“Balocco,” intones the Italian narrator, letting the name linger. “A peaceful village of 250 people, hidden among the vast rice fields of the Vercelli area.” And it does appear peaceful. All is calm as the viewer is taken on a monochrome tour of this agricultural commune an hour east of Turin. The voiceover deferentially drops out for these idyllic moments.
Alas, it’s a ruse. One perpetrated by the devils in marketing at Alfa Romeo. Now the camera cuts to the glassfibre form of a TZ2, stationary as its test driver repeatedly runs the car’s twin-cam four to the redline like a psychopath. A dog runs for cover. A clergyman quickens his step. An engineer watches on with the hint of a smirk. The TZ takes off and a step-nose Giulia GTA gives chase. Mayhem has arrived in Balocco.
The short promo-documentary that ensues isn’t simply a dream-like vision for Alfisti (and who isn’t just a little bit Alfisti?). Made in 1966, a year after the first Giulia GTA was born, it’s six minutes of behind-the-scenes action from the most fruitful chapter in Alfa’s post-war story. A chapter of road racers. Of “the family car that wins races”, as the tagline went. The footage is also, in some small way, why photographer Max Edleston and I are haring through the Alps in the cold darkness, itinerary a-tatter. We’re headed for Balocco in our own Giulia road racer, but it isn’t going quite as slickly as the film.
Back in 1966, our narrator (his detached delivery in stark contrast to the antics of the TZ and Giulia, which are being driven onto their chrome door handles, in very close proximity and with lots of oversteer) says Balocco is the site of a new test ground for Alfa Romeo, one of the most “complete” in Europe. Here, the brand’s all-conquering racers are being honed, with insights then trickling into showroom products.
The Balocco we’re racing towards tonight is a different place, and not just because today it now has plenty of reassuring Armco and is flooded with crossovers. Since the 1960s, the site has gone from two tracks and 500 acres to 27 tracks and 1160 acres, with gravel roads, pavings, a high-speed bowl, salty fords, low-friction tracks, steering pads and the epic 13-mile Langhe route, which simulates the country roads of the wine region in southern Piedmont, without the grape-hauling tractors.
In 2022, you won’t spot a Tipo 33, but now that Alfa is part of the new FCA-PSA axis cartoonishly known as Stellantis, everything from Iveco trucks to electric Fiat 500s and Peugeot SUVs are out daily. And, though Ferrari isn’t really meant to be there, having become independent in 2016, you might also catch the distant boom of an SF90 or Roma. The place is a motoring menagerie.
As for the Giulia GTA in the film (which you can find on YouTube – thank me later), it’s the epitome of Balocco’s race-road feedback loop in the olden days. The car was plucked off the production line then shorn of 200kg with aluminium, magnesium and Plexiglass and generally readied for war by Alfa Romeo’s then recently acquired competition department, Autodelta.
It was one of the first cars to benefit from the opportunity Balocco gives testers to go hammerdown for eternity, simulating races like Sebring, the Targa Florio and the Nürburgring (or Snetterton) rounds of the ETCC. But only 500 Stradale versions of the GTA were built to satisfy homologation rules, and if you were to try to buy one today, you might pay, oh, £350,000 for a good one.
Or, for less than half that, there’s its grandson. The 2021 Giulia GTA is now sold out but used examples can be still found for around the £150,000 list price. Yes, big money and no homologation stardust. But even if this revival of the Giulia GTA was only averagely good to drive (it isn’t), it might still justify the outlay on the grounds of cultural significance.
It’s the only car to carry the famous nameplate since production of the 105-based car ended in 1975, and with the electric age bearing down on us, this is also, you have to imagine, the last Giulia GTA there will ever be. The last legitimate GTA, at least. I can’t see an electric incarnation, nursing a half-tonne battery, pulling off ‘Alleggerita’. This GTA is thus the totemic modern Alfa Romeo: wild, beautiful, anachronistic and a powerful antidote to the Germans. Frankly, it all feels a bit Unesco.
So returning this Montreal Green Giulia GTA to Balocco is a nice bit of historical symmetry. Once there, the car will be retired from gruelling GB press duties, administered the smelling salts then honourably discharged onto the used market. But before that, a valedictory blast across Europe taking in a blend of fast roads and tight Alpine passes: the kind of route the Giulia GTAs of old excelled at and that once made them such aspirational cars for the public.
