Just a couple of weeks ago, I had two of the world’s best premium sports sedans sitting in front of my house. It’s hard not to smile when you see a BMW 3 Series and an Alfa Romeo Giulia sitting next to each other when you look out your front window. When I knew I’d be getting our BMW 330i xDrive test car, I rang up the folks at Alfa Romeo and asked for a Giulia to compare and they were very happy to oblige. So sitting in behind the 3er was an Alfa Romeo Giulia Q4, ready to go head-to-head.
The reason we chose the Alfa Romeo Giulia to take on the new 3 Series was the fact that it was long considered the absolute best driving car in its class. Sure, it’s had its fair share of reliability concerns and it lacks the same technology and refinement as most of its German competitors. But when it comes to the act of actually driving; steering, turning, braking; the Alfa was top-dog since it debuted. So if the new 3 Series was going to retake its crown, it’d need to take down the Alfa first. But before we get into the test, let’s get to know our test cars a bit.
Meet the Cars
2019 BMW 330i xDrive
You’ve probably already read about our BMW 330i xDrive test car. It’s the car we just reviewed a few days ago. However, I’ll give you a refresher course. Our test car was a 330i xDrive, which means it had a 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that made 255 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. It also had an eight-speed ZF-sourced automatic and xDrive all-wheel drive. Our car was also fitted with the M Sport package, a lowered passive suspension setup and a set of Bridgestone Turanza grand touring summer tires.
2018 Alfa Romeo Giulia Ti Q4
Going head-to-head with our BMW tester was our Alfa Romeo Giulia Q4. That name means it also had a 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which made 280 hp and 306 lb-ft. That made it quite a bit more powerful than the 3 Series. Its engine was also paired with a ZF-sourced eight-speed auto and power all four wheels. Though, the Alfa had adaptive dampers and its Lusso (luxury) package.
When the G20-gen 3 Series first debuted, I was actually a bit critical of it. After the initial shock was over, though, it started to grow on me. In person, it’s actually quite handsome, especially in M Sport trim like our tester. However, it can’t match the Alfa Romeo Giulia for outright beauty, in my humble opinion. The Giulia is the prettiest sedan in its class and there isn’t a close second. It’s just stunning that something so pretty can be had in its price point and with four doors.
Even in this color, Lipari Grey Metallic — which did it no favors — the Giulia was the prettier car when put back-to-back. Our test car was even wearing its Lusso package, which decreases its sexiness. And even still, it was better looking than the 330i. It’s just the sexier car; with its unique face, pretty headlights, that iconic grille and its creased hood. It’s stunning.
The BMW 330i, with its M Sport package, isn’t a bad looking car at all. I actually really like its headlights, with their E46-style notches, and the taillights are growing on me. It looks sporty, sharp and athletic. But it just can’t match the beauty and the presence of the Alfa. Especially if the Italian is wearing a prettier color than grey.
While the Alfa Romeo’s engine is considerably more powerful, you wouldn’t know it from behind the wheel. In its Comfort mode, the Giulia’s four-pot is sluggish off the line, though we suspect that’s just down to intentional calibration and tuning, combined with a wee-bit of turbo-lag. In its Dynamic mode, it gets much better but can be a bit touchy, which is exacerbated by its someone choppy engine/transmission calibration. On more than one occasion, the Alfa would shudder off the line, as well as when coming to a full stop. Sure, it uses the same ZF eight-speed as BMW but its software and calibration leave some room for improvement.
Once it’s on the move, though, it pulls hard and has a punchy mid-range that’s fun to play with. It likes to play as well, so you can really ring its neck and have some fun with the little Italian four-pot. However, I was a bit disappointed with its noise. Prior to driving it, I was told it sounds great for a turbo-four. Which was entirely believable considering the sound of the Alfa 4C. However, it didn’t sound great. It sounded more like marbles stuck in a garbage disposal. Sure, it gets loud and angry when you rev it out, so it sounds exciting, but it’s not a particularly good noise.
