ALFA GIULIA v RI­VALS

Ger­many finds it­self fight­ing on two fronts in the medium ex­ec­u­tive sec­tor. Can it pre­vail? Or will Alfa Romeo and Jaguar’s pin­cer ma­noeu­vre prove suc­cess­ful?

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents - WORDS ANDY EN­RIGHT PHO­TOS NATHAN JA­COBS

Can the main­stream Giulia fol­low the game-chang­ing QV’S foot­steps?

N OC­CA­SION, it’s bet­ter to for­get what you thought you knew; to chuck out all those old tropes, heuris­tics, and pub knowl­edge you’ve ac­cu­mu­lated about the cars we’ve as­sem­bled here. They’ll do you no good. The game of one­up­man­ship in the medium ex­ec­u­tive class has moved at such breath­tak­ing pace that per­haps it’s time to re­set the da­tum and look over the best of 2017’s crop with a fresh set of eyes. The Alfa Romeo Giulia was the cat­a­lyst for this com­par­i­son. We adored the 375kw Quadri­foglio rock­et­ship, but won­dered whether shear­ing more than 200kw from that fig­ure would leave the Su­per ver­sion feel­ing a bit over­matched and un­der­baked in this com­pany. We clearly needed to in­clude the big three Ger­man mar­ques, so the Mercedes-benz C250, Audi A4 2.0 TFSI, and BMW 420i Gran Coupe were joined by the Jaguar XE 25t; a car that had aced an early 2016 com­paro. No 3 Series? Not on this oc­ca­sion. We were cu­ri­ous as to whether the five-door 4 of­fered some­thing ex­tra, and, as it has just been given a mid-life re­fresh, it looked to be a solid can­di­date to pitch into the fray. You’re prob­a­bly car-mag lit­er­ate enough to know that these tests usu­ally go one of two ways. The con­ven­tional route is to dis­cuss the mer­its of each ve­hi­cle in turn and then award the ver­dict to some­thing Ger­man. Safest that way. The al­ter­nate op­tion is to cul­ti­vate a tasty bit of con­tro­versy by nam­ing a left­fielder as the win­ner, and be forced to doggedly re­peat and jus­tify that de­ci­sion for years to come. What we’re see­ing here is some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent. As this genre ma­tures, the tem­plates for pack­ag­ing, ride, han­dling, and other at­tributes be­come bet­ter known and eas­ier to repli­cate. The net ef­fect of this is that what was last year’s class leader can rapidly be­come this year’s wooden spoon holder. Pick­ing a favourite a pri­ori isn’t easy and that’s a new thing.

As in­deed is the Alfa Romeo Giulia Su­per. Like ev­ery car here, it’s pow­ered by a 2.0-litre tur­bocharged petrol en­gine, in this in­stance mak­ing 147kw. It’s the light­est of this group by some mar­gin and eas­ily feels the most alert, mak­ing it that rarest of things in this com­pany; a gen­uine out­lier. As a re­sult of do­ing more with less, it reg­is­tered the se­cond quick­est time to 400m, be­ing pipped by a mere tenth by the gutsy Benz. It blends re­fine­ment and agility like none of the oth­ers, bring­ing a whole stack of Quadri­foglio DNA, if not power, to the party. The Gior­gio chas­sis is gen­uinely tal­ented, de­liv­er­ing im­pres­sive ride ab­sorbency on our fully laden four-up test along a hideously sur­faced route, yet wants for lit­tle in terms of body con­trol.

Its ZF eight-speed trans­mis­sion can be mar­shalled by a pair of vast col­umn-mounted pad­dles, but with the ‘DNA’ drive con­troller set to dy­namic, the soft­ware is smart enough to make these largely re­dun­dant. The en­gine isn’t the most vo­cal or charis­matic unit, but 330Nm at 1750rpm en­sures that you don’t need to work it too hard, and that de­li­cious lack of inertia to the way

Giulia changes di­rec­tion means this is the only one of the bunch that eggs you on to look for the twisti­est route home. The lack of a lim­ited slip diff would be an is­sue with more power at its el­bow, but even if you do step up to the more pow­er­ful Ve­loce, you’re then buy­ing a diff with non-switch­able ESC, which largely de­feats the point, from an en­ter­tain­ment per­spec­tive at least.