Now, those tattered plans. The idea was to drive GTA 320 of 500 down through west then southern Germany and dart into Austria then Italy, where we would let it loose over the Stelvio Pass before heading via Milan to Balocco and, for the car, home. But we hadn’t reckoned on the Stelvio closing for winter on the afternoon of the day we reach it. I’ve endured some logistical hiccups in this job, but God damn.
It leaves us cornered. We need to get to Sondrio in the Italian Alps. It’s achingly close to our current position as the crow flies and just over the mountain, but we’re unable to use the pass and unable to cut through Switzerland because it’s the only country in Europe where the GTA has a tax liability – one that would almost buy you a delivery-miles Alpine A110. It seems our only option is to take an endless, insipid detour east via Bolzano, but that won’t do. Phone calls are made. Then more calls. After that, we wait.
The journey so far has been less uneventful but, as is always the case with idiosyncratic cars, memorable anyway. What has stood out so far is the Giulia’s impossibly soft ride quality along with its sensitivity to road camber and painted white lines, which in the damp elicit an unnerving shimmy should you swap lanes, even on the autobahn. In my experience, only one other car on sale flinches in this way and that’s the Ferrari 812 Superfast.
There are other similarities between the two Italians, and you could persuasively argue that the Giulia, elevated in the GTA to its most extreme and ambitious form, exists almost as the template for an 812 Superfast saloon. It has the same light, quick steering and generous levels of roll that allow the body to tilt and dive, but somehow the suspension, which uses a double-wishbone design at the front, precisely regulates things.
Like the Ferrari, the Alfa’s fluid style can sap your confidence at first, but once you’re acclimatised, it makes for a fabulous sense of engagement and unification of driver, road and machine. It occurs to me that there’s another Latin car that does something similar: the brilliant A110 the GTA’s Swiss tax bomb gets you.
This particular GTA’s colour and the way the car generally radiates specialness are also very Maranello, though just like the supercars, usability is the catch. On day one, in the flood-ravaged, mud-strewn Eifel in north-west Germany, where town after town has had its destroyed principal through road rerouted into supermarket car parks and over makeshift concrete bridges, and where there seem to be more orange-clad emergency workers about than locals, the Alfa struggles.
The Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres seem unable to make much sense of the greasy road surface. Upshifts beyond 4000rpm spell trouble for traction. The back axle will not settle, while the delicate steering conveys nothing of the grip levels at the front. The car barely takes half-throttle in the lower gears and I can say for certain that a BMW M3 Competition would lap up these conditions. Clearly, four doors do not necessarily mean four seasons, and I don’t get the impression more sensible tyres would help matters much.
The GTA’s damp-weather flightiness seems to stem more from its fundamental suspension design. Again, it’s quite 812 Superfast in this sense. It’s worth noting that Philippe Krief, who led the development of the Giulia and the wonderful Giorgio platform that makes even the 2.2-litre diesel Giulia great to drive, came to Alfa directly after signing off the chassis of the Ferrari 458 Speciale.
Further south, in Bavaria, on day two, a bone-dry Autobahn 7 meanders from Memmingen to the Austrian border. Always usefully quiet, in pandemic times it is almost deserted. We don’t dither (or, indeed, delay) in putting the GTA’s shoulders to the grindstone and letting its revvy Ferrari-derived 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 rip. Where the Giulia Quadrifoglio makes 503bhp, in the GTA that becomes 533bhp. Thank the new titanium centre-exit Akrapovic exhaust, additional piston-cooling oil jets and redesigned conrods.
We cruise fast and free. Call it 150mph, the car serene but for the wind roar generated by the BTCC-aping bodykit. Slowing for occasional traffic only gives us another chance to drop a few ZF-built cogs by pulling the left hand of the car’s magnificent aluminium paddles and then run up to the redline over and over again, psychopath-style.
Like everything else about it, the GTA’s exhaust note is inimitable, being turbo-woofly but somehow more serrated than downsized heavy-hitters from other manufacturers. Not to get too Roald Dahl about it, but full throttle brings a noise akin to a giant blowing long, wet raspberries down a thin-walled, tin drainpipe, then coughing up shrapnel during upshifts. It’s a bit more musical than that, in fairness, but you get the idea.
Three hours later, we’re at the Stelvio, having timed our run perfectly for those all-important mountain sunset photographs. But it’s CHUISO. The ensuing phone calls involve Alfa’s finance division, who now think there is in fact a way around the Swiss tax problem, but are triple-checking first.
