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Payne: FCA’s Alfa Giulia hits the table smokin’ hot

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Sonoma Valley, California — Fiat Chrysler’s Dodge Viper cruise missile owns the most North American race track lap records — 13 — of any production car. Now FCA has conquered Germany, as well.

The company’s all-new, 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio Verde (or QV for short) clocked a blistering 7-minute, 32-second lap around the hallowed Nurburgring race track this fall to claim the fastest lap ever recorded by a four-door sedan.

Not bad for a car that doubles as a daily driver.

The Alfa destroyed the lap record held by the Porsche Panamera by six seconds, and eclipsed the time laid down by formidable sports cars such as the Porsche 911 GT3 and Lamborghini Gallardo. The legendary, 13-mile, 154-turn Nurburgring is widely considered to be the most demanding racetrack in the world — and is a testing ground for every performance car manufacturer from Corvette to Porsche to BMW.

“The buzz for the Giulia has been truly phenomenal,” said Alfa CEO Reid Bigland at Sonoma Raceway in California this week as U.S. reporters got their first taste of a car that will hit dealerships this December. “We’ve had 16 million YouTube hits on videos for the Alfa Giulia and 4C.”

The 4C is a reference to the brand’s halo sports car that was introduced in the U.S. in limited volume in 2014. With a Formula One-like, carbon-fiber, lightweight chassis offering sensational handling, the 4C was the appetizer for Alfa’s launch as a full-course menu in the United States.

With premium, midsize sedans still the plurality of luxury sales at 23 percent of the segment, the Giulia is crucial to establishing brand credibility here. It will be immediately followed by a midsize SUV, the Stelvia, into luxury’s fastest-growing segment at next month’s Los Angeles Auto Show.

Italian Fabio Francia set the Nurburgring sedan record in an Alfa Romeo Giulia. He came to Sonoma to show off the capabilities of the performance car that can double as a daily driver.

FCA’s launch of the Giulia has been highly unusual by debuting the badge’s most capable performance trim first. The twin-turbo, 2.9-liter, V6-powered Quadrifoglio is a snarling beast capable of hitting 60 mph in just 3.8 seconds and a top speed of 191 mph. Most manufacturers don’t introduce a sport variant until well into a model’s shelf life — but Alfa is determined to highlight its athleticism as a key differentiator in the ruthlessly competitive luxury space. The stylish, base Giulia is no slouch either, with a 2.0-liter, turbo-4 cylinder pumping out 280 horses that is also tops in its segment.

Journalists got their first experience with the Giulia QV from the passenger seat next to Fabio Francia, the ace Alfa test driver who blitzed the Nurburgring. Alfa flew him all the way from Italy to, apparently, set another lap record at Sonoma — while simultaneously turning journalists’ hair white.

Francia’s English was limited, but he let the car do the talking with its raw power and balanced, 50-50 handling. Behind the wheel on track and along California’s twisty, Pacific Coast Highway, I found the fetching sedan — in both 2.9-liter and 2.0-liter versions — on par with the BMW 3-series and Cadillac ATS as the best driver’s sedans today.

That was the intention all along. The Giulia is the product of a massive, multibillion dollar investment in an all-new product line. The Giulia’s so-called “Giorgio” platform will carry eight new models by 2020.

“The investment is unprecedented,” said Bigland. “This is a unique chassis with a unique set of engines. You lose credibility in this market as soon as you compromise on performance.” Some other large automakers, such as Ford and Toyota, share upgraded chassis from mainstream brands to make their luxury Lincoln and Lexus lines.

Richard Cox, director of Alfa North America, drove home the point.

“We started from scratch,” Cox said. “The intention is to make this car a benchmark for the segment.”

With the Giulia, Alfa has set new benchmarks in horsepower — and cutting-edge technology such as electronic, brake-by-wire — a first.

Having met the challenge of Nurburgring, Alfa now must build a credible dealer network in the U.S. despite weak, mainstream FCA brands to feed it (as Audi draws from Volkswagen customers, for example). The brand plans 250 showrooms here by the end of 2017 with a push to combine Fiat and Maserati products under the same roof

“No question that’s a challenge,” said Bigland. “We’re looking to conquest 100 percent. In order to do that you have to have a vehicle that is an alternative ... and we think we have that from a driving and performance and styling standpoint.”

“We will lean on our marketing machine,” the FCA veteran continued. “Most of the dealer growth is going to come by creating duals with Maserati and Alfa.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.