Italian renaissance

Alfa Romeo is back! Who better to test its 2018 Giulia sedan than a reviewer with Italian blood in his fiery veins — our creative director Gino Campagnaro.

When this mag’s creative director Gino Campagnaro was growing up, he remembers his uncle from the Italian side of the family telling him stories about how young Italian men in the 1960s loved to tear around in the backstreets and country lanes in their Alfa Romeos, dodging Vespas while on their way to their favourite cafes.

Alfas then were synonymous with speed and style, important elements of La Dolce Vita, the Italian version of the good life popularised by the 1960 Fellini film.

But for Gino, growing up in the Wollongong of the 1970s and 1980s, La Dolce Vita lived only in his uncle’s stories. In the Gong, the car marques that mattered had names like Holden and Ford, while his own dad was a Subaru fanatic. The few Alfas built in those days that managed to make it to Wollongong and not break down with electrical problems were dismissed as rust buckets.

Gino eventually left Wollongong to work as a designer on magazines in Sydney, including motoring publications such as Top Gear. He became a fan of German cars and now now drives an Audi because he loves the understated elegance of the brand and its reputation for well-engineered cars.

But over the years, a lot has changed at Alfa Romeo as well. Partly because the brand was so well loved before its missteps during Gino’s teenage years, its parent company Fiat-Chrysler invested heavily in returning the brand to its former glories. The magic in the brand was so strong that in a bizarre way, Alfa Romeo now seems to have picked up where it left from in the 1960s and early 70s.

Its Giulia Quadrifoglio high-performance model has much won just about every major car award there is around the world, including Australia’s own “Australia’s Best Driver’s Car”. The sedan the Quadrifoglio is based on is the Giulia, and that’s the one Gino tested.

The Giulia is a competitor to the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4, but undercuts them with a $59K driveaway price. The version we got for Gino was the 2.0L engined model with the eight-speed auto and manual shift paddles.

This isn’t a car review in the normal sense. You can search Google for what the motoring journalists have said about the Giulia (hint: they all praise it).

Rather, this was an opportunity to finally acquaint Gino with a real Alfa and the brand magic he heard about from his uncle as a kid. Although the classic Alfa colour tends to be red, we picked a white one, which was interesting because many people assumed it was a German from a distance.

But when Gino hopped in, he got a surprise. This was no Audi. The red was inside this Alfa — in the seats and side panels, creating a fiery interior that that begged you to fire up the engine and just go.

Overcoming the shock of the cabin, he then had to deal with how it drove and he didn’t like it at first.

The Alfa’s handling felt more sensitive, more knife-edge than his settled Audi’s, and with an eager 2.0L turbo engine quickly delivering power when needed it, he had to be more attentive to where he pointed the steering wheel.

And that’s how Gino got to understand the DNA of Alfa Romeos. He wasn’t looking for it, but it was everywhere in how the car performed. The essence of Alfas, the very thing that made everyone love them initially, was present in this Giulia — its agility and road dynamics.

With the exception of the insanely powerful Quadrifoglio, Alfas generally aren’t powerful muscle cars. Rather, they are agile and responsive, with a lightning-fast response to your inputs.

On paper, the Alfa Giulia does 0-100km/h in 6.6 seconds, which isn’t a match for a seriously fast car (a Quadrifoglio does it in a mind bending 3.9 seconds), but that’s not what the Alfa DNA is all about. The fun is elsewhere.

“If I were to boil down what driving an Alfa is like, it’s a car that you just want to throw around, into corners and into gaps in traffic,” says Gino. “Even doing a U-turn in the Giulia is fun. It feels really responsive, an absolute hoot to drive.”

The Giulia comes with three driving modes, which it cutely calls D.N.A. D is Dynamic mode, which sets up the car with a more sporty feel. N is for normal, while A is for Advanced Efficiency in snow and ice. There’s also a Race mode, which clearly didn’t make the D.N.A. lettering. Should you select Race mode you get a machine that wants to be on a racetrack.

The upshot of his week with the Alfa Romeo Giulia? Gino’s Audi is nearing four years of solid use and he’s extremely happy with it; however, when he selects his next car, the Alfa Romeo will be at the top of his list.

“I’m a creative director and the Alfa Romeo really speaks to me,” he says. “I’ll probably get a red or black one.”