BMW M3 v Alfa Romeo Quadrifoglio – which is the sports saloon king?

Alfa’s 503bhp Giulia Quadrifoglio takes on BMW’s M3 Competition Pack in a fast four-door face-off

Sure, the F80 generation BMW M3 has taken a while to come good but, having spent a couple of days with this Competition Package version – with its extra 19bhp, upgraded suspension and reconfigured drive modes – I’d say it’s pretty much back to full strength. This car drives like it looks – pumped, tense, up for it – and sounds like it looks, too, the growl of the twin-turbo straight-six ever-present, evoking memories of the iconic, naturally aspirated BMW M Power straight-six slotted in the nose of the E46. I don’t see any obvious flaws in its armour. But here comes the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio.

Much praised and now here in the UK, the Alfa is restoring faith in the Italian brand, coming almost out of nowhere to take on the sports-saloon establishment and claim the Nürburgring saloon-car lap record, too. Yet alongside the M3 it looks, dare I say it, a little tame. The Alfa’s 19in alloys are typically gorgeous but they look like 18s compared with the GTS-style 20in cross-spokes filling the BMW’s expensively, lovingly flared arches. It’s an altogether more subtle car, the Giulia, but undeniably handsome with it.

Its strongest statement of intent is, of course, its twin-turbo 2.9-litre V6, whose 503bhp easily outpunches even the uplifted 444bhp of the Competition Pack’s 3-litre six. It sounds like a recipe for ‘light the blue touchpaper and retire to a safe distance’ performance, in the manner of the original Maserati 3200GT, but while the Alfa’s performance is scintillating, it is also effortlessly well mannered and exploitable, even in its most aggressive drive mode.
That comes as a bit of a surprise. So can the Alfa blend this refinement with inspiring on-road handling and involving on-limit track behaviour? To find out we’re going to let them loose on Wales’s heavenly, raggedy-arsed B-roads and also extract lap times at the Bedford Autodrome.
BMW M3 Competition Package & Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio – bridge
What instantly stands out is how different their steering feels. The M3’s is beefy, even in its lightest, Comfort setting, but it’s in character with the firm, heavily sculpted seats, bombastic start-up and taut ride. While you can individually adjust steering, damping and powertrain responses – there’s Sport or Sport+ as well as Comfort – even with everything backed-off the M3 is one steely character. It feels heavier than its size, more like an M5 than an M3, but after a few kilometres you’re dialled in to it and the ride comes good, too – it’s taut, yes, but comfortably rounded and gets better the faster you go. There’s plenty of grip, so the M3 feels solidly planted in corners but, as you’d hope for a punchy sports saloon, you get the sense that there isn’t so much stickiness at the rear that the twin-turbo engine won’t be able to overcome it…

Bury the throttle in the low gears and the sound is glorious; deep, metallic and menacing, especially from around 4000rpm when, apparently, the bungs come out of the tailpipes. The delivery escalates in line with the sound, which makes it unexpectedly naturally aspirated in feel, with a decent initial kick low-down, a swelling mid-range and a properly thrilling crescendo at the red line. A few tentative throttle squeezes suggest an easy breakaway in the dry – judging by the flickering stability control light – but given the heft of the steering and not knowing what the power delivery feels like when the tail is loose, I’m happy to wait until the track session to find out what happens.

What a contrast the Alfa is. Its steering couldn’t be much more different – light, fast and so responsive that you have to calm your inputs considerably. Yet, as with the BMW, you soon adapt to it and, although it feels soft-riding, the nose darts when you turn the wheel. The Giulia’s cockpit features plenty of carbonfibre trim, but overall the ambience feels less expensive and less sporty, even though this car’s Sparco seats have the optional carbonfibre shells ($4100). They look a bit flat compared with the BMW’s but don’t be fooled because they feel superb and offer great support.
BMW M3 Competition Package – front quarter
It’s a surprise, given that it churns out another 59bhp, that the Giulia’s biturbo engine isn’t spikier in its delivery than the BMW’s. The opposite, in fact; it’s stronger lower down and builds more gradually to the red line, the ZF eight-speed auto swapping gears with utter unobtrusiveness. To feel the full force of the engine and hear its unmuted voice, however, you’ve got to twist the mode dial round to its sportiest settings, at which point the stability control is disabled…

Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio – rear quarter

We have a little time before we can lap the Bedford West Circuit, so we bag ourselves a few over-the-limit shots, mindful of preserving the tyres for the business of setting lap times. In a reversal of their wet-weather behaviour, the Alfa doesn’t want to let go and fights to get hooked back up, which makes for some clumsy slide-catch-slides, while the M3 goes easily but, as its engine hits its peaks, slip isn’t consistent. So in both you need to be on top of your game for a tidy slide. Of course, for a fast lap you keep it neat and use the torque for forward motion…

So BMW first. When you’re not trying to provoke a drift, it’s more predictable and effective. With everything set to Sport+ and stability control off, you can feel when you’re about to run out of rear grip, and with the engine working hard that’s just about everywhere the car isn’t straight. Turn-in is positive and it’s an exciting lap, balanced on the limit so that small slides are being corrected even on the exit of the fastest corners, something you can do thanks to the confident poise of the M3. The carbon brakes are a little rumbly by the end but still pulling the car up strongly. The best lap is a 1:24.7.
And the Alfa? It doesn’t start well, the rear swinging with very little provocation at the first turn – an acute hairpin – but at the same corner on the first flying lap it’s found loads of grip and, as we found earlier, once it’s straight it hooks up strongly and will take full power. Body control doesn’t feel as stiff as the BMW’s but the Alfa is responsive thanks to the sharp steering and brakes. Oversteer is available early in the corners but from the apex there is a degree of understeer to push against, which feels useful in the quicker corners. On the third flying lap there’s suddenly no power to be had – the electronic diff has bailed and the stability control has kicked back in. Game over.


Considering they are aimed at the same customer, the Alfa and BMW are distinctly different propositions. On the spectrum from comfort to sportiness they overlap to a surprisingly small degree, the Alfa at its sportiest matching the BMW at its most comfortable. So what you expect from your potent, small sports saloon will probably decide which is the one for you.

The M3 is now the car it should have been from the start. Compared with the Giulia, it’s a bit tougher at low speeds, a little less refined, but when it’s up to speed it’s superbly damped and the chassis balance is spot-on – the $4150 Competition Package is a must. It will feel too hefty for some, but it’s a thrilling car with a strong engine note and an exciting delivery that rewards revs. It looks the part, too.

The Alfa is the more nuanced car, more subtle in many ways, with a supple ride and a relaxed long-distance demeanour, yet it always steers with a directness that gives it a wonderfully agile feel. That engine delivers a big hit and works beautifully with the slick auto gearbox, though you have restricted access to its total performance and full-blooded soundtrack – some drivers simply won’t ever use Race because it turns off stability control. Even if you don’t, we wonder how long a set of those Pirellis will last. And yet, for all that, and the unsatisfactory brake feel, it’s hard not to be charmed by the Alfa.

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Categories: Road


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