. Check over the shoul­der, edge along­side a white van. Big pot­hole now.

You might ar­gue that tak­ing a bunch of diesel sa­loons and send­ing them around our fa­mous fgure-of-eight test track is about the most point­less thing we could have done to vehicles whose pur­pose in life is mostly busi­ness travel and fam­ily life. Fun, but point­less. But when done at a suit­ably am­bi­tious scale, we can bring you some ac­tual TopGear con­sumer ad­vice. What scale? About 140:1.

Yes, if you mul­ti­ply the TopGear test track by 140, then lay the re­sult­ing shape on the road net­work of the East Mid­lands, what emerges is a stern and rel­e­vant test for sporty diesel sa­loons. It’s got all the stuf a com­pa­ny­car drone needs to do: m’way and city and sub­ur­ban. We’ll come to that, but for­give us for hav­ing some good times frst. Be­cause the start/fnish line is on a string of Wolds roads around Gains­bor­ough. They weave and buck, oc­ca­sion­ally throw­ing us sets of clear-sighted 90° bends. Lit­tle trafc. A good place to be driv­ing.

They’ll ex­pose the met­tle of taut-sinewed cars from Alfa, BMW and Jaguar. We have sport sus­pen­sions and op­tional adap­tive dampers on all three, and the most pow­er­ful 2.0-litre diesel op­tions, with au­to­mat­ics. BMW and Jaguar ofer AWD, but here we’ve kept it even with rear-drive in all cars.

The Alfa eats it up. Maybe be­cause there’s some­thing about these sur­faces that’s not un­like Ital­ian roads, or maybe be­cause it’s a good car ev­ery­where, but that’s a ques­tion for later today. For now let’s en­joy its un­fap­pable, solid, crisp moves. It’s tautly sus­pended, so its body moves up and down a bit, but al­ways snap­pily damped. The steer­ing is a re­mark­able thing: the high­est-geared set-up of the three cars, matched to a chas­sis that doesn’t roll and carves quickly into ev­ery turn. But while so many such quick set-ups can feel twitchy on roads like this (Fer­rari) or bashed up with end­less lat­eral de­fec­tion (Fo­cus RS, we mean you), the Alfa steer­ing matches its agility with calm.

Its tyres fnd vast grip, and there’s a lim­ited-slip dif as part of a per­for­mance pack with those adap­tive dampers. It’s un­usual – though if we’re be­ing hon­est, ap­pro­pri­ate – to fnd the trac­tion con­trol can’t be fully switched of, and even in its looser set­ting in Dy­namic mode, it’ll still cut the en­gine a lit­tle out of a slow cor­ner. While I’m be­ing picky, its steer­ing doesn’t yield as much feel as the BMW’s. But the Gi­u­lia’s agility and pre­ci­sion give it a ter­rifc author­ity over the bumps and bends.

Af­ter which, the BMW’s chas­sis feels old. On un­even roads its sus­pen­sion shufes un­easily, knock­ing from side to side, pitch­ing di­ag­o­nally. The wheels seem heav­ier than the Alfa’s, the sus­pen­sion bound up by more fric­tion. Even though the springs aren’t mean­ing­fully frmer, there’s more gen­eral com­mo­tion. Can this be the saloon that’s been held in such uni­ver­sal high re­gard for so darned long? Oh yes, and here’s why. Find a smooth cor­ner, a big round­about, a spi­ralling dual-car­riage­way slip road, pitch it in and the whole thing hun­kers down, the steer­ing alive with feel, the car happy to bal­ance on its trac­tion.

Funny, but when you drive a Jaguar XE along­side an Audi A4, you think it’s sharp as a tack and su­per-en­gag­ing. But along­side the Alfa and BMW, its propo­si­tion slips of to a difer­ent, more iso­lated ter­ri­tory. Like them, its re­sponses to the steer­ing are lithe and gor­geously bal­anced, but un­like them it spares you the de­tails. The ride is no­tably more placid even in its Sport mode (I al­ways kept the Alfa’s and BMW’s dampers in their softer mode on these hec­tic sur­faces). And its steer­ing op­er­ates on a need-to-know ba­sis.

