This is a behind-the-scenes look at Alfa Romeo. More technical than a road test, I shall try not to be too techy. But first some words from the late CEO, the Italian-Canadian Sergio Marchionne who died aged just 66. He was discussing the Giulia and Stelvio projects with the engineers. The engineers asked Marchionne how much the budget was to design and build the new models. Marchionne told them, “There is no budget. Spend whatever is necessary to build them.” This had a great effect on those engineers, and after a full day with Alfa Romeo’s chief engineers, it is clear that they have some kind of illness for which there is no name. They regard their employment with the company not as a job but as a calling. They work long hours, obsessed with technological advances.
DAY-1 ALFA ROMEO MUSEUM
Before meeting the chief engineers — and to get in the zone — it was appropriate to visit the Alfa Romeo Museum at Arese, near Milan. This is no dusty, crusty old place with a few tatty old cars. No. A visit to this museum will leave you wide-eyed. The museum is state-of-the-art and includes a 4D experience. I shall not describe the fourth dimension, in case you make the trip. With Alfa founded in 1910, and with so much race heritage dating back to 1911, one can understand how the engineers became infected.
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DAY-2 WITH ENGINEERS AND ON TRACK
Clear that image in your head of a typical test track. Balocco is massive. It has 60kms of tarmac with much spacious and delightful infrastructure. It was originally built by Alfa Romeo in 1961 and now is home to the FCA Group (Fiat Chrysler Auto). Some of the track’s countless corners have been designed to mirror the great bends in Formula One racing. Let’s get techy.
There are two rear differential options: a regular mechanical limited slip diff and Alfa’s new ‘Active Torque Vectoring’ system. The latter is a smart version giving greater corner exit traction. The 4-WD presentation also included discussion regarding a clever ‘Active Transfer Gearbox’ which decides how much torque to send forward or rearwards. Unusual for a 4WD vehicle, the location of this transfer case could not be better. It sits in line with the front axle. This saves weight, as the front drive shafts are perfectly placed. Looking at the gearboxes and differentials on the desk in front of me, I could see how lightweight and well-made they were, including the carbon fibre propshaft. Indeed, the whole 4WD kit only adds 50kg to a car’s weight, which is remarkable. The 4WD cars run with 100 per cent RWD until front-end traction is required. This saves fuel. Countless sensors, including individual wheel speed sensors, tell the ECU exactly what is happening. This in turn sends the correct amount of torque to each wheel. On the track all you notice is that the cars have superb mid-corner grip and amazing corner-exit traction. The engineers tell me that the rear ‘Torque Vectoring’ has a rear steering effect, but without the complications of actual rear steering.
Now this is something special. Totally new and patented by Alfa. What follows is a bit techy and — for this — you need to know what a wishbone is. Think of it as a triangle. In fact the Italian word for a wishbone is triangolo. The Giulia has double wishbone suspension. The lower wishbone, where it meets the front wheel hub normally has a single ball joint. The Alfa ‘Link’ front lower wishbone meets the hub with two ball joints, set some distance apart. This means that the lower swivel point is now ‘virtual’ and capable of moving in better positions and delivering less tyre scrub as the steering is turned. On the track all I noticed was that the cars responded to the steering much quicker than their kerb weight would have suggested. There is also active damper control to automatically suit various conditions. As for the rear suspension, the lower wishbone is a massively stiff lightweight aluminium casting that can resist distortion (and geometry change) that comes with fast driving. The unequal length links ensure that on full bump, there is some passive rear steering to add to cornering stability, ie no toe-out on the loaded rear wheel.
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With the ‘Integrated Braking System’, Alfa Romeo has taken braking to a higher level. No longer is braking simply a matter of pushing brake fluid against caliper pistons. Once again countless sensors tell Alfa’s in-house braking ECU exactly what is happening to the car and to the four tyre contact patches. The new system then applies exactly the right amount of braking to each of the four brakes calipers, and without ABS vibrations in extremes. It also understands that if you are creeping along in traffic, brake pedal use is different from that required when you are driving at high speed and need to stop quickly. This system is much lighter in weight and has reduced stopping distances. Alfa has also added carbon ceramic brake discs, which are not only a fraction of the weight of steel discs but much more resistant to overheating. This saw an additional weight saving of 20kg. When you consider that designers are often chasing grams, 20kg off a production car is a lottery win.
At the Pirelli camp, tyre technicians were busy checking and changing the tyres on the fleet of Giulia and Stelvio SUVs that have been hammering around the Balocco track. In their office was a selection of tyres from various manufacturers; not the whole tyre but 50mm sections of each. Examination of these show the differences in the constructions. It takes three years to fully sort a car before it is launched. Pirelli has been working in parallel with Alfa during the Giulia and Stelvio’s development and used 4,000 tyres in the process. Such are the intricacies of tyre technology that tyres fitted to the front are not the same as the rear, despite the cars’ 50:50 weight distributions. The tyres come with AR (Alfa Romeo) moulded into the side wall. They also make bespoke winter and ‘all season’ tyres for Alfa Romeo. Sure…, you can fit any old tyres to your Giulia or Stelvio, but if you want it to perform as intended, only the bespoke tyres will do that job.
A wet circle was there so that drift practice could be performed in safe conditions, and with driver aids switched off. With the 2-wheel drive Giulias, it was straightforward stuff. Enter the wet circle, kick the tail out with power and balance the slide with throttle and steering. With the 4WD Stelvio, a different technique was required. If you floor the throttle in a tight turn, the Stelvio simply pushes on with understeer. To drift a Stelvio, you kick the tail out with just a tiny steering angle. This sends the tail out and then a full-on sideways 4WD drift is easy to hold.
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The programme for the day included a fleet of Stelvio SUVs and Giulia saloons, both in various forms from the lowest powered diesel versions right up to the 510 horse power 2.9 litre petrol Turbo V6. Test driving duties were interspersed with classroom sessions with engineers as described above.
The Balocco circuit that was used for this Alfa test included a huge long banked high speed sweeper where delicacy of steering is required. A high-G turn at 200kph is thought-provoking when you have a concrete wall alongside. It would be more dangerous without the wall but nevertheless…. The exit from the high-speed banking fires you down a straight which is long enough for the vehicles to exceed 80 per cent of their top speed. Just to remind readers, The Giulia’s top speeds are 219kph for the slowest diesel and 306kph for the fastest petrol, while the Stelvio’s top speeds range from 198kph to 283kph. All these huge velocities must be dealt with as the end of this straight sees a 45kph turn. A real brake test indeed. There then follows a series of slow and fast bends, a really tight brake-testing 180 degree hairpin and straights of various lengths. Fortunately, the track was wet in the morning and dry in the afternoon, which made for a comprehensive test. Whilst attacking a fast wet corner in a 510 horse power Stelvio Quadrifoglio, all 1830kgs of it, the tail stepped out. Instantly and automatically doing what was necessary to correct the slide, I realised that my inputs were superfluous as the car corrected itself. I then switched the handling control from normal to dynamic and repeated the test.
This was more my style and the Stelvio obliged perfectly from my corrective inputs. However, the laws of physics still apply. If you arrive at a tight turn at a stupid speed, you will have a problem. The Stelvio is so good that it is easy to forget that you are driving an SUV, not a low-slung sports car. The diesels are also very respectable at low rpm and also for fast driving provided you use the engine’s torque rather than its revs., ie change gear at 4000rpm. As for the top-spec Giulia, if you want a shopping car that you can go drifting with, this is it. It even has a great steering lock for full-on sideways slides. In conclusion, it is enough to say that, thanks to the engineers, the Giulia and Stelvio have received 140 international awards in three years.