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Your huge list of 2017's best cars driven in SA - Part 4

2017-12-30 15:00

Egmont Sippel

Image: Wheels24 / Sean Parker

Cape Town - And here it is: the Number One car on our huge list of best vehicles driven in South Africa in 2017. Take all the Porsches out of the equation, and the Alfa Romeo Quadrifoglio is supreme, says Egmont Sippel

And so Sergio Marchionne has taken Alfa Romeo to F1.

The logical response to this should be: You’re kidding!

But there it is, off to the upper echelons of motor racing, this Milanese manufacturer with a logo depicting a red cross and a serpentine creature – a snake, perhaps, or a dragon – with a man in its mouth. And not because the man is being eaten alive, but because he is emerging from the creature’s mouth as reborn, renewed and purified.

Time will tell if Alfa’s F1 association with Sauber, starting in 2018, will accelerate or brake – or even break – the momentum gathered by bold action thus far from the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) CEO, who also happens to be Ferrari’s CEO and chairman and Maserati’s chairman.

One thing is for sure: Marchionne is serious about Alfa. 

He wants to do a Fiat on the brand, he wants to turn it around, he wants Alfa to be a premium player (in the USA as well), he wants to sell 400 000 Romeos per annum and he wants to shift 170 000 of them in 2018.

To this end, FCA has pledged 5 billion Euro, to start off with. Alfa engineering has been moved out of Milan, to Modena, the home of Maserati and Ferrari. Marchionne has even declared it his “moral duty” to relaunch Alfa. 

From all of this, the Giulia and its SUV brethren, the Stelvio, has emerged, not only with a Ferrari derived V6 at the top of the range, but with rear wheel drive as well.

Purity and potential

Now, that’s purity for you. Even 2005’s beautiful Brera coupé was front (or all) wheel drive. For Marchionne to have thrown down the gauntlet in commissioning a new rear wheel drive platform is proof of how seriously he wants to challenge BMW and Mercedes supremacy in the segment for compact executive cars.

And for good reason. Alfa, firstly, is dear to all petrol heads. Profit margins, secondly, are close to 10% when you sell premium, versus 3.5% in the mass market where Fiat and Chrysler operate.

Marchionne wants a slice of this potential.

So, Alfisti rejoice! As the hot sedan version of the new Giulia, we get the Quadrifoglio. And what a clover leaf it is.
The engine, for starters. Team leader for the Ferrari V8 that motivates the California T, Gianluca Pivetti, was also in charge of lopping off two cylinders and shrinking the engine’s capacity from 3.9 to 2.9 litres.

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Adding biturbo charging – meaning two turbos of equal size, one on each cylinder bank – and the Quadrifoglio, still with the California’s direct injection technology, is good for a sweet 375 kW and 600 Nm, which compare very nicely, thank you, to Munich, Ingolstadt and Stuttgart power; the V6 competes head-on with the M3 Competition and Affalterbach’s Mercedes-AMG C63 and C63 S.

Yet statistics – power, torque, 0-100 km/h in 3.9 seconds, 300 km/h-plus in a straight line, stuff like that – represent only one side of the coin, the Bitcoin side; it sounds great on paper and creates huge expectations.

The other side, the real world currency, is presented by feel, accessibility, responses, spread, sound, the way the engine drives and how the car delivers on the road. 

The Alfa’s V6 shines in all of this and it shines like a diamond, unless you deem the vocals to be overly subdued, a restrained snarl notwithstanding.

But that’s fine. You can always unleash real aural firepower, the equivalent of crackers at dawn, by activating Race mode. 

Moods and modes

In such a mood, the Quadrifoglio feels like a sub-4.0 second car straight out of the blocks, all the way up to 307 km/h. Power is delivered linearly, relentlessly and with unmatched purity; the 2.9-litre biturbo is an extremely cultured and refined machine. 

If it’s true then, that machines are about to take over the world, you should pray that they will all be Alfa 2.9-litre biturbos; the V6 is Cuore Sportivo (meaning “sporty heart”) personified. 

Coupled to an equally brilliant ZF-supplied 8-speed auto, power is delivered in one long, never-ending continuum interspersed by the sweetest of lightning quick blips, the drivetrain programmed to deliver increased peak torque values in each successive gear, as you blitz through the box.

The effect is a continuously building surge, unstoppable in its hunger for more.

Yet, there is an even more amazing and engaging aspect to the Alfa and that’s the way it sits on the road, with all four wheels planted and in full contact, all of the time.