You can zip serenely along these difcult roads, but be­cause it robs you of in­for­ma­tion about the fric­tion be­low, you don’t feel prop­erly in­volved. Nor ac­tu­ally any too conf­dent when spring­time turns back to win­ter, as it did in our test.

BMW’s old 2.0-litre diesel drove as well as most peo­ple’s new ones, but this 320d’s new B-se­ries is keener again. If Otto hadn’t in­vented the petrol en­gine, you’d have ev­ery right to be chufed with driv­ing the 320d. It revs close to 5,000rpm and doesn’t have any sub­stan­tially soggy spots. Even if it did, the su­perb cal­i­bra­tion of the auto ’box would cover them up.

The Alfa’s pow­er­train comes close – it doesn’t rev so high and the noise is a lit­tle tin­kly at times, but the en­gine and trans­mis­sion work well to­gether and your man­u­ally ac­ti­vated shifts, via the gor­geous al­loy bull-horn pad­dles, click through crisply.

There’s been enough crit­i­cism of the Jaguar In­ge­nium en­gine’s racket – grumbly on the mo­tor­way, harsh un­der big loads – that I won’t dwell on it, save to say it prob­a­bly wouldn’t be a huge is­sue if the auto ’box were bet­ter set up. This is the same ZF unit as the oth­ers, but the Jaguar al­lows mushy torque-con­verter slip at low revs, en­cour­ag­ing you to stretch your toe to get ac­tion, at which point the en­gine comes on boost, the trans­mis­sion kicks down, the lock-up en­gages and you crash for­ward far more bru­tally than you wanted. It’s a pass­ing ir­ri­ta­tion as we go through coun­try towns, an ac­tual an­noy­ance as we hit the stop-go gloop of the Brum me­trop­o­lis.

On the mo­tor­way sec­tions, the Jaguar’s plump ride and quiet tyres are sooth­ing. Less so is the need for a lot of steer­ing cor­rec­tion to hold it be­tween lane mark­ers. The BMW’s tyres roar and its steer­ing, though it holds straight well, has in­con­sis­tent weight­ing in the frst few de­grees of lock. So the Alfa is eas­i­est to guide, and its road and wind noise split the other two. So it’s the best cruiser, which is quite some­thing, given it’s also the best on B-roads.

The BMW’s sus­pen­sion keeps squirm­ing and clump­ing af­ter Spaghetti Junc­tion and into the city. The Alfa is just as frmly sprung but its body mo­tions are neater, confned mostly to a ver­ti­cal axis, so they im­pinge less on your own skele­ton. The Jaguar is the prop­erly cushy one.

But I’d only be en­joy­ing the Jag’s iso­la­tion if it had the op­tional seats. The test car has the stan­dard ones with­out ad­justable lum­bar sup­port, and their hol­low shape gives me back­ache. It’s per­sonal of course, but gen­er­ally my spine isn’t fussy: most car chairs are fne by me. Nei­ther would I want to be stuck in the back of the Jaguar, be­cause the slinky roof cuts head­room. That doesn’t ac­tu­ally mat­ter be­cause no one buys this sort of car as a fve-seater. It’s all SUVs these days, in­nit?

So the Alfa has con­sis­tently shown up well in the char­ac­ter­is­tics re­quired for this var­ied trip, and if that sur­prises you then you’ll have breath bated for this, its last chance to let it­self down. The in­te­rior. But no. It’s not just stylish but cleanly and sen­si­bly laid out and de­cently con­structed. The seat is good, and its re­la­tion­ship with steer­ing wheel and pedals is per­fectly cor­dial. The in­stru­ments are clear and the in­fo­tain­ment un­am­bi­tious but pretty easy to op­er­ate. This Gi­u­lia Su­per trim level gets stan­dard TomTom map­ping with con­nected trafc. It’s a match for Jaguar’s and BMW’s stan­dard sys­tems, though the test

“The Gi­u­lia’s agility and pre­ci­sion give it a ter­rific author­ity over the bends”

320d and XE have op­tional ex­tras the Alfa doesn’t ofer: big­ger-screen, more con­nected nav­i­ga­tion, and head-up dis­plays.