The BMW 330i’s engine is almost the antithesis of the Alfa’s. It’s buttery smooth in its delivery, with absolute perfect engine/gearbox calibration. The difference between how the two powertrains are tuned is immediately noticeable. Whereas the Alfa is a bit more brash and aggressive, the 330i is all business. It’s an absolute joy to use, as the engine pulls hard at any rpm and provides ample power but also feels as if it’s running on liquid velvet. If there’s a downside it’s that it isn’t exactly thrilling.
Its noise is sort of just generic turbo-four noise that gets louder as the revs rise. It’s not a particularly bad noise it’s just not particularly great, either. While the Alfa sounded hilarious (though not always in a good way), the 330i just sounded like noise. There’s no faulting its delivery, though. It’s a masterclass in four-cylinder power delivery as well as refinement and calibration.
When the Alfa Romeo Giulia first launched, it was a revelation. Its crop of competition simply couldn’t match its steering and chassis balance, both of which were head and shoulders above the rest. In a few ways, that’s still true. Even in the entry-level Giulia, the steering and balance are superb. Steering the Giulia, and stringing it through corners, is a genuine delight. Its weighting is very light but not overly so and the weight builds nicely as you add steering lock. But the ratio is hyper-fast, so even small steering changes cause big reactions. That gives it a delicate, yet incredible satisfying feel, as if you can wield it like a properly balanced weapon.
The chassis in the Giulia is also excellent. Balanced, playful and energetic. It wants to drive fast and it wants to carry speed through corners. Even with its Q4 all-wheel drive system, it feels very rear-driven. The tail will push out on throttle, mid-corner but then the front axle engages to reign it all back it. It’s a surprisingly playful little thing, even with all-wheel drive. The super fast steering also makes it very easy to catch, if things to get a bit scary.
In terms of outright steering and handling, the Giulia is probably a few degrees sharper than the BMW 330i and a touch more fun, as well. While the 330i has great steering and handles very well, it’s a very different animal than the Giulia. Its steering is much heavier, even in its most comfortable setting, without any added steering feel (though, to be fair, both are quite numb). I like heavy steering, so that’s not an issue but there’s no question that the Giulia’s rack is sharper and more immediate. The 330i’s is a bit more old-school in that it requires more steering lock to get the job done and there’s a bit of an intentional dead spot at the top.
Having said that, the steering on the 3er is still excellent. It’s sharp, accurate, predictable and lovely to use. The front end has unflappable grip, even if it might not be as excitably immediate as the Alfa, and its chassis is balanced and playful in its own right. It will also wag its tail a bit on power with DSC in its sportiest setting, so it’s also a willing dance partner when you really want to dance. However, there’s an immediacy and a playfulness in the Giulia that lacks in the 330i. Don’t get me wrong, the new 3 Series is great fun to drive but the Alfa feels like an excitable puppy whereas the 330i feels like a well-trained adult dog. The Giulia seems to be about outright fun while the 330i seems to be all business.
One area where the BMW 330i beats up on the Alfa Giulia is braking. The brakes on the 330i are far better than on the Giulia. In fact, at one point during our test I wondered if the Giulia’s pads were toast. Pedal feel in the Alfa was inconsistent; the first bit of brake travel provided nothing at all and, all of the sudden, too much. Whereas the BMW 330i had excellent stopping power and consistent pedal feel, even if the pedal was a bit too mushy at the very top for my tastes.
One of the main differences between these two cars were their suspension setups. The BMW 330i was riding on the brand’s new passive “lift-related” dampers which are not adaptive. While the Giulia’s were adaptive. In the Alfa, the suspension adjusts with the rest of the car in its different modes. However, in its Dynamic mode, there’s a little button labeled with a shock damper. Pressing it engages “Soft Damper Mode”, which is essentially the same as Ferrari’s “Bumpy Road Mode”. It works really well and allows you to flip back and forth while still in Dynamic mode. So if you want to play, keep the suspension firm but if you see a patch of nasty road ahead, just press the one button and soften just the suspension. Brilliant.
However, there’s never really a Goldilocks setting. The Soft Damper Mode is nice but it’s too soft for playful driving and Dynamic mode is a bit too stiff a lot of daily driving. It’s nice to be able to switch back and forth but I found myself having to doing it too often, without just having a setting that worked well in most situations. Though, in that Soft Damper Mode, it’s quite comfy and in Dynamic, it’s quite fun to drive. So the Giulia is good at being both comfy and fun but you need different modes to do it.
