The rivalry between Alfa Romeo and BMW is nothing new, even though the Italian brand is newly returned to our shores. For decades beginning in the 1960s, these two sporting sedan icons squared off against one another—and they’re finally back at it again with the 2018 Alfa Romeo Giulia squaring off against the 2018 BMW 3-Series.
Though both brands offer megapower versions of their compact sedans—think the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio and the BMW M3—the everyman’s versions that compete best against one another are the BMW 330i and the base Alfa Romeo Giulia.
We’re smitten with the Alfa’s gorgeous looks and impressive handling, but our rational side reminds us that we should like the BMW more. That’s why we’ve rated the Alfa Giulia at 7.4 and the BMW 3-Series at 6.7.
The Alfa’s more dramatic styling outside, with its signature shield grille design and copious use of four-leaf clovers carries over inside with a sensuously curvy dashboard that can be adorned with your choice of metallic or wood trims. The BMW is far more business-like both inside and out. It’s conservative, almost too a fault. Inside, things aren’t too interesting and the infotainment screen that sprouts from the dash looks far more like an afterthought than it is. Here, at least, the Alfa gets the nod.
BMW’s lineup stretches a bit further starting with the entry-level 320i motivated by a 180-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo-4. The 330i is next with a 248-hp turbo-4, and the 340i is a near-rocket with its turbocharged V-6. There's also a turbodiesel and a wagon in there too, as well as the related 4-Series coupe and convertible models. The 3-Series sedan is BMW's bread and butter, and most likely to show up on U.S. streets.
Giulia and Giulia Ti variants are both powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-4 rated at 280 hp. They differ largely in equipment, with the Ti adding a few niceties like wood trim, an uprated infotainment system, and heated seats. Both the BMW and the Alfa come standard with rear-wheel drive and offer all-wheel drive (called xDrive in BMW-speak and Q4 in Alfa-speak) as an extra-cost option. If you live outside of the sun belt, expect that most on dealer lots will be all-wheel drive. Only the BMW comes standard with a manual transmission—if you can find one. Most BMW 3-Series sedans and Alfa Romeo Giulias you’ll find will have variations of the same ZF-supplied 8-speed automatic transmission.
On paper, then, they’re pretty much the same. Except that they’re not.
The Alfa feels more alive from behind the wheel. Its steering is the automotive equivalent of Chatty Cathy; we hate to complain about too much communication since so many automakers—ahem, BMW—have dialed the road out. So we won’t. But even in the tamest of three drive settings, the Alfa’s tiller is almost too sharp on center and requires lots of highway speed corrections. Alfa’s engineers in Milan worked their magic underneath to create a suspension that’s just taut enough while still behaving with a remarkable degree of compliance over bumpy terrain. Combined with the smooth, strong inline-4, the Alfa is truly brilliant to drive.
That’s not to say that the 3-Series comes up short; it’s just not what we’ve come to expect from BMW. The steering is nicely weighted, but devoid of feedback. On the other hand, its moves are as brilliant as ever thanks to ideal weight distribution and a ride that’s comfortable without revealing the standard run-flat tires’ stiff sidewalls too much. The 330i might be down on power compared to the Alfa, but its ponies belie their rating. The 330i pulls strong from any speed.
Back in the real world
Of course, we don’t all live on Mullholland Drive or the Tail of the Dragon, so we have to live with our compact luxury sedans every day. Here, the BMW’s larger back seat, its better view out, and its vastly superior infotainment system score it major points. Alfa’s optional infotainment brings with it a bigger screen, but the display is 2008-era muddy although Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are newly optional for 2018. BMW also makes buyers pony up an absurd $300 for CarPlay, but the basic screen setup from German is crystal clear and easy enough to work through given its complexities.
BMW’s dizzying array of trims and options gets simpler for 2018 with four basic trims per model that unlock additional options at each level. Simple? No. Better? Yes. Alfa Romeo makes things a bit easier in the Giulia with myriad packages and individual options, allowing for easier tailoring. It’s also a far better value, at least up front. A Giulia Ti with the options we imagine most buyers will pick—think navigation, heated seats, premium audio, and a moonroof—runs around $5,000 less than a similarly optioned 330i.
In terms of safety, both cars can be had with extra-cost automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control—at these prices, that’s a shame. A Toyota Yaris, at about a third the price of a Giulia or 330i, comes standard with those features. Federal and independent testers have given good marks the BMW 3-Series, but the Alfa Giulia hasn’t yet been smacked against a wall in the name of science.
Which one’s the best for you? Our advice: don’t let it come down to just a monthly lease payment. These two cars have dramatically different personalities after decades of evolution and they represent what’s great—and perhaps what could be better—about two performance icons.