Another World Series of Poker and I find myself driving yet another new car for the first time, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. This time around the venue has moved to Cannes, France for the WSOP Europe. Cannes seems to have taken the best bits from the entire French Riviera; the wealth of St. Tropez, glitz and glam of Monte Carlo, the charm of places like Eze and Cap d’Ail, and offer it up all in one place.
So with my brother off to register for a tournament I took to the streets, casually tripping along, taking it all in. That is, until I came across the Alfa Romeo Test Drive Tour 2011. On display was a lovely, pearl white
seductress 8C Spider, a slew of Mito and 159s, and the new Giulietta. Also on hand were a number of friendly staff/guides who after explaining the merits of whichever car you happened to be interested in, were quick to get you sitting in the driver’s seat for a quick jog along Le Croisette – Cannes’ seaside drive. With that in mind, knowing that I probably wouldn’t get out of second gear, I choose to take out Alfa’s new Giulietta with TCT (Twin-Clutch Transmission).
I was paired up with guide José, who spoke fluent French and Spanish. Quickly realizing that I hadn’t brushed up on either tongue, José made a concerted effort to explain the new features of the car as best he could in English. As he went on, my eyes skidded along the dials, buttons and knobs and up to the fold-out LCD screen atop the dash. Functional and well-appointed – yes, the layout works as Alfa’s clearly competing with the benchmark of this class – the Volkswagen Golf. However, judging on the instrument layout and feel of the switches they’ve only managed to par, at best, with their German rivals. The gauges are typical Alfa, which is a good thing, but main dash looks more like a Fiat’s in glossy lipstick and that pop-up LCD screen – all 7 inches of it – looks dated, as flush mounted sat-nav’s become the norm.
Then again, this is a car that starts in the low 20k Euro range so one can forgive the interior styling for practicality. After all, what I was most interested in was how the car felt to drive with this new twin-clutch transmission. As my attention tuned in again to José he continued on about all the techo-wizardry packed into the Giulietta. For starters, he explained that the particular car we were sitting in was powered by a 1.4L, MultiAir turbo petrol engine, good for 170hp. The MultiAir engine itself is a marvel of technology winning “Best New Engine” in 2010, its hydraulically operated, variable valve timing capabilities which, in short, keeps the engine in the optimal power range at all times. More on MultiAir technology here. Another standard feature is the eco-friendly Start/Stop system that shuts of the engine when idling then starts it back up again when stepping on the accelerator. Of course, the Start/Stop system can be manually turned off. The last thing José pointed out before we set off was Alfa’s dynamic driving mode switch marked with the letters D.N.A., which stands for Dynamic, Normal, and All-weather. Each setting subtly yet significantly alters the car’s driving characteristics. So I was told.
Setting off then in D – for drive, aka automatic mode – the car felt like any other compact car; the ride was immediately rigid and the steering light and uncommunicative. Which was sad really because for a moment I forgot this was an Alfa. An Alfa! A car from a company that is steeped in tradition and provenance, a brand whose reputation precedes it. But it didn’t real feel like any other Alfa I had ever driven. Albeit driving along the boardwalk at an insufferable pace is by no means a yardstick to measure a car’s capabilities. But even at that slow pace, there was something about the car that was both strange and eerily familiar at the same time. Just then I remember thinking to myself, this car feels more expensive than it is. What was this strange/familiar feeling then? The way the transmission effortlessly shifted gears.
Smooth doesn’t properly describe how well this gearbox operated. The shifts were simply seamless. The Giulietta’s gearbox can be operated in full automatic mode, as well as a manu-matic option where the driver manually selects gears via button-like tabs located behind the steering wheel, or by using the shift knob. None of this is particularly new however, in concert with TCT technology, the the feel of the transmission transcends to that of one found in cars of a much higher price bracket. In fully automatic mode, it felt not unlike my father’s BMW 750i, whose automatic transmission glides through gears like Rupert Murdoch leafing through a newspaper. It was quick, civilized, quiet. Putting it in manual mode and the feeling was much the same, the only difference was that I was doing the shifting myself. Shifting down from third to second, the techno savvy Giulietta even blips the throttle for you. My only gripe was the feel of the shifting tabs(?) themselves. They’re not paddles like those found in Ferraris and they’re not exactly buttons either. No, they’re simple, plasticky little tabs, barely surfacing from behind the wheel. They felt more like buttons on a PS3 controller than the paddles you would find behind the wheel of a proper sports car. In any case, what actuates the transmission is of as little consequence as the person or thing that activates a Rube Goldberg.
The mad genius here is in twin-clutch transmission (TCT). Not as self-explanatory as it sounds, TCT is actually two transmissions with separate clutches that work in parallel with one another. One transmission operates the odd gears, while another one operates the even gears. Only one transmission is operating at a time which allows the inactive one to pre-select the next gear. Result: lightening quick, buttery smooth shifts. For a better, visual explanation in an English accent check out the video.
So there I am trotting along with José, singing the praises of this transmission, when he says, oh ya, let’s put it in Dynamic mode. He reaches over and puts the DNA switch to D and the only difference I could feel doing 30km/h was more resistance through the steering wheel. I kept asking if we could veer off this pedestrian infested street to some back roads like the ones leading to Antibes. The answer was no. So after nearly reaching the east port of Cannes we drove back to the Test Drive location near the Casino with the transmission in manual mode and the car in Dynamic mode. Dynamic being the more sporting of the settings available, I did notice a slight jerkiness to the shifts now on account of the shift execution happening much faster than in N, or normal mode. Dynamic mode changes the logistics of the car to make everything more responsive. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell much else.
Returning back to the Test Drive base I met with another staffer named Paolo, who spoke Italian. He spoke at length of the host of other techno features the Giulietta encompasses such as its torque steering function (DST), dual-pinion electronic power steering, and Q2, Alfa’s electronic differential. I nodded approvingly while at the the same time feeling a tad disappointed that I couldn’t realize any of the car’s potential during my test drive and, of course, I can’t report on any of it here.
In a way then, the Giulietta does leave me a little teased. It would be great to drive another one, perhaps for a day, putting it through its paces on some real roads. For it would be misleading to say that Alfa’s built a Golf beater without doing so. And although I’m very impressed with its transmission – smooth, quiet, efficient – I haven’t driven a Golf with DSG so I really can’t compare it there either. As first impressions go, I like it. It does feel more expensive than it is when driving it and I do prefer its looks over a Golf’s. It really is packed full of technology this car and it could probably be the best in its class because of it. I just hope Alfa’s managed to shake off its quality and reliability demons from the past and all this gizmo stuff works down the road.