Some people think Alfa Romeo isn’t sold in the GCC. But it is, and has been for decades now. They just seem to keep a low profile, even lower than Saab or Opel. But all that is set to change, as the global game of musical-chairs means that Fiat now owns Chrysler, and since Fiat already owns Alfa Romeo, Chrysler’s Middle East office will help support Alfa Romeo in our region. Which brings us to the day-long media event for the Alfa Romeo Giulietta and the Alfa Romeo MiTo that we took for a drive across the UAE, flanked by Chrysler, Ram and Jeep support vehicles in a spectacle of pretty machinery.
The Alfa Romeo Giulietta is an indirect replacement for the 147 hatchback. Like most Alfas, it offers uniquely attractive styling, certainly more so than pricier competitors from Audi and BMW. Inside, the cabin is equally quirky, with certain controls placed where no one else places them, and certain gauges that are labelled in Italian on purpose! Cabin materials are made up of enough soft-touch trim and padded areas in all the right places, although hard-plastic areas are also within reach, like the big shiny panel along the dash, as well as all below-the-waist mouldings, the latter being normal for this class of premium cars. The top model gets a motorised flip-up computer on top of the dash with integrated controls on the centre console, but the lower model gets a simpler dealer-installed touchscreen.
The front space is good, while the rear is a bit limited on both legroom and headroom, though most will still fit. The boot is decent, but the cup-holders are tiny.
The Giulietta, whose underpinnings also served as a template for the upcoming Dodge Dart, is motivated by a direct-injection 1.4-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder, good for 170 hp and between 230 Nm and 250 Nm of torque, depending on the driving mode. The “MultiAir” engine is mated to a new 6-speed “TCT” dual-clutch transmission that Alfa Romeo seems particularly proud of, as it offers slightly quicker acceleration than a manual gearbox due to its quicker shifts, but also offers a fair bit better fuel economy as well.
The engine doesn’t turn the Giulietta into a hot hatch, but it is strong enough to haul a full load of passengers without struggling at least. The gearbox, in tiptronic mode, offers instantaneous downshifts, while taking a split-second responding to upshifts. There are selectable driving modes, ranging from “all-weather” to “dynamic”, the last one essentially being a sport mode that noticeably sharpens up the throttle response and makes the transmission hold gears longer, while apparently also overboosting the turbo and modifying the “Electronic Q2″ differential settings.
The Giulietta rides firmly but compliantly on its 16-inch alloys, no harsher than a typical BMW. It feels slightly bumpier with the optional 18-inch alloys, but not by much. We didn’t push it too hard, but whatever we did throw at it was handled with commendable grip and limited body roll. The steering offers limited feel however, and we hated the overly-light brake pedal feel, not helped by the fact that both the pedals are too close together.
Switching to the little one, the Alfa Romeo MiTo is the company’s entry-level premium sub-compact, available only in 3-door hatchback form. The cutesy-styled car is a cheaper rival to the Mini Cooper, but it feels more substantial, especially from the inside.
There’s definitely more space inside than its rival, with somewhat-useable back seats. There’s a lot of hard plastics, but also some patches of soft-touch padding as well, on the dash and doors. The boot is deep, if not particularly long.
The engine here is another “MultiAir” unit, a 1.4-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder making 135 hp, with 190 Nm of torque, which can be bumped up to 206 Nm in “dynamic” mode. Indeed, the MiTo has selectable driving modes, a “TCT” dual-clutch gearbox and auto start-stop fuel-saving functionality, just like the Giulietta. It might be down on power, but it does not feel a whole lot slower than its bigger brother, on account of its lighter weight.
In fact, the MiTo feels a bit more chuckable, with its tight suspension tuning, small wheelbase and relatively-wide tyres straddling its oversized 18-inch alloys. Interestingly, the cheaper MiTo has adjustable suspension that can be altered by the “DNA” driving-mode selector, while the Giulietta does not, apparently to compensate for the MiTo’s lack of independent rear suspension. The little one does ride fairly decently, better than the Mini Cooper at least. Interior quietness is just above-average, just like in the Giulietta, so don’t expect Lexus-grade levels of serenity from these Alfas.
Our first taste of Alfa Romeo basically confirmed some of our preconceptions. Highly-capable front-wheel-drive platforms wrapped in attractive styling, these Italian cars are fun to drive on the right roads, although the engine performance and control feedback left us wanting more from a brand that has ties with Ferrari. Maybe we were expecting out-of-the-box surprises when what they’re really trying to do now is appeal to a larger audience beyond Alfistis. Some extended wheel-time is on the cards soon, as we intend to crack the Alfa DNA further.