The wait for the go-ahead gives me the chance to involuntarily and comprehensively drink in the Giulia for the fifth, sixth, tenth time since we set off yesterday morning. I can’t help it. Neither could the German lads who last night left a begging letter on the windscreen, asking where we were headed today so they might see and hear the GTA in action. Nor, for that matter, could the technicians at Ruf Automobile’s incalculably cool Bavarian workshop. When we stopped by this morning, they came outside to pore lovingly over the Alfa before returning to their day job, which is to assemble million-euro dream-spec supercars.
It’s that special, the GTA, and while hot Alfa Romeos have always had a unique gravitational pull among petrolheads, it’s an effect magnified when the hot Alfa in question is actually quite good. When it’s the company’s no-holds-barred 110th birthday present to itself, built for the sheer hell of it, and it’s so good to drive that even Walter Röhrl is considering treating himself, people like you and me will crawl through brake fluid to make its acquaintance.
This example is not just the regular GTA but the even more extravagant GTAm, ‘m’ standing ‘modifica’. Both versions have wider tracks than the already-dripping-with-intent Giulia Quadrifoglio and those are covered off with carbonfibre fairings at the back and new wings at the front.
The sky-scraping, manually adjustable wing is GTAm-unique, though, as is the manually deployable front splitter, which can extend 40mm to balance out the effect on the wing during track days. There’s also the rear diffuser. It’s a riot of carbon that has for the past 800 miles been slinging grit-flecked winter air at the windscreens of cars unlucky (or lucky) enough to find themselves in the Alfa’s wake. It’s an amazing piece of theatre, as is the way the rear bodywork tapers in at its extremities, leaving almost half the width of the 285-section Michelins completely exposed, à la Lamborghini Huracán Performante.
The GTA’s aero kit has been developed by Formula 1 stalwart Sauber Motorsport, currently running under the guise of Alfa Romeo Racing. In a nice twist, that means the wind tunnel used was the one paid for with a chunk of the reported £5 million McLaren paid to release Kimi Räikkönen from his Sauber contract in 2001. Räikkönen, of course, is recently retired from F1 but Alfa was his final team and it won’t hurt the GTA’s future-classic credentials to have the Iceman’s name associated with the car’s fine-tuning.
What you don’t see from the outside is the rear bench. But you don’t see it from the inside, either, because in the GTAm it’s replaced with a roll-cage and fire extinguisher. This has obvious drawbacks in terms of usability and you lose a good chunk of insulation. The GTA is permashouty on the motorway and makes a BMW M3 feels like an Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
However, the vista through the rear-view mirror is pure Porsche 911 GT3 RS and, for a four-door saloon, that is priceless. Up front are a pair of carbon-monocoque Sabelt buckets with harnesses that usefully don’t necessitate the removal of the regular three-point belts. The rest of the interior is mostly Giulia Quadrifoglio – cosy and comfy but a little old-fashioned and monotone – except for the Alcantara-trimmed dash and build-number sticker.
So it’s an extreme product, even if you sometimes forget that, so silky is the ride quality. It seems to me that Alfa Romeo wanted to build a supercar but the only viable way to make the vision real was to base it on an existing model. Duly, the Giulia GTAm is about as close as it’s possible to get to supercar-ness from a saloon base, and the result is spellbinding.
What’s also interesting to note is that the new mid-engined Maserati MC20 feels recognisable from the driving seat. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some senior engineers on the Alfa side had found a trident-shaped outlet for their desires.
Finally, a call comes in and we’re good to go into Switzerland. Don’t ask me how or why. But we’re now going blind, heading into an Alpine unknown, having not prepared for anything other than the Stelvio Pass. The sun’s also beginning to set. Instead of getting excited about photo opportunities and switchbacks, Max and I are simply relieved we don’t have to loop hours east via faraway Bolzano in order to get to our overnight in Sondrio, the former Roman military camp that’s nestled just over the mountains.
As it happens, we strike gold. Heading east into Switzerland from Schluderns, the road rises gently as it carves through steep amber forests. Then the Ofen Pass (in 2004 the site of the largest honey fungus ever found in Europe and, surely related, also the location of the first wild bear sighting in Switzerland since 1923) rears up ahead of us. And it’s open. What this craggy 2149m pass lacks in length it makes up for in its sense of flow and the delicious quality of its wide, glass-smooth road surface.
In the GTAm, the Race setting that firms up the suspension dampers, opens the exhaust valves and completely disables the ESP might as well be called Monte mode, so naturally does the car make its ascent. Sure, the old Giulia Quadrifoglio problem of an undercooled and unpredictable torque-vectoring diff, whose pair of clutch packs never do the same thing twice, still dogs the GTA. The car falls easily into taut little slides on some bends, but the diff fails to ‘lock’ up at all on others. Or you get something in between. Yet surprisingly, even here, on an Alpine pass, it’s actually not bothering me too much.