If the Alfa is the great en­ter­tainer, the Jaguar XE is the big hit­ter. With 177kw un­der the bon­net, it en­joys a sig­nif­i­cant power ad­van­tage over ev­ery­thing else here and feels that way too, though the stop­watch tells a mixed story. This R-sport car pipped ev­ery­thing to 100km/h be­fore be­ing over­hauled fur­ther down the track and rel­e­gated to a mid-field 400m re­sult, nipped by the slightly gluey progress at the top of its rev range.

On adap­tive dampers, the ride qual­ity varies from best of the bunch in Nor­mal, to eas­ily the worst when set to the bor­der­line un­use­able Sport mode. As a re­sult of this huge vari­a­tion, you tend to leave the Jaguar in Nor­mal and put up with the slightly lugubri­ous body con­trol. The steer­ing’s ex­cel­lent, there is stacks of grip and clever ESC cal­i­bra­tion, but there’s a whole wel­ter of er­gonomic glitches that ought to have been ironed out of the XE’S in­te­rior by now. Chang­ing drive modes is an inel­e­gant grope for tiny but­tons, and the mo­torised gear se­lec­tor, which rises from the cen­tre con­sole re­mains an an­swer to a ques­tion that no­body was re­ally ask­ing.

At first, we thought we’d had the wrong Mercedes de­liv­ered. Fire the C250 up and you’d swear it was a diesel, the di­rect-in­jec­tion en­gine lean­ing the fuelling back to such an ex­tent that it clat­ters away mer­rily for the first few min­utes be­fore loos­en­ing up. It’s not what you’d ex­pect of a Mercedes and nor is the ride qual­ity. The wafta­bil­ity that you ex­pect from Stuttgart just isn’t there. On poorly sur­faced roads it feels slightly neu­rotic, never re­ally set­tling but with­out ever get­ting floaty. It tips into a cor­ner sharply, though, and clings on gamely in the twistier sec­tions with­out de­liv­er­ing much in the way of nu­anced feed­back. There’s also markedly more wind noise around the mir­rors than in any other car here. What the en­gine lacks in charm, it makes up for in ef­fec­tive­ness, with the 155kw unit ced­ing noth­ing to its ri­vals in the lunge to the red­line.

By con­trast, the BMW 420i Gran Coupe de­liv­ers the op­po­site; strong sub­jec­tive score­cards, but was ut­terly found out against the clock. It oc­cu­pies the mid­dle dy­namic ground in vir­tu­ally ev­ery test bar straight-line speed, of­fer­ing ex­cel­lent com­po­sure at high speed, fine ride qual­ity, de­cent body con­trol for such a size­able car, and an elec­tri­cally as­sisted steer­ing sys­tem that returns a sur­pris­ing de­gree of fizz and feed­back through the wheel rim. When con­sult­ing the other judges’ notes

THE GRAN COUPE DE­LIV­ERS STRONG SUB­JEC­TIVE SCORE­CARDS, BUT IS UT­TERLY FOUND OUT AGAINST THE CLOCK

on the cross-coun­try route, the most telling re­mark of this, the least pow­er­ful car on test with just 135kw, was ‘feels fast: is slow’.