As for the Bimmer, with its fixed dampers, it has but one setting. Thankfully, it is a Goldilocks* setting. There’s an asterisk on “Goldilocks” because I must explain that it’s a perfectly balanced setup… for me. It’s firm but not overly harsh. Though, I like a bit of firmness to a car’s ride. I like to feel what’s going on underneath me. I do recognize that its firmness is not for everyone and many journalists do find it to be too stiff. So its firmness is personal preference.
What isn’t a subjective personal preference, though, is how well it manages itself. The passive setup in the BMW 330i is very well damped. Body motions are kept in check and bumps are dealt with in one motion, without any secondary vertical movement. It always feels planted but never feels rough. And while it’s firm enough to feel all the bumps in the road, there’s a suppleness to how it deals with them. It rounds out the harsh edges of every bump, letting you know its there without ever letting it harshly intrude into the cabin.
Overall, I found that the BMW 330i had the better overall suspension setup than the Alfa Romeo Giulia, simply thanks to the fact that it was setup one way and the right way. It toes the line between comfort and sport better than the Giulia, which doesn’t seem to have a just-right mode. In fairness, though, I might have felt the same about the BMW had it been equipped with its own adaptive dampers.
It’s in this area where things get a bit rough for the Alfa. I actually have to say, I really liked our test car’s cabin a lot. Visually. The “Crema” tan/black two-tone interior looked really good and the color-matched contrast stitching was a nice touch. It all looked very Italian, very different from the stark black cabin of the 3 Series. So the Alfa’s interior design and color combo was a refreshing change. Also, Alfa’s long metallic paddle shifters are the best of any car without a Ferrari badge and are an absolute joy to use. I also really like the spindly-thin steering wheel, which feels really nice in the hand and looks great.
Sadly, that’s where the compliments stop. In terms of build quality, material quality, technology, seat comfort and just overall usability, the Giulia’s cabin is pretty poor. Especially compared to the new 3 Series. Inside the Alfa, there are some bits that wouldn’t be acceptable in a Hyundai Elantra. The shift lever feels like it’s made by Hasbro and so too does its rotary dial for the infotainment screen. They both feel cheap, flimsy and fragile. Speaking of infotainment, the system would have been archaic against the E90 3 Series and its backup camera is laughable. Admittedly, there’s an upgraded unit that our car didn’t have. What it did have was quite horrid, though. Which is all such a shame because the interior looks good and the paddles are just so lovely to use. I wish Fiat/Chrysler would give Alfa a bigger budget for interior development because it deserves it.
The BMW 330i interior is the polar opposite. It’s so very German it’s ridiculous. In terms of design, it looks nice but it’s not as pretty or as exciting looking as the Giulia’s. However, the quality, technology and ergonomics are all light-years ahead of the Giulia’s. Everything from the seats, to the seating position, to the outward view are all spot on. The controls fall to hand perfectly, every material feels high-quality and extremely sturdy and the technology is brilliant.
We’ve covered BMW’s new iDrive system countless times by now, so I won’t go into too much depth here. However, it must be said that going from the Giulia’s poor backup camera to the 330i’s top-down 3D Surround View is like going from a Betamax to streaming in 4K.
By now, it’s quite obvious which car wins. It’s the BMW 330i. Now, some readers might find that predictable but I conducted this test with as much objectivity as possible. In fact, if anything, my previous track record was far in favor of the Alfa, as I always felt the Giulia was better than the previous-generation F30 3 Series. The Alfa Romeo Giulia gets a lot of things right. It looks better than the 3er, its steering is just that extra bit sweeter and it’s more playful to push hard. But this new BMW 330i is such a fantastic overall package that it’s impossible to ignore. While the Alfa does a few things just a touch better, the 3 Series isn’t far behind in those areas and it’s far ahead everywhere else.
The simple fact is that the BMW 330i xDrive does very few things poorly, if any at all. Its overall package is so compelling that it was the car I chose to drive when I actually had the choice. So as much as I love the Giulia, it’s the BMW 330i xDrive that wins this test.