The real genius of the GTA is the way it treats the topography of the road as part of the process, rather than something to be suppressed. The way it turns in to corners with an almost mid-engined absence of inertia. The way it successfully plays off a voracious hunger for speed against its uniquely delicate brand of poise. The deceptive way it carries big speeds. How they’ve matched such quick steering with such generous suspension travel is, for the layman, something akin to witchcraft. There, I’ve said it.
Progressive carbon-ceramic brakes and razor-sharp throttle response for such a heavily boosted engine complete the picture. There are faster cars, and there are more expressive cars from a dynamic perspective, but none, I think, that are faster and more expressive. That’s the Giulia GTA’s achievement.
It’s late and dark and the logistical stresses of the day have taken their toll. But as the miles accrue, the Alps aren’t done with us yet. Coming down from the Ofen, the topography eases but – between the road-hugging cliff faces against which the Alfa’s V6 boom is washing and the many unsighted corners – making progress means there’s no relaxing.
From here, the shortest route south to Sondrio takes us along valley floors to St Moritz, where we change tack and head over the 2383m Bernina Pass. It’s an even more tortuous affair than the Ofen, and a rollercoaster of a road, but it’s no less magnificent even at night, when high levels of concentration are needed during switchback after switchback. The Alfa is pinpoint-accurate and, with its wide-boy tracks, richly grippy on these dry roads.
It’s endlessly lovable, too. Even after hours in the bucket, with formidable driving roads behind us, if there’s any new opportunity to give the GTA its head, you instinctively oblige.
Then, out of nowhere, the Italian border appears, and with it a straight, flat run into pretty Sondrio. The filthy Alfa is viciously tailgated all the way into town by an old Fiat Panda.
Lunchtime the following day we arrive at Balocco Proving Ground, 60 years after it opened. There are mixed emotions, as Alfa is a concern. In 2021, the company registered just 1574 cars in the UK, which is 49 more than Ssangyong, 96,371 fewer than Mercedes-Benz, and the global picture is just as depressing. This despite having attractive and capable offerings in both the saloon and SUV classes.
The upcoming Tonale SUV and a Peugeot 2008-based EV (how romantic) ought to help, but can Alfa realistically improve matters? The firm shows no signs of generating an Audi Q5 or Mercedes C-Class-style profit machine that would cushion the economics for drool-worthy creations like our Giulia GTA. On that note, plans for a mid-engine 8C revival and a 600bhp Giulia coupé have been shelved in recent years.
We clear out the GTAm, lock it, walk away. The fact that those 1000 miles could be the last time we enjoy any new Alfa that’s so mesmerising simply to be around, let alone to drive, is not lost on either of us.
And yet part of what makes great Alfas irresistible is their transience. Too many years can pass while we wait for the company to receive some of the old magic. By comparison, unwavering focus means that even if BMW drops the ball with an M3, as it did with the early F82 car, it’s not long before it picks that ball back up and slam-dunks it. It has a process that mostly protects it from failure. In this sense, Alfa is more like Honda. The company has passion and exceptional engineering expertise to draw on but has often lacked the direction, consistency and even the confidence to realise all that at product level.
Jean-Philippe Imparato, the new CEO and the man behind Peugeot’s revival, might change that. But maybe it’s just an impossible gig. Either way, he need only book an hour at Balocco in a Giulia GTAm, and dust off that old footage, to remind himself how inspiring Alfa is at its magical best.
Giorgio: The genius behind the GTA
The brilliance of the Giulia GTA stems from its platform, and yet the story of that platform – named Giorgio and developed at a cost thought to be close to €5 billion – is hard to digest.
Work on the steel/aluminium, natively rear-driven architecture started in 2013 near Modena. Former Ferrari man Philippe Krief led the development during a time when Roberto Fedeli (also ex-Ferrari) was CTO and the flagship 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 the Giorgio would eventually carry was being designed by Gianluca Pivetti (guess where he used to work).
Progressive in its handling and light on its feet, the result was fantastic. Alfa knew it, we confirmed it, and the plan was for the Giorgio to underpin 15 new Alfa Romeo models and reinvigorate the company.
Alas, it only ever featured beneath two cars, the Giulia and the Stelvio SUV. The platform, unsuitable for electrification and essentially sidelined under Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares, has been a financial disaster. In our eyes at least, it can be forgiven for restoring brilliant rear-driven Alfas to these pages.