In a field of rear-drive ri­vals, the front-drive Audi A4 2.0 TFSI al­ways runs the risk of feel­ing a bit in­au­then­tic, a gussied-up hatch chas­sis pre­tend­ing to be part of an ex­clu­sive club. On the road it feels noth­ing of the sort. Re­fine­ment is ex­cel­lent, front-end grip mighty, turn-in crisp, body con­trol taut, and only on rougher roads does the Audi be­gin to feel a bit raggedy, de­spite the fit­ment of $1700 worth of com­fort adap­tive sus­pen­sion. Like the BMW, it feels fairly frothy de­spite fronting up with a mere 140kw, pip­ping the Mu­nich lift­back, but noth­ing else on the Heathcote strip.

Audi also scores when it’s time to re­fuel, the A4 re­turn­ing a test av­er­age of just 7.6L/100km, with the BMW scor­ing next best at 8.9L/100km. The brawny Jaguar XE con­sumed 42 per­cent more fuel than the A4, its 10.8L/100km thirst re­in­forc­ing that the new In­ge­nium turbo-petrol en­gines can’t come soon enough.

The A4 also won ad­mir­ers with its de­sign and pack­ag­ing savvy. Its rear is the only one of this quin­tet where a six-footer would be com­fort­able spend­ing any ex­tended pe­riod. Head­room up front is the best too, though it be­ing the only car here with­out a sun­roof cer­tainly helped in that re­gard. While the dash fin­ish and lay­out is beau­ti­fully ex­e­cuted, the long reach to the Drive Se­lect switches and vol­ume con­trol is ev­i­dence of a com­pla­cent right-hand drive con­ver­sion. The in­te­rior trim choices of this par­tic­u­lar car aren’t In­gol­stadt’s finest hour. How­ever, if you don’t like ele­phant grey leather and chintzy sil­ver dash in­fills, other se­lec­tions are avail­able. The lovely frame­less rear-view mir­ror, the slick sweep­ing rear in­di­ca­tors, and the ra­zor­thin shut­lines of the clamshell bon­net along with its in­te­gra­tion with the full-body swage line are deftly ex­e­cuted de­tails. It seems odd to point out that its 18-inch al­loys look a bit mal­nour­ished in this com­pany, but the yawn­ing chasm above the A4’s side­walls hardly smacks of hun­kered-down fo­cus.

That’s one ac­cu­sa­tion you’d never level at the Jaguar XE 25t R-sport – pre­sented here laden down with op­tions that lifted its $68,900 list to an eye-wa­ter­ing $87,590. It’s hard to ar­gue that the com­bi­na­tion of 19-inch black Venom al­loys, Cae­sium Blue metal­lic paint, and gloss black de­tail­ing pack doesn’t cre­ate a com­pelling visual ar­gu­ment. Lan­tern-jawed good looks aside, the XE was found want­ing in­side. The dial pack now looks old, the touch­screen is clunky, the dash ma­te­ri­als are far from top drawer in this class, and it has the least rear head­room of any ri­val here. The test car also be­gan to make some creak­ing noises over bumps that sounded more like the im­pend­ing end of a Bond vil­lain’s lair than a car that’s just cost you the bet­ter part of 90 grand.

The Giulia’s cabin is a game of two halves, good up front, not so spe­cial in the back. The pale wood fin­ish on this car worked bet­ter than ex­pected, how­ever some fea­tures, like the overly loud in­di­ca­tors, the lack of any in­te­rior bot­tle stor­age, and the bizarre pi­ano black over­head panel that looks like Darth Vader’s hel­met didn’t en­dear the Giulia to testers.

IF THE ALFA IS THE GREAT EN­TER­TAINER, THE JAGUAR XE IS THE BIG HIT­TER

Nei­ther did the head­room stolen by the $2200 du­al­pane sun­roof im­prove their dis­po­si­tion. Give that one a miss if you’re any­thing ap­proach­ing six foot. In or­der to pro­vide a valet-safe boot, you can’t fold the Alfa’s rear seats from in­side the cabin, in­stead hav­ing to open the boot and pull a lever. Ev­ery­body loved the thin-rimmed steer­ing wheel, even if its wheel-mounted starter but­ton wasn’t uni­ver­sally ap­proved. Legroom in the back is dis­as­trous, although the Giulia’s low belt­line and win­dows that drop all the way down of­fer some rec­om­pense for lin­ger­ing deep vein throm­bo­sis.

