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Anticipation. Disappointment. An Alfa Romeo and a BMW

Anticipation is a dangerous thing. It can set expectations so high that reality can only disappoint. It can also create such longing that real issues are drowned in a wave of pent up excitement. I approached the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio with more anticipation than I’ve had for most cars. I braced myself for disappointment.

When scheduling our time with the hottest Giulia we learned a few distressing things. First, the Los Angeles press fleet had three cars at their disposal until an unnamed journalist balled one up the week before. Second, another of the cars simply quit working. Lab-coated techs with laptops were slaving over it and this example refused to co-operate. We were given the third car in the fleet. Based on the status of the other two, we took the keys knowing it could prove to be a handful, or refuse to run.

The Giulia is an all new platform for Alfa Romeo, and a much more vital gamble than the unicorn 8C or rare 4C that marked the soft re-introduction of the brand. US customers have been bombarded with Superbowl commercials, magazine inserts, and endless social media ads about the new sedan from this storied car maker. Like any Italian exotic, the Giulia promised a seductive break from the norm. Never-mind that the norm in question is the widely respected and hyper-refined 3 series from BMW.

Bouyed by history, great styling, and the belief that owning an Alfa Romeo is a rite of passage, most everyone seems to want these cars to be great. Yet in the next breath there are concerned whispers about reliability and poor owner experience. We live in a world where even Ferrari now comes with an extensive warranty. Art on wheels is no longer tolerated if it doesn’t work as advertised. The Giulia has to work.

Our concerns were quickly banished. We drove the Giulia to pick up a Competition Pack BMW M3 and made our way across the width of Los Angeles, trading cars as we went. The M3 is an old friend and rules this segment like a prize fighter with a flawless record. The Alfa is the upstart, a pretty boy who struts into the ring and thinks it has a chance against the champ. Even a few blocks behind the wheel reveal their different personalities.

We planned to shoot these two on one of our favorite roads in Southern California, a route with everything from illegally fast sweepers to technical corners done in first gear. Getting there requires two hours in Los Angeles traffic and many cars I love are hateful during this chore. The M3 glides though the miles at any speed, its Autobahn breeding always felt but never intrusive. The Giulia surprised us here, with a more compliant ride than the M3, and seats almost as good.

Few things reveal the luxury feel of an interior like time in stop and go traffic. As boredom sets in I end up tapping on plastic surfaces and brushing my hand over things I’d never touch if actual driving was required. On obsessive inspection, the Alfa doesn’t have the interior feel I’d expect from nearly eighty-thousand dollars. The M3 feels worth the money, but not unique. It excels in materials, in-car tech, and build quality, but doesn’t feel much different than any other car in the BMW range. The Competition pack does have BMW tri-color stripes on the seat belts, but I don't find that a selling point.

Finally reaching our location, we climbed up from the coastline in a series of fast one-eighties and quick straights. The Alfa dives into corners with a delicate spin. The BMW hunkers on its front tires and seems to punish the pavement as it sticks. We continue trading cars, smiling like half-wit idiots at every exchange. Soon, we’re carrying speeds we’ve rarely seen on this road. The confidence provided by these two sedans encourages us to push harder and play cat and mouse.

Since I first drove the F80 M3, it has always felt big and imbalanced toward enormous power. The current Twin Turbo 3.0L in-line six makes the old V8 seem anemic. The naturally aspirated V8 we enjoy in the E90 and the inline six found in the E46 both have more personality, but the F80 declares personality irrelevant and power rules all. With the addition of the Competition pack, BMW takes the F80 and raises the dynamics to rival the power. New suspension components and calibration have improved the steering and made the car’s size less daunting in a tight corners.

Somehow the Giulia feels smaller than the M3. In reality, the Alfa is almost a clone of the BMW’s dimensions and yet thanks to tight steering and a trick differential it hides its size. The steering is an absurd two-turns of lock, with a ratio rivaling mad creations like the Mitsubishi Evo X. This makes me very happy. And when I feel the torque vectoring differential send power to an outside wheel the memories of the Evo only grow. Every rotation has a delicacy that’s lacking in the M3 and many big sedans.

Higher up, the road changes to long, fast straights and we explore the huge power of this pair. The Alfa has the better numbers, breaking into 500 horsepower and more torque than the BMW. At first it doesn’t seem much faster than the German, but the power in the Alfa keeps climbing all the way to redline. The BMW offers a reassuring blast at every blip of the throttle. The Alfa feels appropriately fast at first and then reveals more than expected. The BMW is a trusty weapon. The Alfa is a surprise party.

Braking is quite the opposite. BMWs generally have great brakes and give the driver information and confidence in everything from the track to traffic. The M3 proves the rule, with braking good enough to become a self conscious reflex that never surprises. The Giulia’s brakes, in contrast, always demand your attention. The system is brake-by-wire, leaving the pedal feel to data instead of an actual connection. In fast driving and hard braking this rarely becomes an issue, as the brakes respond as expected. Unfortunately, in normal driving conditions, or even stop-and-go traffic, modulation is difficult. A lack of feel and sudden grabbing makes it nearly impossible to tap or ride the brakes in the Alfa. We expect the Giulia to see enough commute duty for this to be a problem.

Two days of mixed commuting and hard canyon driving kept us in constant debate. We’d drive one car and declare it the winner. Then we’d drive the other and become confused. Chasing each other up and down the canyon brought strings of fast conversation and laughter about minutiae. We agreed the M3 was more coherent than ever before and stands tall upon the legendary prior generations. Meanwhile, the Giulia has somehow carved its own special place in the car market and our personal dream garages.

However, in the back of our minds we couldn’t shake the stories we’d heard of other Giulias. Having read many of the issues of fellow-journalists, we’re thankful we didn’t receive the press fleet problem child. Alfa Romeo left the US market with a reputation for terrible reliability and cars that were hard to love. Now they’ve made a great car, but they still have to surmount their reputation. We didn’t have a single problem or oddity, and it gives us hope. The experience of others gives us pause.

For most people the M3 will remain the king of this segment. With the Competition pack it’s the well-rounded super sedan we all expect. The sales numbers will probably eclipse the Giulia and cost of ownership may prove better as well.

And yet the Giulia Quadrifoglio makes me consider giving up my sports car for a fast sedan. You can bet I’ll be checking the long-term reliability ratings and eyeing cars as they come off lease. I might even take the risk. This is a rare time when anticipation didn’t spoil the moment. The car isn’t perfect, but the best things never are, and reality proved better than I’d hoped.

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