Alfa Romeo fans sometimes struggle to defend the Italian automaker’s appeal, given its heartbreaking reputation for poor reliability.
“I would not recommend this car to your average driver. I’m an Alfisti from way back so my expectations are low.” Why so glum?
“I owned it for six months and this car was in the shop eight times,” the owner of a 2019 Alfa Romeo Giulia posted. “It has computer failures, weak battery, poor braking with loud squealing. Customer service and repair experience is outrageously negative and psychologically damaging.”
“Psychologically damaging” is a pretty harsh rebuke.
To understand where Alfa Romeo is coming from requires a little history. In 1967, the company sought funds from the Italian government to build its affordable front-wheel-drive Alfasud, but politics intervened, and the money came with strings: the new factory had to situated in the poor south of Italy.
While well-intentioned, the government edict saddled Alfa with workers who were seemingly unqualified. Frequent strikes in the 1970s ground production to a halt. Workers refused to apply primer to car bodies because of health concerns. That, combined with cheaper steel sourced from Russia, sealed the cars’ repute for rusting away.
Add to that the litany of broken welds, bad fuel pumps, faulty electrics and overheated, leaky engines and Alfa Romeo’s reputation was cast. When Fiat Chrysler (now Stellantis) brought Alfa back to North America in 2017, Alfisti prayed that things had changed. Let’s kick the tires on the Giulia sports sedan and find out.
Introduced in the European market in early 2016, the all-new Giulia was the first mass-market Alfa Romeo in over two decades to use a longitudinal, rear-drive platform. Its development had been overseen by Philippe Krief, the technical director of Ferrari, and was the first model in the automaker’s 5-billion-euro relaunch plan.
Careful engineering ensured the sedan benefited from 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution for sublime handling. The suspension is independent all around with a double-wishbone setup up front and multilink at the rear. To save weight, every Giulia features a carbon-fibre driveshaft, as well as aluminum shock towers, suspension parts and doors. Being Italian, robust Brembo brakes are found behind each wheel.
Inside the elegantly styled cabin there’s lots of space up front, but rear seat room is stingy – especially the foot room under the front seats – and the wide centre drive tunnel steals a lot of space. The front doors open wide and the seats are mounted at an accessible height. The base-model chairs are pretty flat, but the bolstered sport seats represent a worthy upgrade.
Higher trims provide leather-wrapped and woodgrain or carbon fibre surfaces that look suitably expensive. The gear selector, switchgear and rotary infotainment controls look and feel less substantial than those of competing luxury models, however. The optional 8.8-inch touchscreen is nicely integrated, and the controls are intuitive – but the system can be buggy.
“Our test car was plagued with connection issues, system lockups and missing phones,” wrote the editors at Edmunds.com. Small-item storage in the cabin is limited and trunk space is barely adequate; at least the 40/20/40-split folding rear seats expand the car’s cargo utility.
The Giulia is motivated by a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, good for 280 horsepower and 306 lb-ft of torque, powering the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission (sadly, there’s no manual gearbox). All-wheel drive is available. The high-performance Quadrifoglio model packs a thrilling 2.9-litre V6 bi-turbo engine with 505 hp and 443 lb-ft of grunt, no waiting.
The Giulia was crashed tested in 2016 by EuroNCAP, the European auto safety authority, scoring 98 per cent for adult occupant protection – the highest score ever achieved by any car up until then. It subsequently received the Top Safety Pick+ award by the U.S.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
Mid-cycle updates to the first-generation Giulia arrived for 2020 in the form of a larger standard touchscreen and instrument cluster display, additional adaptive cruise control and safety tech, as well as more storage cubbies inside. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto were made standard the year before.
Safety becomes an important consideration in a car as potent as a turbocharged Alfa. Zero to 97 km/h comes up in 5.7 seconds in the 280-hp base model, which is only mid-pack performance in its class, but it feels faster (the AWD version is a tick quicker). Hasty types should sample the 505-hp Quadrifoglio, which requires just 3.9 seconds to attain highway velocity.
Equally impressive is the athletic chassis with its responsive steering and exceptional braking. Body roll is well controlled, and the car remains flat and predictable in quick corners. Agile and lively, the Giulia is a bona fide sports sedan. It’s easy to drive aggressively, yet it’s a surprisingly easy car to live with on the daily commute thanks to its forgiving ride.
Owners report competitive fuel-efficiency numbers compared to the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series. All-wheel-drive models burn a little more, but that’s common in this class. To be honest, drivers are having so much fun, they’re not paying much attention to the fuel gauge. Bear in mind European turbo engines demand premium grade gas.
OWNERS TALK RELIABILITY
Alfa Romeo Giulia drivers rave about the sports sedan’s upscale interior, comfortable and supportive seats, thrilling engine sounds, exhilarating handling and hot-blooded Italian soul. Liabilities include a cramped back seat, infotainment quirks, fast-wearing run-flat tires and, as mentioned off the top, questionable dependability.
When reader Cameron Cogswell came across a year-old Giulia in 2018, he had no inkling of the brand’s shaky reputation. He just knew it looked good and drove like nothing else on the road. It didn’t take long for his Alfa to lose its lustre.
“Our Check Engine light has come on over 30 times for issues. We have yet another problem and my wife, myself and our three-year-old son (were) stranded on the side of the road with a car that won’t drive over 25 km/h,” writes Cogswell. “This is what the entire three years have been like, including five other instances we were stranded on the side of the road in a new luxury car.”
It’s not an entirely unusual experience. Plenty of owners of 2017 to 2019 Giulia models have experienced random stalling and starting issues, short-lived batteries, faulty throttle bodies and wiring harnesses, and other electrical faults. Wrote another Giulia owner: “At 1,000 miles the electrical system went berserk. Spent three weeks at the dealer.”
We checked with the Automobile Protection Association and they say the stalling is usually related to engine management. The fix at the dealership is often to reflash the powertrain computer and if that fails, technicians start changing parts. Unfortunately, parts delays are chronic, says the APA, and repairs may take weeks.
Owners also reported fussy transmissions, headlight failures, malfunctioning sunroof mechanisms, ongoing infotainment glitches, and noisy steering traced back to the electronic power steering gearbox, which is reportedly on backorder from the factory.
The good news is Alfa worked through the car’s teething issues and the 2020 and newer models appear to have fewer mechanical issues, although the high-performance Quadrifoglio with its Ferrari-derived engine continues to be problematic, say owners.
What can we say? Alfa Romeos are beautiful, lusty Italian automobiles that drive like no other. Just know the price of admission is lumpy reliability and service may not be up to North American standards. As one fan reminded us: “Incredibly fun to drive – and it wants to be driven fast. You almost forget the problems.”