The only species breeding faster than rabbit seems to be the hot hatch. There is the desirable Volkswagen Golf GTI, or the Ford Focus ST, which packs more standard gear for a lot less money than the VW. For those after something with a little more styling flair, there is the top-line Alfa Romeo Giulietta Quadrifoglio Verde (as in Alfa's four-leaf clover emblem), or 'QV" for short.
Starting from $39,150 plus on-road costs the QV undercuts the Golf GTI by about $2300. The catch: as with the Focus ST, the Alfa Romeo QV is a six-speed manual-only proposition. But it does come with an engine with more grunt than the GTI.
The Italians somehow extract 173kW from a 1.7-litre turbo four-cylinder engine. VW wrings 162kW from the GTI's 2.0 turbo. Most mod-cons are covered in the Giulietta but Alfa makes satnav a plug-in option that sits atop the dash (it's standard on the new Golf GTI and Focus ST), and there is no factory-fitted rear view camera. Wireless Bluetooth phone connectivity is standard but Bluetooth audio is not; the device has to connect via a USB port.
Released three years ago (with two minor updates since), the Giulietta is still a stunning piece of automotive design. From its tapered headlights (embedded with jewel-like daytime running lights) to the hidden rear door handles and the twirl in the tail-lights, in profile it resembles a coupe more than a hatch.
The interior is roomy and functional, though not as beautiful as the exterior. Seat trim is a stylishly textured yet hard-wearing material. The air vents are a little small for quickly cooling the cabin on hot days and a digital speed display would be a welcome addition in the screen next to the analog speedometer, especially given the wide speedo needle covers about 5km/h worth of increments. The boot is roomier than the Giulietta's sleek proportions suggest (350L; the Golf's is 380L) and there is good headroom front and rear.
Six airbags and a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating will protect you if the worst happens. A well-sorted chassis and suspension tune, good brakes and plenty of tyre grip will hopefully prevent that. Rear parking sensors are standard but a rear camera would be welcome. They're fast becoming standard on most new cars these days and its absence was noticeable.
I was not prepared to be impressed behind the QV's wheel. Previous encounters have left me underwhelmed, tainted, or both. But clearly Alfa Romeo hasn't been sitting still, making minor improvements to the Giulietta since its launch in 2010, and those changes have amounted to a well-rounded, highly competent car. The engine is impressively smooth, quiet and torquey. It never feels rushed or out of breath and propels the QV from rest to 100km/h in 7.2 seconds.
The ride comfort over bumps is another pleasant surprise; most cars with 18-inch wheels ride as if you're driving over logs. Not so in this case. The tyres, a little noisier than normal on coarse surfaces, are eerily quiet on smooth, newly paved bitumen. The steering is par for the class (although not as sharp as the Focus ST or Golf GTI) but the brakes are the equal of the other hot hatches. The smooth six-speed manual gearshift is also a welcome improvement on previous Alfa Romeo efforts. But if you can only drive an automatic, unfortunately this car is not for you. For now.
Alfa's QV is a surprisingly fresh alternative to the VW Golf GTI.
Alfa Romeo Giulietta QV
Price: from $39,150
Service intervals: 12 months/15,000km
Capped servicing: No
Warranty: 3 years/150,000km
Engine: 1.7-litre 4-cyl turbo, 173kW/340Nm
Transmission: 6-speed manual; FWD