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MY20 Alfa Romeo Giulia and Stelvio | Driven

Is a light garnish of leather trim and updated infotainment enough to put the Giulia and Stelvio back in the race?

By PH Staff / Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The skill to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory has long been an Alfa Romeo signature. Early signs on the launch for apparently mild (but actually significant) updates for both Giulia and Stelvio suggest business as usual on this score.

Chartered flights for attending hacks (collection bowl will be passed later) mean Alfa Romeo could have chosen anywhere in Italy for this event. For some reason it's opted for Puglia on the south-eastern heel of the country and, specifically, long stretches of scratty, pot-holed Autostrada traversing the coastal plain. For added spice the route then goes off-piste, into busy towns and down narrow alleyways to rain-swept seaside car parks we're assured would have been great for scenic photography. Were it not dark.

Then to a two-hour press conference, big on chest-beating pride but light on relevant information about UK pricing or trim levels. "We're waiting for the press release to be signed off by our Italian colleagues," apologises the PR. At the time of writing 10 days after the event we're still waiting.

But it's OK, because we then get rides in various stunningly beautiful classics, including a one-off '54 1900 Sport Spider driven by a cheery bloke from the museum, complete with sideways exits out of junctions and excited finger jabbing at the speedo as it passes 100mph. By the time everyone returns, windswept, smiling and high on unburnt fuel, the love affair is back on.

This is not a test of a unique Mille Miglia Alfa Romeo though. It's about revised trim levels, new active safety features, range reshuffles and other such updates for both Giulia and Stelvio. Translating the romance of the former into the reality of the latter is where Alfa Romeo stands or falls.

A more extensive facelift for both cars will apparently follow next year. Clearly Alfa Romeo felt it couldn't afford to wait, these updates addressing lack of perceived quality in the cabin and outdated infotainment offerings. "Every time I drive my Giulia and feel that sharp edge on the plastic gearknob I wonder who signed it off," reflects a commendably honest Alfa Romeo product guy, suggesting he literally feels our pain on such matters.

"This is borderline OCD fixation on fairly superficial interactions," we said when we complained about the touchy-feely stuff in our original Giulia review. "But when the class leaders have channelled that into an expectation of perceived quality it has to be considered at best a dropped ball, at worst complacency." Seems someone back in Milan was listening.

Sinking into the leather-trimmed embrace of a petrol-engined, rear-wheel drive Giulia Sprint (one of several iconic Alfa Romeo trim levels revived in this update) the first impressions are definitely lifted. The sculpted dash with its round vents and classic twin-dial instrument binnacle is as appealingly traditional as ever while the low-slung seating position, wheel that pulls right to your chest and supercar-style paddle shifters all put you in the right frame of mind. T'was ever thus in Giulias of course. It just went to pot when you touched anything else.

The gear selector is still the same component. All it took was a stitched leather sheath and it now feels worthy of the rest of the interior, the whole centre console now re-trimmed, switches upgraded and the main turn and push dial for the infotainment given additional weight and authority. There's also a little Italian tricolour integrated into the base of the shifter, just in case you'd forgotten and all that.

Starting with Super, sportier trim levels like Sprint and Veloce get black window surrounds, badges and grilles for a more assertive look. A parallel path branches out into Lusso Ti romanticism with brown leathers, wood trim and a bit of chrome sparkle on the outside. Against dark metallic green paint these new Turismo Internazionale elements have a junior Maserati elegance about them, this package distinct from the more Quadrifoglio inspired look of the Veloce and others.

The 8.8-inch central display is now touchscreen and has snazzier graphics, improved functionality and new features like customisable widgets and home screen. With the seven-inch TFT between the dials it's a step up from before but still lags behind the full-screen binnacle in the Jaguar XE, let alone the sophisticated options in equivalent Audis, Mercedes or BMWs. You still choose a Giulia for the romance of the badge and the sporty allure of the handling. Your excuses about outdated infotainment and flimsy switches can be slightly less strident than before, though.

Shame the new suite of level two, semi-autonomous driver aids couldn't have adopted a similar tone. Options for active interventions to lane-keeping, cruise control, blind-spot warnings, sign recognition and the like are all expected these days and adapted from the same suppliers as everyone else. Whether by accident or design though Alfa Romeo seems to have calibrated them to stereotypical 'mamma mia' Italian mother-in-law mode, with lots of hysterical screeching any time tyres get within a foot of white lines or another vehicle threatens to come close. Which, in Italian driving, obviously happens a lot.

And while the TomTom based navigation looks nicer than before attempts to showcase its talents rather fall flat, with numerous wrong turns, late calls, dead ends and an apparent desire to take us on a tour of Bari's lesser-known Autostrada dogging spots.

The 200hp of this 2.0-litre petrol doesn't gift you the spirited getaway from such situations you'd hope for but it's at least more refined than the minicab clatter of the 2.2-litre diesel, which retains its 160hp and 190hp options. The 280hp petrol Veloce remains the best way of doing justice to the Giulia's slinky looks without going full Quadrifoglio, the previous 280hp Speciale in the Stelvio range now rebranded to Veloce spec. Arguably this is the smart, real-world choice for both cars. In the Giulia it's gutsy and entertaining, more so for the UK where we get the lighter two-wheel drive version. And in the Stelvio it's enough to offer a sense of the Quadrifoglio version's attitude, albeit without the full 'ring lap chasing, Ferrari-engined, four-wheel drifting madness. None of which are really relevant to the way most people use such cars anyway.

Recent news Alfa Romeo is to ditch sports cars and go full SUV may be another worry for the faithful, the Giulia the sole remaining link to the brand's heritage and a car that has always impressed for the fundamentals of its ride, handling and looks. Anyone choosing one over the obvious alternatives can consider themselves a true car nut, that they can now do so without sacrificing the toys, connectivity and gadgets offered by most rivals a further bonus. Likewise, that the final garnish lacking previously has been addressed. The Stelvio meanwhile remains that most rare of things, given it genuinely puts the sport into SUV and successfully translates these traditions into the high-riding format mainstream car buyers love.

We won't be choosing Bari as location for our next dream Italian roadtrip. But both Giulia and Stelvio are both cars we'd happily take for the long haul. And that's a win for Alfa Romeo.

1995cc, 4 cyls, turbo
Gearbox: Eight-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Power: 280hp @ 5250rpm
Torque: 295lb ft @ 2250rpm
0-62mph: 5.7 secs
Top speed: 149mph
Kerb weight: 1429kg (DIN, not including driver)
MPG: 33.6 (WLTP combined 'low')
CO2: 158g/km
Price: TBC (est £46k)

Note: All specs per MY2019 and subject to update for MY20

1995cc, 4 cyls, turbo
Gearbox: Eight-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Power: 280hp @ 5250rpm
Torque: 295lb ft @ 2250rpm
0-62mph: 5.7 secs
Top speed: 143mph
Kerb weight: 1660kg (DIN, not including driver)
MPG: 28.3 (WLTP combined)
CO2: 175g/km
Price: TBC

Note: All specs adapted from equivalent MY2019 Stelvio Speciale 280ps and subject to confirmation for MY20

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