You can fool some of the people all the time, Abraham Lincoln once said, and all the people some of the time. But not all the people, all of the time.

It is equally difficult in a sports car travelling at great speed for all four wheels to follow all of the road’s profiles all of the time, without ever crashing into the tarmac, or bumping at points and lifting, alternately going heavy and light, especially when the car is as stiffly sprung as the Quadrifoglio and riding on 35-profile rubber.  

Courtesy of the interaction between patented AlfaLink aluminium suspension (double wishbones up front and a five link at the rear, including a vertical link to control wheel position and oscillation under traction) plus springs and active Bilstein dampers making good use of the Magneti Marelli-developed CDC (Chassis Domain Control, delivering super-fast communication between electronic systems on the steering, driveline, brakes, suspension and diff), the Quadrifoglio seems to be nicely nestled and supremely stable at all times. 

Firm settings and low profiles notwithstanding, the ride is thus pliable. Coupled to stunning grip via Pirelli P Zero Corsas (and it’s gotta be P Zero Corsas) it all adds up to outstanding body control and road dominance.

The end result is performance and handling of the highest order. And more: of the sweetest order.

Nürburgring lap time

As such, the Alfa slashed a full 13 seconds out of the BMW M3’s Nürburgring time. By golly, on Corsa rubber the Quadrifoglio is even a second quicker than the Lamborghini Murciélago!

Lots of aluminium, carbon fibre and hi-tech design contribute to this, as does Race mode, Alfa Active Aero at the front, torque vectoring via two electro-mechanical clutches on the rear diff and last but not least, mighty Brembo stoppers.

Just ensure that you don’t overlap the accelerator and brakes when you perform two-footed tap dances on the pedals, which might happen if you’re a left foot braker. VW/Audi started this nonsense, to put the engine to sleep for two seconds when the two pedals overlap. Then Maserati followed, and now Alfa.

On the Quadrifoglio, however, the engine can literally relapse into limp mode until you kill and restart it – or until you discover the secret of deactivating the temporary fatwa that’s been issued, by the electronics, against the engine: you just have to tap the accelerator twice in rapid succession, and all is fine again.

Strange that Alfa has not spread the word, even to its own employees . . . 

Which leaves styling. 

The Giulia is perhaps not as brazenly exotic as Walter de Silva’s 156 when the latter was launched in Lisbon exactly twenty years ago, but Alfa’s latest sedan shimmies with a smooth, modern, muscular virility, all the same. The stance is solid and sheet metal proportions are perfect – although the headlights overextend by a bit, in my view. 

The Giulia was styled in Turin, of course, as Centro Stile in Arese is no more; the site now houses Museo Storico Alfa Romeo.

The Quadrifoglio will one day take its place in this museum. The car is history in the making. If Ferrari ever wanted to build an “entry-level sedan”, this could have been it. 

The Quadrifoglio is, in fact, a Prancing Horse without the requisite emblem. 

The interior? 

Good enough, at least to differentiate it from German stock, although I won’t vouch for fit and finish, nor build quality. The test car was niggle free, but living with an Alfa can throw up a frustration or two, trust me. Back in the day, I used to drive an Alfasud Sprint Veloce and sometimes it drove me as well – up the wall, that is. Totally nuts. 

Yet, I loved the car.

Conclusion

Modern Alfas? Still not on a par with Teutonic build quality.

But you have to balance this against the passion and the performance of the Quadrifoglio, the sheer delight of driving it, the involvement and satisfaction derived. 

The gods might just as well have dropped you straight into the honey jar. 

Or, to paraphrase Hemingway: the Alfa is a movable feast, a riot and a symphony, alike. It speaks to the heart and gut and mind and senses in equal measure. Emotion runs mountain high, involvement is river deep. 

It all starts with Cuore Sportivo, of course – the power and purity of a noble and majestic V6. This is one of the finest engines ever, in one of the most captivating driver’s cars yet.

This is the rebirth of Alfa.

Yet, the magic doesn’t end when all falls silent after the umpteenth thrilling and exhilarating drive, for the simple reason that the Quadrifoglio shines on you like a crazy diamond and keeps on doing so.

This Alfa has soul, and a gloriously sweet one at that. 

Look out for Egmont Sippel’s soon-to-be-published list of 2017 cars that could have been so much better, if not for . . . followed by a Porsche exclusive.

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