As with so many modern cars, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta can be driven in multiple modes, even more so when fitted with the company’s new twin-clutch TCT gearbox.
The new box lets you relax in fully automatic mode, or play rally driver by pulling and pushing your way through the gears sequentially. Or there’s an optional pair of paddles for flapping up and down through the cogs either in auto or manual mode.
Then there’s the three-way DNA selector, just ahead of the gearlever, which adjusts the steering, throttle and shift behaviour. The driver can choose among sporty Dynamic, everyday Normal or softened All-weather setup.
Saving All-weather for a rainy day, that’s still four combinations to play with, not counting the paddles.
Normal and auto seems the best place to start, and the result is quick, smooth and perhaps a little soporific. The 170bhp 1.4-litre MultiAir petrol engine provides plenty of power, but you can only hear or feel it working at the top of its rev range. And while the TCT box will step down smartly if you bury the accelerator, most of the time it slurs quietly and boringly between gears.
To the ears and the bum the TCT Giulietta feels highly refined. If this were a Toyota I’d be delighted. But an Alfa – surely it ought to feel a little more raw and a lot less slushy?
Delve into the detail and it turns out that the blurred gear change actually offers a performance boost – even if it doesn’t sound remotely sporty. With a conventional, single-clutch manual, drive to the wheels ceases completely during the moment when the lever passes through neutral, but with two clutches the box can slip out of one gear even as it slides into the next. Drive to the wheels falls a little but doesn’t drop to zero during changes, hence the slightly slushy feel. But that continuous power equals better acceleration.
The result is 0.1 seconds off the Giulietta’s dash to 62mph, down to 7.7 seconds. And that’s despite a 15kg weight penalty over the manual. That small additional pace may mean an increase in car insurance, although the TCT’s group hasn’t yet been set. Alfa says a conventional automatic would weigh another 10 kilos on top, meanwhile, and would bog down both performance and economy by 10 to 15 per cent.
TCT does the opposite. Alongside the modest boost in zip, a TCT box pushes CO2 down to 121g/km from the manual 1.4 MultiAir’s 134g/km – notching the car down from tax band E to D (missing the next jump down to C by a 1g/km whisker). Alfa says this is the lowest CO2 score for any petrol-powered automatic in the family hatchback market. Combined cycle economy rises accordingly, from 48.7mpg to 54.3mpg.
I don’t know how achievable those economy figures are, but you won’t see anything like them in Dynamic mode. Throttling changes make the engine feel more eager, while the box will hang onto gears almost to the redline if you keep the accelerator in. The car swings around corners without much roll, and the suspension copes well in rutted or off-camber bends. It feels much more Alfa, though still well mannered. There’s little wind or tyre noise even at national limit speeds.
The two paddles turn with the wheel and are mounted very close behind it. Pull the left paddle for downshifts, the right for up. A helpful reminder in the centre of the instrument panel tells you which gear you’ve chosen and it’s very easy to flip down so you’re poised prior to overtaking. Auto operation will resume 15 seconds after each paddle flip.
It’s a similar experience with stick-shift. Push the gearlever left out of drive and it clicks into the manual slot. Push for downshifts, pull for up, or use the paddles. Auto operation won’t intervene, leaving you to switch gears quickly and smoothly at whatever point you please. However, unless you’re wringing out maximum power, shift points can feel hard to judge due to the muffled engine note. It’s very easy to slot down one notch too far.
“It’s an automatic, so leave it to get on with it,” advises Constantinos Vafidis, the Italy-based engineering director responsible for the TCT transmission. He confesses he leaves his own Giulietta to its own devices, not even bothering with the DNA selector never mind manual shifts. “These things, they are...” he waves his hand dismissively to complete the sentence, perhaps at a loss for the English word “gimmicks”.
Vafidis insists a “controlled transmission” is essential for efficiency and economy. And by controlled, he means taken out of the clumsy hands of you and me. “The driver is revving up and down and this is not good for efficiency at all,” he states.
The TCT box, by contrast, is always precise and measured. It is controlled by the same black box of cleverness that runs the engine, which makes checks on the state of the car and any inputs from the driver, 500 times every second. It only needs human help when you know something it doesn’t, Vafidis says, like your intention to overtake. And even then the difference is barely worth measuring.
“The driver may feel as if they overtake more quickly using the paddles, but if you use a stopwatch – the difference is milliseconds,” Vafidis says.
I wonder out loud how long it will be before Alfa ceases to offer manual transmissions, given the technical superiority of TCT. Vafidis smiles, reminding me that I’ve neglected the important matter of price. “A manual transmission will always be much cheaper,” he notes, “because it has many fewer parts.”
Talking of costs, choosing TCT adds £1,330 to the Giulietta 1.4 MultiAir, bringing the basic price to £21,855 in Lusso trim or £23,155 in sporty Veloce spec. The new box is also offered with the 170bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine at £23,550 for the Lusso and commanding a top-of-the-range £24,800 in Veloce trim. The paddles are a £260 option on top.
If you care about fuel economy, demand performance on tap but like the relaxing support of an auto around town, the TCT Giulietta offers a fantastic cake-and-eat-it package. But if you’re after a more visceral and involving Alfa, best reserve the extra cash for fuel and plump for an old-fashioned manual.