When your brand consists of only a sports car, an entry luxury sedan, and a compact SUV, it's easier to react to customer feedback with running changes than it would be for a full-line manufacturer with a greater number of irons in the fire. Alfa Romeo, a rather niche automaker with a storied past, is one such outfit, and for the 2020 model year it is rolling out marked improvements to two-thirds of its lineup.
The Giulia sedan and Stelvio SUV have dutifully served as Alfa Romeo's brand ambassadors upon its return to North America, but not without a few hiccups. Some of the brand's "charms" got lost in the translation from Italian to English, while an onslaught of new and updated products from key rivals such as Audi, BMW, Genesis, and Mercedes-Benz have raised the bar for luxury and technology. Not to mention that the Giulia and Stelvio's own high-performance Quadrifoglio variants—both of which are not included in this update—have somewhat overshadowed their entry-level counterparts. There's no word yet on if Alfa's most recent updates address some of the reliability issues we've experienced with new Alfa Romeos, particularly with our long-term 2018 Giulia Quadrifoglio.
Not Messing with Success
Alfa was careful not to fuss with the Giulia and Stelvio's best attributes. Their turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-fours, eight-speed automatic transmissions, and rear- and all-wheel-drive drivetrains all are unchanged for 2020. Both vehicles come with the same sharp handling, crisply communicative steering, confidence inspiring brakes, and rorty exhaust notes as their 2019 versions.
We soaked up some late autumn sunshine during a brief drive of both models in southern Italy's Puglia region. On the area's well-maintained highways, the Giulia and Stelvio both offered comfortable rides, and their cabins were notably quieter than before, thanks to the addition of laminated side-window glass and additional sound dampening materials. And we jumped at the chance to exercise their athleticism on several of the region's winding back roads, where speed limits seemed to be more of a loose suggestion than rigidly enforced.
The significant improvements for the Giulia and Stelvio reside inside their cabins and address several issues that have plagued both vehicles since their launches in 2017 and 2018, respectively. A new 8.8-inch infotainment touchscreen replaces both the 6.5- and 8.8-inch non-touch displays offered in last year's mode. Despite the addition of the touch-sensitive panel, however, the redundant clickwheel on the center console has been retained.
A new software interface designed by Marelli boasts an upscale appearance and can be customized to the driver's preferences. Functions such as radio settings, climate control, performance metrics, and the optional navigation system live on individual tiles that can be dragged and dropped in whatever order is preferred, similar to rearranging apps on an iPhone. Graphics and illustrations throughout the system are rendered more crisply than before, but several onscreen buttons are too small to easily operate while driving.
Turn-by-turn navigation instructions frequently were cause for frustration during our drive, partly because the system was occasionally late to inform us of an upcoming turn and partly due to the nature of Italian roads, which sometimes fork to the left or right despite appearing to be a straight line on the map. We imagine utilizing Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, both of which are standard, would alleviate this minor issue. A 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot also joins the roster.
Additional upgrades come in the form of new driver-assistance features. Alfa Romeo has made the previously optional automated forward emergency braking standard across both the Giulia and Stelvio lineups. Other more advanced features continue to be optional extras on both vehicles, including traffic-sign recognition, lane-keeping assist, active blind-spot monitoring with collision avoidance, a driver-attention monitor, and a semi-autonomous driving mode that accompanies the adaptive cruise control. Called Traffic Jam and Highway Assist, that lane-centering system only allows for hands-off cruising for about eight seconds, so it hardly makes for a competitor to Cadillac's Super Cruise or Tesla's Autopilot. But it works well on the highway and centers the car in the lane with limited need for driver adjustments.
Small Changes, Meaningful Improvement
Both the Giulia and Stelvio also benefit from a light revision of cabin materials and controls. The center console in both vehicles has been redesigned and features a new leather-wrapped shift lever, more premium-feeling control knobs and switches, an optional wireless device charging pad, and increased storage space. Facing the driver is a newly standard 7.0-inch color information display nestled between the gauges, and the steering wheel has been tweaked with upgraded materials and finishes.
The exterior of both cars continues to look familiar, and the company was careful to explain that this is not a mid-cycle refresh—that's coming for the 2021 or 2022 model year—but certain Stelvio trim levels can now be had with body-colored lower trim pieces in place of the regular dark plastic bits.
While they still aren't as exciting to drive as their Quadrifoglio variants, the 2020 Giulia and Stelvio still offer a level of driving satisfaction we'd love to see from every passenger car. With these running improvements, this pair of Italian thoroughbreds offers a slightly elevated experience that puts them in closer alignment with the luxury-car establishment that Alfa Romeo is attempting to disrupt.
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