Despite a few setbacks, Alfa Romeo is still planning a range revamp over the coming years, which includes the launch of the Giulia saloon. Before that, an updated Giulietta hatchback will hit showrooms – debuting a new family face for the brand, a handful of trim changes and some extra kit.
There's also a new engine and transmission combination, whereby Alfa’s economical 1.6-litre diesel is partnered with the brand's TCT dual-clutch automatic gearbox. It’s that car we drive here for the first time, on the roads around parent company Fiat-Chrysler’s test track in northern Italy.
For us, the subtle facelift is a successful one, and the already great-looking Giulietta is more beautiful than ever. Alfa has even kept the fantastic taillight shape from the previous model – a distinguishing highlight that didn’t need changing. The new headlights and grille look smart, too, making the Giulietta one of the best looking cars in its class.
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Inside, the changes are even more subtle, with only a few tweaks to materials and the addition of a Uconnect infotainment system. This lets you pair your smartphone to use apps like music streaming and social media. While the cabin doesn't feel as upmarket as the BMW 1 Series or Audi A3, it’s got bags of charm, with the stylish dials and gear-shifter paddles giving it a sporty feel.
The automatic gearbox now available in this 1.6-litre diesel model offers smooth shifts, and in manual mode the changes are quick enough. It even creeps forward when you lift off the brakes - so driving in traffic is easy, too.
All cars now get Alfa's DNA switch as standard, which offers three driving modes: Dynamic, Natural and All-weather. In Dynamic mode the gearbox holds on to gears for longer, as well as adding weight to the steering and stiffening the suspension. It keeps the revs high and can grate a little on the motorway – but you can always change up using the paddles behind the wheel. In Natural or All-weather, the gearbox is better tuned for economy, refusing to kick down unless you press the pedal all the way to the floor. Again, you can still change gear manually, but it's one of those small niggles that can often be irritating with automatic gearboxes.
With just 118bhp it's not particularly quick, but the Giulietta is still fun to drive, with lots of grip and little body roll. The steering has some weight to it, and although there's not as much feedback as we'd like the Alfa still feels sporty in the corners. Still, it's not as good to drive as its German rivals, especially the BMW 1 Series, and it's a shame that Alfa hasn't managed to build a particularly characterful car given the stylish looks.
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The 1.6 diesel is smooth and quiet at low revs. There's a loud grumble higher up, but keep things relaxed and the engine is hushed. It's very economical too, emitting less than 100g/km of CO2 and returning 74.3mpg.
On 16-inch wheels the Giulietta was comfortable on the smooth Italian roads we tried, but it would be hard to blame anyone for moving up to the stylish 17-inch rims. The seats are comfortable, even in entry-level cloth form, which should help mitigate the ride on bumpy British roads.
As this is a minor update for the car, passenger and boot space are unchanged, with 350 litres available behind the rear seats. It's not a huge amount and is beaten by the VW Golf, and rear legroom and headroom is rather disappointing for a five-door family car.
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The Alfa Romeo Giulietta remains in the same place it was before the update, since Alfa has decided to improve on what it was already good at: the looks. It's certainly one of the most stylish cars in its class, but still falls behind on the same points of build quality, driving experience and practicality as before. Plus, Mazda 3 offers some competition in the style stakes and it's better to drive, too.