The (rental) Alfa Romeo Giulietta experience
Alfas are bound to be interesting cars to say the least, they are always wierd...ly nice. Alfa Romeo has the talent for making cars that slowly win you over, and the Giulietta I was driving was no different. In the short 2 and a half weeks that I have driven it, we went through Desenzano traffic, glorious Italian mountain roads, tight parking at Portofino, long trips across Italian highways and some minor dents in parking lots. This is a brief summary of how we dealt through all of these.
It all began in the SIXT car park at the Milano-Malpensa airport. I had arrived after a tiering 13 hour flight from Brazil and was keen to arrive in Desenzano, my home for the next 3 months. I was in Italy to race and I wanted a car that could provide the same thrills on the road that the go-karts I'd drive would provide on the track. I started looking through the catalogue they offered me at the counter. I was deciding between some rather nice vehicles, something along the lines of a Mercedes C class-ish type of car, or as an anorak would label it: a "small 4-door sport saloon". Unfortunately my dreams were cut short by my wallet and I quickly realised that all of these were way beyond my 18 year-old living alone in a tight budget ... uhh ... budget. I realistically moved on to the boring diesel hatchback section where I first met my companion, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.
I choose the Alfa simply because I liked its colour, the blue stood out from all the black and grey cars beside it in the parking lot. I sat in it and had a look around to see if I liked the interior and thought "this is good enough". I signed all the 5 million pages of paper work necessary to rent a car and proceeded to load all of my stuff in it which as it turns out, was not so simple... To begin with it seemed like boot space was not a priority for the Alfa Romeo engineers. I had 3 (which I must admit, reasonably sized) suitcases for everything I would need for the next 3 months plus my hand luggage which included my racing helmet and other small items. In an ordinary hatchback you would maybe need to lower one seat to snuggly fit everything but with the Giulietta things were not as practical. Not only is the boot minuscule compared to other hatchbacks but it has a weird shape, meaning that the luggage didn't easily fit in. After about 15 min of constant shuffling, loading and unloading to fit, squeezing and hoping that nothing inside the bags broke, I was ready to set off.
(For all of you number freaks here are some specs: The 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulietta has a Fiat made 1.6L 4 cylinder turbo diesel engine producing 118Hp (88Kw) and 236lb-ft (320Nm) of torque. 0-100Km/h (0-62mph) happens in about 9.8 seconds. The gearbox on my specific car was a 6-speed manual but options are available with a 6-speed dual clutch.)
The drive to Desenzano was very uneventful, straight roads, dark and cold night, no one sharing the motorway with me coupled with light rain showers from time to time meant that the only thing I could do was to notice very subtle details in the interior. As time went by I started to notice that this car wasn't designed with ergonomics as a priority either. The steering wheel was too close (even though I adjusted it to be as far away as possible) and the pedals were too far, I couldn't change gears without hitting my elbow against the water bottle which sited in what must be the smallest and shallowest cupholders in the car industry, and the controls for the sat-nav and climate control were all awkwardly positioned and complicated to use. However, none of these bothered me as they would in other cars, these flaws were interesting rather than annoying for some reason.
For the next few days I didn't get to drive much and none of the drives were particularly interesting. Go to the super market and back (5 min), to the mall and back (7 min), to the track and back (10 min). I eventually found a twisty and empty section of road that I could take when coming back from the track which allowed me to see how well it cornered. After holding a mini leaver up for 2 seconds sport mode was engaged and the fuel economy that was displayed in the screen within the dashboard became a turbo pressure gauge (which I thought to be a nice touch). I must admit that the change in the behaviour of the car surprised me. The throttle pedal was a lot more responsive, the steering wheel required less input to do the turns, and even the brake pedal became heavier and more well defined, it is not that often that you see such vigorous changes in sport modes of small (un-hot) hatchbacks. The car cornered marvellously, only limited by its all-season, eco-friendly, long-lasting tyres fitted by the rental car agency (as I believe they are interested in saving money and not outright speed). I really enjoyed driving the Giulietta along that piece of road.
Obviously when you have a rental car you begin to think about things your aren't supposed to do... to do. That was the case in an empty gravel parking lot of a nearby restaurant. There were only me, 2 other drivers from my team, the Giulietta and that tempting empty parking lot. We were all asphalt drivers, we don't slide, we liked grip, but in that day they convinced me that I might be the next Colin McRae. I began with small slides as any amateur rally driver should but as time progressed the slides became bigger, and bigger... and bigger. I was starting to get the hang of it, maybe I was the next rally superstar. However, as all things in life it was too good to be true and soon, after making a mistake I spun and rolled backwards slowly towards the middle of the lot. Instead of breaking to minimise the risks, I kept my clutch engaged. Suddenly I heard a loud bang and the Giulietta vigorously stoped. Yes, the impossible happened, I managed to crash into the ONLY other car that shared the lot with us (literally the only). Fortunately the impact speed wasn't anything huge and the damage was minimised to this subtle dent
Even though there was no one around other than ourselves, we rushed away from that parking lot to somewhere unnecessarily far away. I was properly scared that the owner of that old VW whatever would be chasing us down.
Race weeks come and go and after 3 straight race weeks I finally had a free week to go somewhere interesting. In homage to Alfa Romeo's sister brand's car I decided to head south-west to Portofino. The first part of the journey consisted of mainly Italian highways, a great opportunity to test the Giulietta's top speed (or at least how fast I dared to go before the Carabinieri showed up). For legal purposes I will say that my top speed was 120Km/h, right within the speed limit allowed in Italian highways. The second part of the journey consisted of amazing coastal twisty roads which were not only fantastic to drive on, but also provided a very welcome change in scenery from all farms and industrial complexes in this region of Italy.