As the only lift­back of the lot, the BMW of­fers some­thing a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. It ar­guably looks bet­ter than the 3 Series sedan too, with its power-packed bot­tle rocket flanks and sleek glasshouse. Whether you see that as worth its $7500 premium is clearly de­bat­able, but the re­cent Life Cy­cle Im­pulse (Mu­nich’s man­gled ar­got for ‘facelift’), has seen the price shaved by $2200 and a stack more kit in­cluded as stan­dard.

Off the op­tions list and onto the stan­dard equip­ment sheet come adap­tive M sus­pen­sion, head-up dis­play, auto-dim­ming mir­rors, blind-spot warn­ing, au­tonomous brak­ing, and a sur­round-view cam­era. The beige leather and chrome of this Luxury trim car felt a bit pipe-and-slip­pers but the er­gonomics are hard to ar­gue with. The only real down­side to the Gran Coupe’s in­te­rior is the slightly pinched rear head­room and the fact that the rear win­dows only drop half­way.

Where things get a bit sticky for the BMW is when you want to step up to the rather lovely 430i ver­sion, and net your­self 185kw rather than 135. It’s much the same en­gine, ef­fec­tively mak­ing the 420i a crip­ple­ware ver­sion of the 430i, and yet the step up will cost you a swinge­ing $10,000. For $9000, Audi will el­e­vate you from the 140kw 2.0 TFSI to the 185kw ver­sion and in­clude the qu­at­tro all-wheel driv­e­train, with com­par­a­tively bet­ter resid­u­als to boot.

Vy­ing with the Jag and the Alfa for the best re­tained val­ues after three years is the Mercedes-benz C250, which per­haps partly ex­plains why it has out­sold the BMW 3 Series by two and a half to one re­cently (see side­bar). The ex­te­rior styling is low key and lacks the im­mac­u­late tai­lor­ing of its pre­de­ces­sor. Yet, de­spite the con­ser­va­tive ex­te­rior treat­ment, the in­te­rior is the brash­est of the bunch. It’s strangely mis­matched in this re­gard, with swathes of dis­tract­ingly re­flec­tive pi­ano black on the fas­cia and look-at-me flour­ishes of con­trast­ing sil­ver and chrome. Yes, it’s un­doubt­edly ex­pen­sive look­ing, but it feels a bit new money in over­all ex­e­cu­tion.

There are an­noy­ing ob­jec­tive glitches too, like the vast step up from throt­tle to brake that’ll give you shin splints, the front seats that squash the feet of rear pas­sen­gers when the driver low­ers the seat height, and the rear arches that in­trude so far on the rear door aper­ture that it’s hard to en­ter the back seat with­out hit­ting the frame on the way past. That said, the black leather up­hol­stery feels beau­ti­ful, the in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem is the best of the lot, and the Burmester stereo de­liv­ers the most faith­ful re­pro­duc­tion of all the sound sys­tems with punchy bass and crisply enun­ci­ated tre­ble.

Sift­ing these cars into any sem­blance of or­der based on merit is far from a straight­for­ward task. In the end, three strata co­a­lesced. The Mercedes C250 is the first to fall. Strangely for a Benz, this it­er­a­tion of the C-class isn’t a par­tic­u­larly co­he­sive propo­si­tion. The en­gine lacks charisma, the ride (with­out Air Body Con­trol) isn’t what you’d ex­pect from a Mercedes, and there’s a dis­con­nect be­tween the slightly frumpy ex­te­rior and the shouty cabin. This en­gine has now been re­placed with the 180kw C300 9G-tronic, which could well have punched the Benz back into con­tention.

