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Apr / May 2018
Alfa's Back

Writer: Nicolas Shammas / Photographer: Giovanni Mitolo

Too long out in the wilderness, Alfa Romeo is hoping it has the recipe for success with its new Giulia and Stelvio.

Alfa’s turnaround has been spectacular. For a once venerated, then almost forgotten brand to have pulled off the giant killing it did with the amazing new Giulia Quadrifoglio – essentially a BMW M3 Goliath-trumping D-segment saloon – was an extraordinary feat. But then entering the ultra-competitive D-segment crossover-SUV market was an even bigger gamble. Sure crossover-SUVs are the fastest-growing sector in the world today, even outselling traditional cars in many key markets, but when you take into account that this new model would have to compete with such established players as the Porsche Macan, BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLC, Audi Q5, Lexus NX and Range Rover Velar, you realise just how brave they were. Then again, having just returned from ripping the Stelvio up and down Jebel Al Jais, haring around Lago Maggiore in a Giulia and sponging in everything that the Alfa Romeo Historic Museum in Arese had to offer, I’ve gained even more respect for what the Italian marque has achieved.


Alessandro Maccolini, head of Alfa Romeo’s exterior design, explains the  intricacies  of his work on the new Giulia to Bespoke's Editor-in-Chief while the Alfa Romeo Middle East Brand Manager, Karim Corm, looks on.


One rather interesting fact I learned at the ‘Museo Storico’ was that the Stelvio is not actually Alfa Romeo’s first off-roader. That distinction goes to the 1900M, nicknamed the Matta (or mad vehicle), which dates back to the period following the Second World War – a time when Alfa Romeo was literally running on fumes. Their original Milan-based Portello factory was in ruins, having been continuously targeted with aerial bombardments throughout the war, and, due to a clause in the peace treaty, they had been barred from ever producing aero-engines again and, just to make sure they kept to their word, all their machine tools were destroyed. So, with just the parts from unfinished pre-war cars left to work on, and no tools with which to put them together, Alfa Romeo pertinaciously got back to work assembling cars by hand. They made a good go of it too, but by 1950, management at the then forty year-old manufacturer decided it might be a good idea if they beefed up their cashflow with a fat governmental contract. So they targeted the Italian Ministry of Defence with a Jeep Willys style limited production 4x4. They equipped it with a 65hp 1.9-litre twin-cam engine, which was good for 105 km/h, and added some off-road elements like a wider-ratio four-speed dual range gearbox, independent front suspension and live rear axle. It was a jolly little thing and it won the approval of the ministry and went into production in 1952. The problem though was that Fiat was envious of Alfa and they wanted a piece of the pie. Clearly Alfa didn’t want to give it up, so that same year, the two brands decided to do the most singularly Italian thing possible, and agreed to resolve the matter through a duel in the most prestigious gentlemen’s race at the time – the Mille Miglia. (They even got the organisers to include a one-time category of ‘Military Vehicles’ in order to accommodate them.) Once all was said and done, it was the Alfa (at the hands of Antonio Costa and Francesco Verga) that came out on top, thrashing the Fiat Campagnola by a considerable gap of over 40 minutes.


Stunning, fast, light and loud, the Stelvio Quadrifoglio is a treat for the senses. Our only complaint was that it was hard to modulate the brake-by-wire system as you're coming to a halt and that makes for an often jerky stop.


So, 65 years later, Alfa Romeo has effectively returned to where it left off, attempting to create a fast and reliable off-roader, but this time it couldn't be a rudimentary military thing it needed to be a sophisticated crossover, plus their rivals would be foreign, not domestic. Then it upped the ante by declaring this new off-roader would break the Nürburging lap record. And finally, as if the challenge wasn’t difficult enough, they announced they would name it after Southern Tyrol’s Stelvio Pass – arguably the most legendary zigzagging piece of asphalt in the world. In other words, Alfa’s new SUV didn’t just have to be good: it needed to be great. And boy is it.


A visit to Alfa's Historic Museum is a must, as it includes, among others, three one-off 33 Stradales, rebodied by Bertone, Italdesign Giugiaro and Pininfarina.


