One more spin on the carousel.
In a few weeks time, Alfa Romeo will reveal to the world a car which will unite the massed ranks of automotive press in labelling it ‘make or break‘. Like Alfa Romeo’s reincarnation plans over the years, the tally of make or break Alfa Romeos has been depressingly numerous, but what unites them is a single stark characteristic: none has delivered upon its promise. The latest of these dates from 2015, when the current Giulia was announced, but given that crushing disappointment is a feeling all too familiar to those who admire the Milanese car brand and wish it success, the betting appears to be only for the brave.
Because, by the looks of things, the Giulia is on the ropes. Now, as we all know, saloons of all stripes are in retreat, even those of a more specialised, rear-wheel drive, sporting bent. Customers, we are reliably informed no longer equate these low-slung three-volume shapes with their aspirations, which are (as aspirations generally are) for something more elevated – in this case rather literally.
In 2017, we examined the prospects of the Giulia, viewed against its natural and most bitterly contested rival, Jaguar’s XE. Both had been conceived at great expense, developed from the ground up to offer a no-compromise alternative to sector-defining rivals from Milbertshoven, Ingolstadt and Sindelfingen.
Some five years later, the situation hasn’t altered greatly, in that the segment remains dominated by the German trio – all in new or updated form – with both Alfa Romeo and Jaguar collectively licking their wounds from a bruising series of encounters with harsh commercial reality. Also changed is the composition of the sector; now somewhat smaller owing to the withdrawal of both Infiniti and Lexus from the European equation.
Having recently examined the (hardly edifying) prospects of brand-Jaguar as we enter 2022, this week we turn our attentions to the Biscione of Milan, and specifically, the Cassino-built Giulia.
Given that Alfa Romeo did so much to establish the market for the close-coupled sports saloon with the original 101-series Giulietta and 105-series Giulia models, it seems grimly ironic they have been reduced to hanging by their fingernails now. Absence of course has never been a recipe for success, and certainly Sergio Marchionne’s prevarication over the composition of the eventual Giulia model left a gaping hole where a viable Alfa Romeo offering should have been for several commercially significant years following the premature withdrawal from sale of the 159 model.
Getting it right was the Marchionne rationale at the time, the line being that a succession of front-driven offerings diluted the Alfa bloodline and only a technically pure, rear-drive car would dampen the burning sense of betrayal felt by Alfisti everywhere from Melbourne to Melfi. A rationale which was eerily similar to that espoused by JLR management when the X760 (XE) was being scoped, with traumatised Jaguar executives recalling its X-Type predecessor from behind the sofa.
It would seem that not only did senior management in both the UK and Italy draw similar conclusions to begin with, both carmakers subsequently faced similar levels of buyer ambivalence once their carefully curated creations came to market. A fundamental error on both sides being the assumption that an overwhelming emphasis on class-leading dynamics would provide the reputational cut-through required – somewhat naive when opposition offerings were so crushingly complete.
On paper, the Giulia had and continues to have much going for it. An excellent chassis (as well it should), an attractive cabin and some decent engines (petrol versions specifically). Furthermore, the Andrea Loi credited 952-series remains by some margin the most attractive looking of its segment, knocking the German trio into the proverbial cocked hat on aesthetics at least. Not that this means the Giulia is anybody’s design classic, merely that so low is the bar nowadays that all it takes is a relatively calm, decently proportioned and relatively coherent body style to take class honours by a broad margin.
But along with its equally embattled Midlands English rival, Giulia lacks the wide powertrain choice offered by the Teutonic trio, not to mention the choice of additional body styles; both Alfa Romeo and Jaguar assuming that spin-off CUV offerings (Stelvio and F-Pace) would cater to those requiring versatility or load-lugging capabilities. Both have suffered for this lapse – in European markets at least, where estate cars continue to matter.
Arriving on European markets a good year after the Jaguar, did not necessarily hamper the Giulia, which has managed to come close to equalling the total deliveries accrued by the British car. For both cars however, European (and US) sales as a whole have fallen well short of expectations, despite both carmakers’ projections. Curiously, the picture is similar for both marques’ CUV offerings – both Stelvio and F-Pace again being within 10,000 registrations of one another when one considers total European deliveries to date.
Reasons for the Giulia’s vanishingly rare presence on our roads are many and varied. Notwithstanding more recent microprocessor shortages and any diversion of chip supply elsewhere (à la Castle Bromwich), the Giulia has been hampered by a lack of business-friendly variants (most of these saloons are company car leases), patchy sales and aftersales coverage, and all too often, a less than adequate dealership experience. But fundamentally, there remains a dogged and durable perception – and one successive brand stewards have failed to address – that the Guilia (or any Alfa Romeo), while alluring, remains a highly risky automotive punt to take.
Both XE and Giulia are vivid examples of company executives drawing poor conclusions, committing € billions to develop cars that would ultimately land as customers’ third or fourth choice on a user-chooser list. Their respective commercial fates were therefore as baked-in as their undoubted dynamic excellence, because the executives involved in their conception neglected to realise that in order for a challenger product to succeed, it must exceed customer expectations in just about every metric, not simply one or two.
The Giulia appears to be failing. Alfa Romeo has delivered in the region of 6000 examples across European markets throughout 2021 (Jan-Nov figures), with around 7600 reaching North American shores in that time. Add in a few thousand elsewhere and the picture doesn’t look all that promising. Another misfiring Alfa saloon – one more in a long and dispiriting line.
Now under new ownership, and with yet another new CEO (former Peugeot chief, Jean-Philippe Imparato), the Stellantis pathway leads in an altogether different direction. February 8 sees the reveal of the first Alfa Romeo model to make its debut since Carlos Tavares’ automotive behemoth came into being, the Biscione to reveal the commercially vital C-segment Tonale crossover for the first time. This car, derived from an FCA-derived JEEP platform with shared corporate drivetrains marks the Milan brand’s latest direction of travel: Transverse engines: front or four wheel drive: generous economies of scale: cost optimised.
After all, reality (much like the auto business itself), is a brutal mistress. For Alfisti everywhere, the Marchionne-helmed dream of a dynamics-led renewal looks to be over. So enjoy the Giulia while it lasts – we definitely won’t see its like again.
 Good grief! Even the Passat saloon is no more.
 While Infiniti has withdrawn entirely from Europe, Lexus has simply ceased offering the slow-selling IS model to European markets.
 The same executives who had probably warmly espoused the X-Type upon its scoping and introduction. Ironically, X400, while hardly a shining example of Jaguar product was (debatably) a more rounded product than XE, for all the former’s obvious flaws.
 In Europe, Stelvio sales have consistently outperformed those of the Giulia, whereas in the US, where one might imagine otherwise, the gap between the two models is considerably narrower.
 The Giulia is rather colour and specification sensitive. The example above shows it in a more flattering light.
 Under Imparato’s leadership, Alfa Romeo has been brought under fiscal control, it’s said, but as for making money, that may prove trickier. In addition to a new CEO, Alfa also has a new design director.
Sales data via carsalesbase.com
All images were taken by the author.