At Castle Combe the Alfa feels utterly out of its depth. To be fair, it did on the road as well. The BMW M3 has moved the game on a bigger step than at any time since E36 became E46. Alongside it the Giulia QV feels soft, baggy. And really rather engaging and playful. A reminder once again that stiffness and rigid control isn’t necessarily the only answer.
The purpose of the Giulia here is to cast a reflective shadow over the M3 as much as compete against it. Look at them both and tell me the BMW appears anything other than irritably obnoxious. The Alfa proves elegance and beauty can go hand in hand with impact and drama. Its grille is no less bold or noticeable, it just manages to have impact without making you look straight up its League of Gentlemen nostrils. And the Alfa’s design is cohesive, it’s shapeliness continues round the flanks, over the roof, into the tail, whereas no part of the BMW talks to another part. It’s got a cut’n’shut face.
Just driving that matters here? Give me a break. Most M3 buyers will be buying an M3 because it’s an M3, because the badge, brand and newness of it matter most. That the chassis engineers have done a bang on job probably passes most of them by. It’s fast, visually loud, liberally sprinkled with carbon and has a certain attitude. Cross shop it with an Alfa Romeo? Not a chance. Like I said, reflective shadow rather than out-and-out rival.
Step inside. It’s particularly dark in this Alfa, so it’s just as well the cabin is easy to get to grips with. Both literally (the steering wheel is thinner-rimmed), and figuratively (the layout and instrumentation is less complex). All the dynamic settings are buried in one single rotary controller by the gearlever, labelled A-N-D-Race. Not ‘And Race’, but All-weather, Normal, Dynamic and Race. It collects all the variables (exhaust, steering, suspension, traction) together and where you twist it governs the set-up. Simple. However, you want the sports exhaust. But that’s only available in Race. Where the stability control is disabled. Ah. You can adjust the dampers separately, and you will as the ideal mode for road driving is Dynamic with soft suspension.
BMW gives you all the choice. Just makes it hard to get to. The last-gen F80 used to have a cluster of buttons around the gearlever, but those now control useless things like cameras and parking sensors. The dynamic controls are buried in menus, which makes me question BMW’s priorities. At least you can set-up the M1 and M2 steering wheel buttons with your preferred settings. There’s a lot to play with in here and I have to admit that, although complex, it does add more depth to the car.
But that’s not the only area BMW scores over Alfa. The Giulia is now nearly four years old, you’d imagine they’d have tightened up the build quality. But no. There’s still too much play in the switchgear, the materials are merely passable. It doesn’t convince as a £60k car, while the BMW does feel worth £75k. I hope it’s no longer the case, but when we ran a long term Giulia QV it left us stranded more than once, an RAC man famously saying he’d never seen so many fault codes on a car.
Let’s move on. The new M3, as you’ve doubtless already read or seen, is more a chassis car than an engine car. The steering is amazingly precise, the rear axle is pin-point accurate as well, it has incredible body control and traction and so copes easily with all the power heading out the back wheels. Which means you often find yourself travelling at the speed of light, yet are perfectly happy and in control doing so. Basically, the chassis is so talented the engine is unable to shine. If the handling was more wayward the engine would have more effect on it and the car would seem more evenly balanced.
The Alfa is that car. Here engine and chassis are in more of a dialogue with each other as the chassis can’t keep pace with the massive thrust the twin turbo V6 is capable of generating. On a bumpy road the softly-sprung Giulia can become very lively indeed. It’s not unusual to hear the sump scuff the tarmac, so you, as the driver, are more occupied managing the car. You have to read the road a different way, pay more attention to stuff you know will deflect or upset the car’s trajectory. So you travel slower, work harder. This is not a bad thing.
Compared to the old M3, the Giulia never felt as deficient or wayward. This new M car, as I said at the top, has moved the game on markedly. Take the steering. Both have very quick racks, but the Alfa’s now comes across as vague just off centre, not giving you proper confidence as you turn in. In the BMW you feel directly plugged in to the front wheels, like your shoulders are jointed to the steering arms. Natural feel might be lacking, but awareness of grip isn’t.
And what grip! How the BMW manages to spread load across its tyres, and use that electronically controlled rear differential to release torque is remarkable. After one corner at Castle Combe it’s tens of yards ahead. By the end of the lap, out of sight. It’s efficient, effective and stonkingly fast. The Alfa, upset by undulations, lurching and bouncing, is unable to apply its power. It’s brakes bite less hard, it dives and moves around, you’re busier inside, travelling slower and taming a wilder ride. And you know what? There’s not much wrong with that. The Giulia feels game and playful.
Both claim an identical 503bhp. The Alfa reckons it’s a substantial 200kg lighter, which is more than enough to offset the M3’s 50Nm torque advantage. In reality the BMW has a slight accelerative edge. Better traction off the line meant it was faster to 100kph in our hands (3.6secs plays 3.9) and 0.7secs ahead at 160kph (7.8secs). It’s worth pointing out both are ballistically fast, although the Alfa’s delivery, partly due to the excitable chassis, partly to the torque ramp, is more rousing. It’s a shame when it calls it quits at 6,800rpm. It makes a louder, lovelier noise, too.
Automatic ZF eight-speed gearboxes for both. BMW has made a better fist of the calibration, so shifts happen immediately, it feels punchier. But when the rest of the car is so sharp, you notice the 150ms upshift delay more. It should be a twin clutch. The Alfa you forgive, because gearbox follows the characteristics of engine and chassis. It’s bit more wayward, more open and honest about its faults and flaws. More human.
The Alfa’s more wayward, more open and honest about its faults and flaws. More human
Better to live with as well? I’m not so sure. More refined and gentler riding? A little, as the BMW jiggles at low speed, the dampers needing proper load in them in order to start working. It’s prone to coarse surface noise intrusion too, the M3. But because the controls are so accurate, it’s easy to drive and manage, doesn’t lurch out of junctions. The Alfa doesn’t do your bidding as predictably and accurately, but is a gentler, less busy partner on days where you’re just getting about with passengers on board. Note on that: if you have the special seats with the daft knob plinth whoever occupies the passenger seat is going to question your life choices. This will probably be your life partner. However, the BMW is tough as teak, where the Alfa is more willowy. You’d trust the BMW not to let you down.
The BMW wins this contest. It is not only relentlessly fast and capable, but in its steering and chassis control, downright remarkable. The Alfa wilts before this onslaught, but its comparative frailties give it more recognisable human qualities. It’s the sort of car that gets a bit out of shape and out if its depth and makes you grin and forgive it because you know it’s trying its best. Plus it’s easy to forgive something so beautiful. I’d entirely understand if that did it for you – it very nearly does for me – the QV is the more sophisticated, more heartfelt machine. But it feels a generation behind now. And this new M3 is a deeply satisfying car. Careful how you spec it and how you use it. You’ll look a bigger prat getting it wrong in this than you will the Alfa.
- Ollie Marriage