My day with the Stelvio began at Dubai’s International Airport where, upon arrival, I was provided with the car and left to my own devices. Now anyone who knows modern-day Dubai will be acutely aware of just how lousy a place it is to test a car, what with its cornucopia of speeding cameras and barely a twisty bit of tarmac, so I did what any self-respecting journalist would do and made a beeline for Ras Al Khaimah. That’s where you can find the UAE’s very own version of the Stelvio Pass – Jebel Al Jais, an inspiring hill-climb to literally nowhere. But to get to the base of Jebel Al Jais you need to endure almost two hours of boring motorway cruising and as I plodded along I have to admit I did wonder what was so special about the Stelvio. Yes it was comfortable, seemingly well-built and clearly good looking but its twin-turbocharged 2.9-litre V6 didn’t feel nearly torquey enough, there was barely a sound coming from the exhausts (even though there are four of them), and the suspension was neither waftingly comfortable nor majorly connected. What I didn’t realise though was this car is an automotive chameleon and you can crank it up from being a docile eco-friendly MPV, to a hot-hatch, and then max out at fire-breathing sportscar-killer by simply twisting a rotary dial near the gearstick. A is for all-weather, Eco and Normal modes are two degrees of the same philosophy – reducing fuel consumption by shutting off three of the engine's cylinders, but Dynamic is where you must go to sharpen the throttle response, reduce gearshift times, tighten up the dampers and add weight to the steering. Then there’s Race mode, glorious Race mode. This is where you go to shape-shift your Stelvio into the stuff of fantasies. The best way I can describe it is if Ferrari made an SUV, it would surely be something like this. Strangely enough, Ferrari did actually help Alfa Romeo make the Stelvio, or rather its engine but there’s more to this car than just a motor. The Stelvio is impressively light (thanks to plenty of exotic materials including a carbon-fibre prop-shaft), it has a steering ratio of 12.0 (which is faster than a Ferrari 458), it has 50:50 weight distribution, it borrows the excellent eight-speed automatic gearbox from the Giulia Quadrofoglio (albeit with specific calibration and ratios) and it has a clever all-wheel drive system that sends 100 per cent of torque to the rear wheels unless it senses some slip in the front wheels, (and even then no more than 50 per cent can be sent to the front axle). Best of all, these things combine in such a holistic manner that, in Race mode, you won’t be able to stop yourself from flinging the Stelvio about like an absolute hooligan. It’s beyond impressive and no matter how fast you enter a turn, there’s nearly always enough front-end grip to carry the Stelvio through. As a result, the Stelvio has sportscar-rivalling pace. And so it should considering it broke the SUV lap record at the Nürburging. But it’s also amazing to think this thing’s faster than an Aston DB11, Mercedes GT AMG, and even a Porsche 911 Turbo. In fact, in a straight up drag race, you could go toe-to-toe with a Ferrari F50. That’s insane I hear you say? Well I agree! But while Race mode adds bucket loads of fun and has you literally laughing out loud as you attack corner after corner at evermore-warped speeds, I’d recommend you not use it with your family in the car or you’ll cause all sorts of irrevocable family feuds. Oh and I should also mention that your neighbours might not be too fond of you either, as Race mode lends a gorgeously evocative soundtrack to the mighty 510bhp 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 (which by the way has top speed of 283 km/h and a 0-100 km/h acceleration time of 3.8 seconds).


 If you're lucky, as we were, you might get a go in a vintage Giulia GTA there.


Luckily my Alfa Romeo experience didn’t end in the UAE though, and my next stop was Italy where I got to visit the brand’s newly renovated historic museum with their chief exterior designer, Alessandro Maccolini. “We took a top-down approach for both the Giulia and the Stelvio,” he told me as we toured the impressive space in Arese, which was once the company’s factory. “The starting point for both cars was a blank sheet of paper, but instead of making high-performance versions from each one's base model, we began with the top-of-the-line Quadrifoglios.” That explains a lot, not least the fact even the base Stelvios and Giulias come with exotic lightweight materials like carbon fibre, magnesium and aluminium, or that they have near-perfect 50-50 weight distribution or that they all come grounded with a solid suspension set-up that includes a double-wishbone at the front and an Alfa-patented aluminium 4.5-link suspension at the rear. 


Alfa's Montreal was styled by Bertone's Marcello Gandini, who penned the Miura and Countach. 


“Imagine a male athlete,” continued Maccolini, as he reached across the Giulia’s high belt-line and ran his hand along the convex midriff on the doors (which is apparently not a trompe l'oeil to conceal mass but an element that’s essential to achieving visual depth and interest). “If you make him a suit, the pleats will not look as they did on the hanger. That's because his muscular physique will stretch the fabric to its very seams. Well, that’s exactly what we wanted to convey. We weren’t looking to try and achieve some super-precise line, rather a treatment, along with volume and proportion, that conveys latent power.”


The stunning red flying saucer-like 1952 Disco Volante stands before a silver 1954 2000 Sportiva.


Maccolini went on to explain how the Giulia and Stelvio’s complex surfacing, muscular stances and trilobo noses (the triangular grille flanked by gaping horizontal openings) adhere to the fundamental aspects of the brand’s design heritage. And what a heritage it has. Alfa Romeo can claim an incredible number of firsts in its 107-year history, including becoming the first manufacturer to win the World Automobile Championship back in 1925, and successfully following that up with a first-place victory at the inaugural Formula One championship. Indeed its elite racing team included such legends of motorsport as Antonio Ascari, Tazio Nuvolari, Juan Manual Fangio, and for close to 20 years, Enzo Ferrari, who began his career as an Alfa driver and later ran their official racing department, before eventually splitting to start his own “Scuderia”. But with 120 titles under its belt, Alfa Romeo has raced and won in just about every form imaginable, picking up titles in single-seater series, rally races and endurance hauls alike. And this year, after a 30-year absence, it’s returning to F1 through a multi-year technical and commercial partnership with the Sauber F1 Team.


Shown for the first time in 2015 and available on the market since 2016, the Giulia Quadrifoglio is powered by an all-aluminium, twin-turbocharged 2.9-litre V6,  which was developed exclusively by Ferrari technicians. It has been followed now by the Stelvio Quadrifoglio and the two cars share the same chassis and engine. We drove it from Milan to Lago Maggiore and back and found it to be fantastic. Presumably a Giulia coupé and cabrio are next in the pipeline.


Yet, if we were to distil the Alfa Romeo brand essence, then I would say that beauty is even more important than speed. Google images of the Tipo 33 Stradale, the 8C 2900B Lungo Spider or the 2000 Sportiva Coupe and you’ll see what I mean. Luckily the new Stelvio and Giulia have abided by this core tenet and though they’re not 8C Competizione bewitching, they do successfully break the mould in their respective segments, and crucially they provide a valid alternative for those who are looking for something different to mainstream German offerings. As a result, I truly believe that, as long as the cars last as well as they look and drive, then the company’s execs will be laughing all the way to the bank. Of course, neither the Stelvio nor the Giulia will sell in the kind of numbers their rivals enjoy, but that’s besides the point. At this juncture, the bigwigs at the massive Fiat Chrysler Automobiles conglomerate should applaud themselves for the mere fact that Alfa’s back.


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