The BMW 420i Gran Coupe and the Jaguar XE 25t are harder to sep­a­rate. The 420i Gran Coupe is a car with pre­cious few vices. Its dumbed-down en­gine proves its Achilles heel, and the cost to over­come this lack of urge is puni­tive. Oth­er­wise en­dear­ing in so many re­gards, the BMW is prob­a­bly the eas­i­est to live with of the lot, and that has earned it sig­nif­i­cant credit. It’s also a car that re­wards you the harder you drive, the chas­sis ini­tially feel­ing as if it lacks a bit of per­son­al­ity, but push it hard and you’ll see where the hours of test­ing have paid div­i­dends. In the fi­nal reck­on­ing, de­spite its over­all like­abil­ity, the sedan that be­came a coupe and then be­came a four-door again asks the most money for the least amount of en­gine, which proved a hur­dle too big to over­come.

The Jag is a car we kept com­ing back to, try­ing to nail down its enig­matic ap­peal. Whereas most of the other con­tenders here lay bare their tal­ents in short or­der, the XE’S skill set re­veals it­self grad­u­ally. At first ac­quain­tance, it’s easy to be un­der­whelmed by the nearly-there cabin ex­e­cu­tion and the dis­mal fuel econ­omy. Press pause on the im­pres­sion that the XE lacks the en­gi­neer­ing depth re­quired to play in this com­pany, give the car a lit­tle longer be­fore lock­ing in a firm im­pres­sion, and the Jaguar’s tal­ents start to form a crit­i­cal mass. It’s ar­guably the best-look­ing car here, it’s the quick­est, has un­ques­tion­ably the best ride (in Nor­mal mode), and is fun to drive. And it’s only go­ing to get bet­ter when the In­ge­nium petrol en­gines ar­rive with the promise of bet­ter ef­fi­ciency and re­fine­ment.

Sep­a­rat­ing the Audi and the Alfa could eas­ily be framed as a head/heart thing, the ruth­lessly ef­fec­tive A4 ver­sus the brio and bravado of the Giulia. In bald fi­nan­cial terms, it’s hard to ar­gue against the Audi. It is, in most ob­jec­tive con­sid­er­a­tions, the best car here. It may not tug your heart strings – one judge dis­miss­ing the un­remit­tingly grey Audi as a ‘noth­ing­burger’ – but the longer you spend with it, the more its qui­etly con­sid­ered qual­i­ties come to the fore. It came within a squeak of win­ning this year’s Wheels Car of the Year award, los­ing out only to the genre-chang­ing Mazda CX-9, and it oc­cu­pies the se­cond step of the podium here once again.

Which leaves the Giulia. No­body saw this com­ing, not even those among us who got a bit worked up over the Quadri­foglio. Most felt that with the show-stop­ping en­gine taken out of the equa­tion, the Alfa would strug­gle against the un­re­lent­ing pol­ish of the premium Ger­man mar­ques, but of all the cars here, there’s only one that’s touched by the mark of ge­nius, and it’s the Giulia. The oth­ers are very good cars, and none would spark a mo­ment of buyer’s re­morse, but there’s a clear su­pe­ri­or­ity about the way the Giulia goes down a chal­leng­ing road that buys it all man­ner of credit.

Yet it doesn’t ac­tu­ally need to call upon that re­serve of good­will too of­ten. If you’re scru­ti­n­is­ing leas­ing rates and econ­omy fig­ures, or are still un­con­vinced by Alfa’s re­li­a­bil­ity prospects, the Audi makes a great Plan B. But if, like us, you’d rather be be­hind the wheel of a car that de­liv­ers so much and asks for so lit­tle, the Giulia de­liv­ers a wholly con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ment. For­get what you thought you knew. Press re­set. You’re go­ing to like it.

THERE’S A CLEAR SU­PE­RI­OR­ITY ABOUT THE WAY THE GIULIA GOES DOWN A CHAL­LENG­ING ROAD

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