If you like driving, make one of these your next company car
Through the sharpest part of Hammerhead. Sharp left, wind off the lock, a touch of throttle, sharp right. And… stop. Red light. Move away, avoid the bus coming in from the left. Check over the shoulder, edge alongside a white van. Big pothole now.
You might argue that taking a bunch of diesel saloons and sending them around our famous figure-of-eight test track is about the most pointless thing we could have done to vehicles whose purpose in life is mostly business travel and family life. Fun, but pointless. But when done at a suitably ambitious scale, we can bring you some actual Top Gear consumer advice. What scale? About 140:1.
This feature originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Top Gear magazine.
Yes, if you multiply the Top Gear test track by 140, then lay the resulting shape on the road network of the East Midlands, what emerges is a stern and relevant test for sporty diesel saloons. It’s got all the stuff a company-car drone needs to do: m’way and city and suburban. We’ll come to that, but forgive us for having some good times first. Because the start/finish line is on a string of Wolds roads around Gainsborough. They weave and buck, occasionally throwing us sets of clear-sighted 90° bends. Little traffic. A good place to be driving.
They’ll expose the mettle of taut-sinewed cars from Alfa, BMW and Jaguar. We have sport suspensions and optional adaptive dampers on all three, and the most powerful 2.0-litre diesel options, with automatics. BMW and Jaguar offer AWD, but here we’ve kept it even with rear-drive in all cars.
The Alfa eats it up. Maybe because there’s something about these surfaces that’s not unlike Italian roads, or maybe because it’s a good car everywhere, but that’s a question for later today. For now let’s enjoy its unflappable, solid, crisp moves. It’s tautly suspended, so its body moves up and down a bit, but always snappily damped. The steering is a remarkable thing: the highest-geared set-up of the three cars, matched to a chassis that doesn’t roll and carves quickly into every turn. But while so many such quick set-ups can feel twitchy on roads like this (Ferrari) or bashed up with endless lateral deflection (Focus RS, we mean you), the Alfa’s steering matches its agility with calm.
Its tyres find vast grip, and there’s a limited-slip diff as part of a performance pack with those adaptive dampers. It’s unusual – though if we’re being honest, appropriate – to find the traction control can’t be fully switched off, and even in its looser setting in Dynamic mode, it’ll still cut the engine a little out of a slow corner. While I’m being picky, its steering doesn’t yield as much feel as the BMW’s. But the Giulia’s agility and precision give it a terrific authority over the bumps and bends.
After which, the BMW’s chassis feels old. On uneven roads its suspension shuffles uneasily, knocking from side to side, pitching diagonally. The wheels seem heavier than the Alfa’s, the suspension bound up by more friction. Even though the springs aren’t meaningfully firmer, there’s more general commotion. Can this be the saloon that’s been held in such universal high regard for so darned long? Oh yes, and here’s why. Find a smooth corner, a big roundabout, a spiralling dual-carriageway slip road, pitch it in and the whole thing hunkers down, the steering alive with feel, the car happy to balance on its traction.
Funny, but when you drive a Jaguar XE alongside an Audi A4, you think it’s sharp as a tack and super-engaging. But alongside the Alfa and BMW, its proposition slips off to a different, more isolated territory. Like them, its responses to the steering are lithe and gorgeously balanced, but unlike them it spares you the details. The ride is notably more placid even in its Sport mode (I always kept the Alfa’s and BMW’s dampers in their softer mode on these hectic surfaces). And its steering operates on a need-to-know basis. You can zip serenely along these difficult roads, but because it robs you of information about the friction below, you don’t feel properly involved. Nor actually any too confident when springtime turns back to winter, as it did in our test.
BMW’s old 2.0-litre diesel drove as well as most people’s new ones, but this 320d’s new B-series is keener again. If Otto hadn’t invented the petrol engine, you’d have every right to be chuffed with driving the 320d. It revs close to 5,000rpm and doesn’t have any substantially soggy spots. Even if it did, the superb calibration of the auto ’box would cover them up.
The Alfa’s powertrain comes close – it doesn’t rev so high and the noise is a little tinkly at times, but the engine and transmission work well together and your manually activated shifts, via the gorgeous alloy bull-horn paddles, click through crisply.
