Mountain Wheels: Affordable exotic fun with Alfa Romeo’s AWD Giulia (column) | SummitDaily.com

Mountain Wheels: Affordable exotic fun with Alfa Romeo’s AWD Giulia (column)

Andy Stonehouse
Mountain Wheels

It takes a lot to turn the heads of the racer boys of Northern Colorado, or freak out the concierges at high-end resort hotels. Let me tell you how to do so, for (almost) less than $40,000.

After leaving the U.S. market in 1995, there have been plenty of rumors about the eventual reappearance of storied Italian automaker Alfa Romeo — probably most memorable for the Spider convertible seen as Benjamin's ride in "The Graduate."

We finally got to experience a week in the Giulia, the company's premium midsize sedan, though the small and exotic 4C roadster has been out for a bit, and there's also an SUV rendition of the Giulia, the Stelvio.

Needless to say, these are very rare vehicles in the Colorado market and the very unique style and presence of the almost shockingly affordable Giulia certainly drew plenty of attention.

While there is indeed the totally insane high-end Quadrifoglio edition, named after the four-leaf clover, that 505-horsepower bad boy starts at about $72,000 and really remains an exotic.

My all-wheel-drive-equipped Giulia stickers at just $39,995 (or $46,490 with the optional cold weather package plus sportier interior and exterior bits, including very BMW-looking matte aluminum 18-inch wheels), though you'd swear from the looks and the driving experience that it's much, much more than that.

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Giulia falls into the BMW 3 or 4 series or Cadillac ATS vicinity, and after miles and miles of those brilliant, little traveled roads between State Bridge, Kremmling and Rocky Mountain National Park, I'd say it offers a pretty credible alternative — with a handling intensity that matches or exceeds those, even in its less powerful guise.

The standard Giulia comes with a 2.0-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine that tops out at 5,500 RPM and a satisfying 280 horsepower, with 0-60 runs in just over five seconds. It's equipped with an eight-speed automatic transmission that gets really fun when you use the unbelievably huge wheel-mounted shift paddles (parked behind the sport package's flat-bottomed sport wheel, complete with an integrated, Ferrari-esque starter button).

Standard to 2.0-liter engines, the start-up noises aren't pleasant, but while cruising or cavorting, things are more engaged and the oversized exhaust tips (couched in some very aggressive aero treatments under the rear bumper) do begin to sing some beautiful Italian music. And despite some very aggressive speeds en route, Giulia got 30 MPG, effortlessly.

Cornering is brutally flat and intense and with the additional grip of the all-wheel-drive setup — which can also throw 60 percent of the vehicle's power to the front wheels — I enjoyed speedy performance more akin to very expensive vehicles. The appearance package also includes bright red brake calipers, and they did an excellent job of reining in the malice. The halo model gets Brembos, of course; seeing how fast and frolicky the regular Giulia is, I was sort of glad I only got to drive the Quadrifoglio on a track for a few laps.

Most distinctive to the vehicle's experience is its very unique nose and an interior that's deceptively subtle but has already won awards for its super-cool Euro design. You get sort of an insect/monster look with three teardrop-shaped, mesh-lined grilles staring at you, plus super-intense bi-xenon headlamps, all pushing down on an aggressive splitter-style front lip.

From the back or three-quarter view, it's unfortunately smooth and generic, minus a couple of contoured extensions under the passenger doors, but that nose and the square-edged hood brought out the gawkers.

The interior is Italian chic at its finest, with an almost reptilian rubbery cap to the dash and doors, some jet engine-styled air vents and a revolutionary black navigation and information screen that virtually disappears when it's not turned on. Mine had no inbuilt navigation, however, but the tastefully understated displays are also uniquely devoid of the razzmatazz found in other FCA systems on Jeep or Fiat products. Giant, deeply potted tach and speedometer faces are also classy.

Controls are sparse — a trio of AC knobs, a slender central gear shifter and three oft-confused console knobs (volume, drive mode setting and a letter-input-recognition navigation controller, all three of which my overly invasive right-seat passenger continued to mix up as I tried to concentrate on the road) — with leather-edged channels and some additional brightwork on the console top.

Seating's black on black and solidly comfortable, without the race-seat effect of the more expensive model; rear seating looks ample and was deep, but leg room's pretty sketchy, unless front seats are moved way, way up. Trunk space is also commendable.

Other exoticisms include a carbon-fiber driveshaft, a very cool lane departure system that warns you with a sotto-voiced "doot-doot" through the speakers, an infrared windshield and a three-mode drive system.

2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia AWD

MSRP: $39,995; As tested: $46,490

Powertrain: 280-HP 2.0-liter four-cylinder with eight-speed automatic transmission

EPA figures: 26 MPG combined (23 city/31 highway)

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