From the September 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
Everyone knows a couple who probably shouldn’t be together. They fight in public and drag friends into their quarrels, yet at the end of the night, perhaps after disappearing for an hour or two, they’re all smiles. They remind us a little of our complicated relationships with the BMW M3 and the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio.
You see, the M3 and C/D, we go way back. Our love affair started in 1995 and burned hot for decades. But then, sometime in 2014, the passion fizzled. We called it quits, not necessarily because the M3 was a bad car, but because we felt it had become dull and cold to the touch. It used to be so alive and fun loving, but when it decided to go turbocharged, it sort of forgot who it was.
But now the new G80 M3 Competition rolls into our lives with 503 horses looking to reconnect. The nostrils are a love-it-or-leave-it deal, but we will say that the Competition package’s black trim and the $1950 Tanzanite Blue II Metallic paint temper the worst of it. The Comp starts at $73,795, a $2900 premium over the 473-hp base M3, and comes exclusively with an eight-speed planetary automatic. Fitted with $8150 in carbon-ceramic brakes as well as some other niceties, our M3 totaled $93,495.
And then there’s Alfa Romeo, a brand that reaches right into the enthusiast’s heart with a devastating one-two punch of driving joy and sex appeal. Falling hard for a Giulia Quadrifoglio is all too easy, but committing to one can be painful, as we learned during a problem-filled 40,000-mile long-term test. Before we saw a dark side, we lofted the Giulia to our 2018 10Best list, and the QF won the last comparison test of this segment. In 2019, the Giulia got a few well-placed updates: Alfa added six port fuel injectors to bolster the Quad’s 505-hp direct-injection twin-turbo V-6, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto became standard. It looks the same, which is fine. Looks weren’t the problem.
BMW M3 Competition
Highs: Racetrack capability with autobahn composure, impressive grip and brakes, upscale interior.
Lows: Numb steering, palpable turbo lag, an overwhelming amount of adjustability.
Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio
Highs: Passion you can feel through the steering wheel, Italian design, linear power delivery.
Lows: Some cheap materials inside, knowing it might break your heart at any moment.
Base to base, the Quadrifoglio costs about $3000 more than the M3 Comp. It’s not really possible to equip them identically, since Alfa eliminated the $8000 option to upgrade to carbon-ceramic rotors. So the Italian ends up being a relative bargain at $83,740.
Otherwise, play The Dating Game with these two and you might think you were talking to the same contestant. Both have twin-turbo six-cylinder engines—a 2.9-liter V-6 for the Giulia, a 3.0-liter inline-six for the M3—making over 500 horsepower. Each comes with a ZF-supplied eight-speed automatic turning the rear wheels. Both hit 60 mph in about the same time—3.5 seconds for the BMW and 3.6 for the Alfa—but the M3 increases its advantage to 0.3 second by the quarter-mile.
On the road, the BMW’s six impresses with its smoothness and strength, but it suffers from the on-off nature of turbo lag. Keep the engine on boil and it’s strong and willing, but the transition from the turbo spooling to the shove makes it a bit less fun on the street. The Alfa’s engine tuning is less explosive, and its rush is metered with a linear, almost naturally aspirated push that is more satisfying. It even reminds us of turbocharged Ferraris—swoon.
The BMW is unflappable at high speeds. It’s also quieter than the Alfa at idle and at 70 mph, but that insulates the driver from a sense of speed. Pointed straight, the new M3 transmits little shockwaves up the column at every crack, pebble, and tar strip, but start turning and communication is stifled. Step into the Giulia and you’re fully aware at 150 mph that you’re 60 percent water and very much alive. You hear the wind and sense the car’s and your own pulse beating on the steering wheel.
While the Alfa has a smattering of cheap materials inside, we love its two round analog gauges that tell you exactly what you want to know. They’re a welcome reprieve from the BMW’s digital cluster, where the speedometer and counterclockwise tach, both on the periphery of the screen, are hard to read at a glance. Selecting the M gauge mode changes the readout style and placement, but deciphering your speed and rpm is still a challenge.
As is finding a satisfying combination of the M3’s settings. The engine, chassis, steering, exhaust, brakes, and transmission all have multiple adjustments. We calculated 216 possible permutations to explore. Add in 13 stability- and traction-control modes and you’re up to 2800-plus combinations. If you find the winning one, buy a lottery ticket.
To get even closer to these sedans, we headed to Grattan Raceway’s 2.0-mile road course, where the Quadrifoglio promptly melted down. We suspect improper bedding of the brake pads led the front set to disintegrate in seven laps, and Alfa—still investigating the incident—thinks that’s a possibility. Fortunately, the loss of braking power ended without damage or too much drama. Could this incident be a harbinger of what a relationship might bring? Maybe, but those few laps were really something else.
Yes, the M3 dominates most performance metrics, including braking and skidpad results, and it never once scared us. But the Giulia’s numbers aren’t far off, and the Italian offers a closer connection with the driver. We know it’s not the rational choice, and that it might not always be easy, but we have to follow our heart. We appreciate your concern, but when the Alfa is right, it’s so right. It’s the one we’d take home, even if it tried to kill us that one time.
C/D Testing Explained