Planning my trip to Geneva, it quickly became apparent that I would need to rent a car. After initially selecting a Fiat 500, I changed my mind last minute and thought, why not make an event out of the drive and take out something more… upscale? At my go to rental place, Maggiore, I was kindly upgraded to the new Alfa Romeo Giulietta – similar to the one I drove in Cannes a few months back.
Similar, because although the cars share the same name, shape and even Alfa’s selectable dynamic control switch, DNA, the rental Giulietta couldn’t have felt more different from behind the wheel.
For starters, the rental was a diesel. A 1.6 litre, 105 hp, diesel meaning that it was down by 65 hp to the gas powered tester I drove. It had a regular, do-it-yourself gearbox, no sat-nav and no fancy leather seats. Then again, it was a rental.
So off I went and right from the first shift I could tell I wouldn’t like it. The steering lacked feel. The clutch pedal travel seemed like a foot. The shifter felt rubbery. Even putting the handbrake down felt like you were lowering it into a jumbled mess of loose car bits just under the transmission tunnel. Checking the odometer I saw that the car had around 37k kilometers on it – rental kilometers mind you, which is the equivalent of at least double that amount in real world driving – but it wasn’t the mileage. Unknowingly, I had set off in ‘N’ dynamic mode, or normal mode, the default setting for the car. Reaching down to the DNA switch, I put it in “D” for dynamic mode and things got better – a bit.
When in D, everything tightens up; the steering becomes more resistant, the throttle more responsive and the computer even allows you to keep the car in gear longer before flashing the annoying “SHIFT ˆ ” light. I’m sure I’m missing another tightening of something or rather but I couldn’t notice anything else.
Trotting along the autostrada doing the limit, 130km/h, the car felt… well, old. It was loud and not only from wind noise but from tire noise as well, like the wheels had a fine layer of sandpaper encompassing them. So loud, in fact, that I could barely make out a phone call with a friend on speaker. Numbingly loud, like the jet/wind noise you experience when flying that you have to tune out. Then I noticed that the car’s speedo was optimistic by a good 10km/h over the speed my GPS was giving me. The suspension, too, did a better job of absorbing bumps in N mode than D, but then again, driving it in N on the highway felt like the steering wheel wasn’t connected properly and it negotiated sweeping turns, dare I say it, like an old American car. All this, summarized to me what Alfa’s are unfortunately known for: poor build quality.
Yet, the car I drove in the south of France felt light years better, which is both interesting and disappointing at the same time. Can Alfa not maintain its standards across its entire model range? I say this because the last time I drove to Geneva, coincidentally, I had rented a BMW 320d (d for diesel), the bottom end of the 3-series line-up. Now, I’m not going to compare the two cars performance-wise however, what I can say is this: soon after driving that 320d, my brother purchased a new 335i – the top end, gas powered version of the 3-series (barring the M3.) The only difference, in terms of driving experience, was the power delivery and firmer suspension on the 335i. Everything else about the 320d compared to the 335i felt the same: solid and BMW-like.
I’m sitting here writing this after having just attended the Geneva International Auto Show and taking about 1200 pictures. Why? Because as I wandered into the Alfa Romeo exhibit area I caught the tail end of some comments a smug, euro-trash guy was saying to one of the show girls in English. “Oh the (Alfa Romeo) MiTo… now this is car!”, all sarcastic like. After squeezing his overweight frame into the car, he started bouncing up and down annoyingly in the driver’s seat, easily causing the little car to react and bob up and down itself. He emerges soon after saying, “Ah, Alfas. They’re rentals. Just rental cars…”, and then walks away. Needless to say, the pretty brunette Alfa girl wasn’t impressed and neither was I.
Alfa Romeo does supply both the MiTo and Giulietta models to rental car companies – this is true. Therefore, Alfa Romeo makes “rental-car” cars, a notion that should be wiped clean from the the already spotted Alfa Romeo reputation. I was actually surprised to see the Giulietta offered as a rental so soon after being launched as a new model. Be it the euro crisis or some other behind-closed-doors deal with FIAT, Alfa is a rental car supplier now, along side the likes of FIAT, Skoda, Opel and VW to name but a few others in the economy range. Equally surprising, is that Alfa, with so few cars in its line-up, would even consider offering two of its principal models as rentals. I’ve heard that FIAT USA has provided the little 500 as a rental as a means to boost its sales in North America. The reasoning here is that after renting one, a person might actually consider buying one.
Now I can understand offering up the MiTo as a rental, which is essentially a glorified 500. However, the Giulietta is in a precarious position here. For those who haven’t actually driven the spruced up, paddle shift version like I have, will know no better than the deplorable diesel version of what is rather a truly great car. Everything good about Alfa, all the “Alfa-ness”, is lost in that diesel. When the sun goes down and the instrument panel lights up you kinda forget you’re in an Alfa altogether. Which, right there, is reason enough not to buy one. Offering the Giulietta as a rental car does both a disservice to the Alfa Romeo brand and to peoples’ perception of this once storied make.