OK, I got up­set that the Alfa’s map au­toro­tates to head­ing up when you zoom in be­yond a fxed thresh­old, but I know most don’t share that tic of mine. More of a bother is the lack of CarPlay and An­droid Auto, al­though tra­di­tional phone over Blue­tooth and mu­sic over USB works well enough. Ditto the Jaguar. The BMW doesn’t have full CarPlay, but it does have Siri, which is very handy for sum­mon­ing mu­sic, voice-dialling or dic­tat­ing texts.

The BMW’s driv­ing po­si­tion is fne, but does it need this thick soggy wheel rim? It’s like grap­pling with a Krispy Kreme. On the up­side, nearly 20 years of con­tin­u­ally evolv­ing iDrive has turned the BMW’s in­fo­tain­ment into a model of clar­ity, con­fgura­bil­ity and ease. To be fair, this is the top-end op­tional sys­tem, but it re­pays your in­vest­ment. So does the bril­liant HUD, with its sharp ren­der­ing and su­perb con­text-de­pen­dent con­tent. By de­fault it shows speed plus the dis­tance to your next junc­tion, but touch the steer­ing-wheel phone but­ton and that ar­row is tem­po­rar­ily re­placed by your re­cent calls list so you can scroll through and re­dial with­out look­ing down. Same with mu­sic: touch the roller and up comes a list of tracks or sta­tions. Ge­nius.

The Jaguar too has an op­tional HUD, but it’s less in­for­ma­tive, and its gritty orange graphics look like the mo­tor­way gantry signs that tell you there’s an hour’s de­lay ahead. Our test XE had the op­tional big-screen nav­i­ga­tion, which looks swish but gives you less con­trol over pre­sen­ta­tion than the BMW. There are more in­fe­lic­i­ties in the XE’s cabin de­sign. Pulling onto the M1, I opened the boot in­stead of ac­ti­vat­ing the lane-de­par­ture warn­ing be­cause those two but­tons are hid­den be­low the steer­ing column, ad­ja­cent and hap­ti­cally matched. What were they think­ing of?

The Jaguar’s abil­ity to glide like a swan over difcult roads, and its sur­pris­ing agility while it’s at it, is un­matched in cars this size. But there are too many other let-downs: pow­er­train, er­gonomics and pufy-cloud steer­ing.

Even so, it man­ages to make the 320d feel like an old car that’s been very clev­erly up­dated by its per­fected en­gine and iDrive. The BMW’s lumpy chas­sis has al­ways been given an easy break in road tests be­cause there was no ri­val that made such a great job of cor­ner­ing on smooth roads. And ac­tu­ally there still isn’t.

But away from that one cir­cum­stance, the Alfa is more sat­is­fy­ing and en­gag­ing to drive quickly. It makes a pretty clean sweep of the day-to-day hy­giene fac­tors too. Alfa has come straight out of the hole with a car that doesn’t just make splashy head­lines with its tyreshred­ding 500bhp ver­sion. The ma­jor­ity-sell­ing diesel Gi­u­lia is a frst efort that feels like Alfa has been do­ing it for years. Given the strength in depth of the op­po­si­tion – in this test and else­where – a car’s got to be a win­ner when it ex­cels at the di­verse de­mands of our su­per-sized Ham­mer­head, Fol­low Through and Gam­bon.

All to play for head­ing into Sec­ond-To-Last. Watch out for the box junc­tion cam­eras Just like Chicago in ev­ery way. Apart from the pres­ence of flow­ers. And lack of jumbo jet

Ever won­dered how the XE looks if you’re an ex­haust­d­welling dor­mouse?

The East Mid­lands edi­tion of Where’s Wally proved sur­pris­ingly straight­for­ward

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