There’s been enough criticism of the Jaguar Ingenium engine’s racket – grumbly on the motorway, harsh under big loads – that I won’t dwell on it, save to say it probably wouldn’t be a huge issue if the auto ’box were better set up. This is the same ZF unit as the others, but the Jaguar allows mushy torque-converter slip at low revs, encouraging you to stretch your toe to get action, at which point the engine comes on boost, the transmission kicks down, the lock-up engages and you crash forward far more brutally than you wanted. It’s a passing irritation as we go through country towns, an actual annoyance as we hit the stop-go gloop of the Brum metropolis.
On the motorway sections, the Jaguar’s plump ride and quiet tyres are soothing. Less so is the need for a lot of steering correction to hold it between lane markers. The BMW’s tyres roar and its steering, though it holds straight well, has inconsistent weighting in the first few degrees of lock. So the Alfa is easiest to guide, and its road and wind noise split the other two. So it’s the best cruiser, which is quite something, given it’s also the best on B-roads.
The BMW’s suspension keeps squirming and clumping after Spaghetti Junction and into the city. The Alfa is just as firmly sprung but its body motions are neater, confined mostly to a vertical axis, so they impinge less on your own skeleton. The Jaguar is the properly cushy one.
But I’d only be enjoying the Jag’s isolation if it had the optional seats. The test car has the standard ones without adjustable lumbar support, and their hollow shape gives me backache. It’s personal of course, but generally my spine isn’t fussy: most car chairs are fine by me. Neither would I want to be stuck in the back of the Jaguar, because the slinky roof cuts headroom. That doesn’t actually matter because no one buys this sort of car as a five-seater. It’s all SUVs these days, innit?
So the Alfa has consistently shown up well in the characteristics required for this varied trip, and if that surprises you then you’ll have breath bated for this, its last chance to let itself down. The interior. But no. It’s not just stylish but cleanly and sensibly laid out and decently constructed. The seat is good, and its relationship with steering wheel and pedals is perfectly cordial. The instruments are clear and the infotainment unambitious but pretty easy to operate. This Giulia Super trim level gets standard TomTom mapping with connected traffic. It’s a match for Jaguar’s and BMW’s standard systems, though the test 320d and XE have optional extras the Alfa doesn’t offer: bigger-screen, more connected navigation, and head-up displays.
OK, I got upset that the Alfa’s map autorotates to heading up when you zoom in beyond a fixed threshold, but I know most don’t share that tic of mine. More of a bother is the lack of CarPlay and Android Auto, although traditional phone over Bluetooth and music over USB works well enough. Ditto the Jaguar. The BMW doesn’t have full CarPlay, but it does have Siri, which is very handy for summoning music, voice-dialling or dictating texts.
The BMW’s driving position is fine, but does it need this thick soggy wheel rim? It’s like grappling with a Krispy Kreme. On the upside, nearly 20 years of continually evolving iDrive has turned the BMW’s infotainment into a model of clarity, configurability and ease. To be fair, this is the top-end optional system, but it repays your investment. So does the brilliant HUD, with its sharp rendering and superb context-dependent content. By default it shows speed plus the distance to your next junction, but touch the steering-wheel phone button and that arrow is temporarily replaced by your recent calls list so you can scroll through and redial without looking down. Same with music: touch the roller and up comes a list of tracks or stations. Genius.
The Jaguar too has an optional HUD, but it’s less informative, and its gritty orange graphics look like the motorway gantry signs that tell you there’s an hour’s delay ahead. Our test XE had the optional big-screen navigation, which looks swish but gives you less control over presentation than the BMW. There are more infelicities in the XE’s cabin design. Pulling onto the M1, I opened the boot instead of activating the lane-departure warning because those two buttons are hidden below the steering column, adjacent and haptically matched. What were they thinking of?
The Jaguar’s ability to glide like a swan over difficult roads, and its surprising agility while it’s at it, is unmatched in cars this size. But there are too many other let-downs: powertrain, ergonomics and puffy-cloud steering.
Even so, it manages to make the 320d feel like an old car that’s been very cleverly updated by its perfected engine and iDrive. The BMW’s lumpy chassis has always been given an easy break in road tests because there was no rival that made such a great job of cornering on smooth roads. And actually there still isn’t.
But away from that one circumstance, the Alfa is more satisfying and engaging to drive quickly. It makes a pretty clean sweep of the day-to-day hygiene factors too. Alfa has come straight out of the hole with a car that doesn’t just make splashy headlines with its tyre-shredding 500bhp version. The majority-selling diesel Giulia is a first effort that feels like Alfa has been doing it for years. Given the strength in depth of the opposition – in this test and elsewhere – a car’s got to be a winner when it excels at the diverse demands of our super-sized Hammerhead, Follow Through and Gambon.
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