Payne: Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio vs. Audi S4 is a clash of personalities

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Anyone who doubts machines have personalities hasn’t driven the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio and Audi S4. Though they are both of the luxury performance sedan persuasion, they are as different as Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton. Ginger and Mary Ann. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

They are as different as, well, Italian and Germans.

Luxe sedans may be taking a backseat to SUVs these days, but there is simply no segment more fun than compact cars. With superb new performance models like the Cadillac CT5-V, Tesla Model 3 Performance and Genesis G70 3.3T complementing stalwarts like the Alfa, S4, Mercedes C 43 AMG and BMW N340i, there has never been more choice for the enthusiast.

For 2020, the Alfa Romeo Giulia line has received significant interior upgrades — in particular a new touchscreen, self-driving and console features. To be honest, I didn’t know they were lacking.

The 2020 Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio is whip-quick with a tight chassis and one of the sexiest bods in the business.

That’s because the Giulia is a riot to drive.

Whether the base $39,840 Giulia, $45,000 Ti, or my tester — the $90,840 Quadrifoglio performance model — the Giulia is the best-handling car in class. Particularly now that its nimble peer, the Cadillac ATS, has been rebadged CT4 and shipped off to the sub-compact class.

When you’re nailing apexes, gulping straightaways and obliterating ess-curves, who has time to notice the console materials?

Naturally, I showed up at the gates of Hell (Michigan) to stretch Giulia’s legs on Michigan’s best roads. As distinct as three-headed Cerberus, the Italian features its signature Trilobo grille. Where the Audi is a tidy German businessman with pressed shirt and necktie, Alfa is a raging Fabio Fognini: brash, talented and attractive. Go ahead and stare at its sexy, phone-dial wheels.

Nail the throttle onto Hell’s Glenbrook Road and the 443 pound-feet of torque from the twin-turbo 505-horse turbo-6 — basically a Ferrari V-12 sawed in half — slews the rear end sideways. The quick-ratio steering wheel and athletic chassis absorb the moment without drama, and the red Alfa rockets forward into a series of ess-turns, carving them like a knife.

Though the 3,806-pound Giulia weighs about the same as the all-wheel drive Audi — and just 100 pounds less than the bigger Cadillac CT5-V — it feels lighter on its feet than its competitors. Having 150 more horsepower on tap helps, too.

The interior of the 2020 Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio is stylish with improved tech over the 2019 model.

I whipped the Caddy on these same roads just a week prior, and its athleticism impressed even though it’s 11 inches longer than the Giulia. GM’s engineers have done supreme work on that big compact. Inherently smaller, the Alfa is a Russell Westbrook to the Caddy’s LeBron James — as talented but able to change directions more quickly.

The engine is one of internal combustion’s great personalities. Crank the mode dial to Race and the bratty V-6 snorts on upshifts, backfires on downshifts and generally trash-talks its way through a spirited drive. It learned at the knee of its master, the delightfully rude 4C sports car.

The Audi is a more fitting dinner partner at the club. It sports a turbo-6 as well, but a very well-mannered one. Its meaty, 369 pound-feet of torque are delivered civilly, sounding more like an angry vacuum cleaner than the hounds of Hades.

Indeed, I wasn’t tempted to take the S4 to Hell after a couple of loops around Metro Detroit cloverleafs. The Audi is a straight-line rocket, but it doesn’t like to be pushed too hard. Its heavy, all-wheel-drive platform understeers easily and is generally averse to dancing on the limit.

Not the Giulia. In Dynamic mode — up a notch from the standard Natural — it wants to cut some rug. In Race mode it wants to set the rug on fire. Selecting Race requires an extra pause on the dial — as if the Alfa is asking: Are you sure?

The 2020 Audi S4 is a powerful, straight-line rocket, but it's not as nimble as the Alfa and won't tempt owners to seek out the roads of Hell.

The car noticeably quivers when Race is engaged, the throttle on edge, the engine growl menacing, the suspension taut.

Social-distancing in Hell was never so much fun. But the Alfa’s quickness is owed in part to its diminutive size. There is no social-distancing in the Giulia’s cramped rear seat. The Audi isn’t much better with only a half-inch more knee room, making it a tight fit for my 6-foot-5- frame.

Buy roomiest-in-class Caddy CT5-V if you frequently ferry foursomes — Giulia is a driver’s car. But Audi still understands that its clients will spend most of their time on four lanes like I-96 or U.S. 23 that lead to Hell — sometimes in hellish traffic. This is where the Germans excel.

Like its exterior, the S4’s interior wardrobe is Brooks Brothers conservative. But Audi has long been on the cutting edge of electronic tech with configurable digital instrument display, Google Earth-like nav graphics and sharp voice commands. Audi faithful will blanch at the fact that the brand has ditched its remote rotary infotainment controller, but the new touchscreen is crisply responsive.

I’ve always liked the Giulia’s interior — its big, goggle-eyed instrument displays, rotary ducts and sweeping dash lines are uniquely Alfa. For 2020 the roomy console has been nicely upgraded with wood and carbon trims. But it’s tough to compete against Audi, which draws from the big electronics toolbox over at VW Group. The new Giulia is a major upgrade with German-like “pages” to flip through on its now-standard 8.8-inch screen — navigable by touch as well as rotary controller (and it’s a proper, multi-way rotary controller unlike, ahem, Caddy’s two-dimensional dial).

The interior of the 2020 Audi S4 is a comfortable sanctuary, especially in red leather seats. Its conservative like a Brooks Brothers suit compared to the Alfa's curvier Italian  lines.

But the system is slow and the voice command system average.

Alfa’s big play is on a new self-driving system with ambitions to take on class-leaders Tesla Autopilot and Cadillac Super Cruise. Accessing these systems allows busy drivers to check their phone in traffic or just relax a bit. Alas, the Alfa’s system is a nervous Nellie.

It demands a hand be on the wheel at all times. Its constant nannying defeats the self-drive purpose.

Ultimately, the Giulia Quadrifoglio’s stratospheric price — a healthy $25,000 more than the S4 — means it’s accessible to fewer buyers. Given its small size, rear-wheel drive and lesser-quality reputation, the Alfa will be considered a niche vehicle compared to the Audi.

That’s the clinical case. But after going to Hell and back in the Giulia, I had a big dumb grin on my face I’ve had in few cars. Alfa’s my kind of personality.

2020 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear- and all-wheel drive, 5-passenger performance sedan

Price: $39,840, including $1,295 destination charge; $75,740 Quadrifoglio ($90,840 Quadrifoglio as tested)

Powerplant: 2.9-liter twin-turbo V-6

Power: 505 horsepower, 443 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.6 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 191 mph

Weight: 3,806 lbs. as tested

Fuel economy: EPA 17 city/24 highway/20 combined

Report card

Highs: Balance of a ballet dancer; brash engine

Lows: Tight back seat; laggy infotainment system

Overall: 4 stars

2020 Audi S4

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger performance sedan

Price: $50,295, including $995 destination charge ($62,840 model as tested)

Powerplant: 3.0-liter turbo V-6

Power: 349 horsepower, 369 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.4 seconds (mfr.); top speed: 155 mph

Weight: 3,847 lbs. as tested

Fuel economy: EPA 20 city/27 highway/23 combined

Report card

Highs: AWD rocket traction; state-of-the-art digital displays

Lows: Plows in corners; VW Arteon is better looking

Overall: 3 stars

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