Arriving in Portofino is very tight, you must drive through a very tight road to arrive near the city. When you begin to think that the road can't become any narrower a local tourist bus comes roaring down the other way, leaving less than 10cm between its side on the left or hitting a concrete wall on the right. As I didn't want another dent in my Giulietta I drove very slowly. On that road you think about the drawbacks of driving one of the widest cars in its class, no wonders the most popular cars in town are the Renault Twizy and the massive Smart car.
Things got worse when I arrived at the local parking lot. Describing it as tiny would't give you a sense of how small and tight it really was. I freely admit that I am useless for parking, but trying to fit what seemed to be the biggest car in the world within that space was ridiculous. Unfortunately I discovered than that the Giulietta had an absolutely enormous turning radius which didn't help me in that situation. I creeped countless times forwards and backwards trying to position myself perfectly to get into that parking space, I was taking my time to ensure that I wouldn't touch or scrape anything (differently from Desenzano). After minutes of tension, sweat, hearing locals shout as they were stuck behind me, I managed to park the Alfa and went for a fantastic dinner in the Portofino harbour. I made sure I didn't drink that night because I needed to figure out a sensible way of taking the car out of there.
The next day I headed south to Siena to explore some of the Tuscany landscape in of the region. The road to that region of Italy is comprised of 2 choices, a boring highway with 3000 thousand tunnels and a monotonous speed limit, or a beautiful scenic route high up in the "Alpeninos" (try and guess which one I chose). Amused by my turbo pressure gauge and the pleasure of shifting gears like a hairy-chested man with the marvellous 6 speed manual (something becoming exceedingly rare these days) made several Km feel like a few meters. Arriving in Siena, I noticed that my fuel gauge (which wasn't aligned with the readings) Was nearing the dangerous red. Thinking that it would be an easy problem to solve I asked Mr Google Maps to take me to the nearest fuel station so that I could fill up the Giulietta. Unfortunately, I wasn't what you would call a densely populated area of Italy, meaning that there were no near fuel stations to save me. I pulled over to analyse the situation and ended up driving 9km past my hotel (which was already 13.5km away) to find a fuel station and fill up. By the time I arrived at the hotel all I cared about was checking in as quickly as possible, unloading the car and eating.
Nothing much happened in Tuscany, perhaps the only remotely funny moment was when I drove through a hotel's (that wasn't the one I was staying at) front garden and had to reverse through a tight road which I'm not sure was designed for cars. It was very bumpy and made up of big rounded rocks which stuck out to create a very uneven terrain which didn't fit well with the Giulietta's sport-oriented suspension. Anyways, the Giulietta in the hotel's front yard yielded what I thought was not a bad picture.
The Giulietta in the middle of the front garden of the hotel that I wasn't staying in (awkwardly). I was enjoying my quest for the perfect picture, but the other guests and the manager didn't believe that the Giulietta blended in with the view.
The journey through Tuscany yielded some interesting pictures, so in case there was too much text, here are some pictures that I took along the journey...
One of the most beautiful cars in history parked next to a Jaguar E-type
The Alfa and a Renault Clio. Deadly rivals separated by a few metres and a tree. Very dangerous situation
Another one of my brilliant attempts at automotive photography. Yes I know I'm amazing at it thanks
After 3 days in Tuscany (where I met my parents). It was time to head back to Milano-Malpensa airport, not only to drop them off but also to return the Giulietta. I didn't want to but it would be the the most reasonable thing to do (and I can't afford to be unreasonable). I had a busy schedule in the following 3 weeks of races, testing and so on which wouldn't demand me to have a car so, to save some money, I decided after a lot of thinking to return the Giulietta.
The trip back to the airport gave me some time to reflect about the whole (rental) Giulietta experience as my parents were sleeping and I had nothing to think about.
The Alfa Romeo Giulietta is not a brilliant car in technical terms. The steering wheel is in the wrong place, you can't use the centre arm rest if there is anything in the minimal cupholder, the infotainment is very complicated, the dials sometimes aren't aligned with the readings on the gauges, the boot is awkwardly shaped and too small, and that is only talking about the interior. Despite every single critic I have about this car, don't be fooled for a second into thinking that this isn't one of the best hatchbacks on the market. The moment you turn sport mode on, look down at that Alfa Romeo badge in the middle of the steering wheel and take the car through a twisty Italian back road, it overwhelms you with a sense of joy provided by every single ounce of feedback you get from the steering wheel and your bum. The driving experience isn't complicated nor fast, it is simply extremely fun.
That is the interesting thing with Alfas that I was talking about in the beginning, they have a perfect balance between their flaws and qualities which enriches their character more than every other car. It almost feels as if they are alive, as if they are human, after all we too are made different by our flaws. Getting to know the Giulietta was like getting to know someone new, even though you might spot something wrong with how they look or what they said, you forgive them and as time goes by you learn to accept the way they are. I did learn to live with the Alfa, all of the weak points were outweighed by its beautiful looks (made even better by this gorgeous blue colour) and its handling. I can sincerely say that the Alfa was one of the most enjoyable experiences I had on the road, and would recommend everyone to drive one if they have the opportunity to do so.
Giving back the keys to the people at the airport was a very sad moment, especially because I had to pay for the dent in the rear bumper. I will miss that little blue Giulietta.
That is the end of the (rental) Alfa Romeo Giulietta experience.