Is there still a role for Alfa Romeo in the modern world? Its masters certainly think so, although the Italian brand is currently climbing a mountain to regain the heights of desirability it held back in the 1960s and even 70s, when Bertone, Pininfarina and Zagato bodied some of the prettiest cars ever to come out of Italy (no mean feat). Even when the company’s design went off the boil in the straight edge obsessed 80s, Alfas still had a reputation for zesty simplicity and driving delight that managed to trump their troubled relationship with reliability.

Today, both those characteristics are in short supply in the volume car market, shaved into oblivion by design and safety regulations and the relentless homogeny demanded by the modern car buyer. We’re not denying that BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar et al, make fine cars, but they lack the idiosyncratic passion that comes from Alfa’s patchy history, a legacy of legends interspersed with the eccentric and, occasionally, the just plain awful. Now, more than ever, car making is a personality contest and Alfa needs to make the most of the credit in its character bank.

Alfa’s current line-up includes this, the Giulietta, a modestly sized four-door hatchback aimed at those who can’t stomach the relentless uniformity of this very conservative market sector. While the Giulietta doesn’t match the compact chic of its forebears, it is undeniably different, while remaining engaging enough to drive. Like all brands that tout performance as a defining part of their character, Alfa is in danger of equating aggressive styling with elegance, and the little flourishes like the big mesh grilles and flashes of red trim feel slightly tokenistic. In the same way, Alfa has a rather contrived ‘DNA’ system, which allows you to switch the car between dynamic, natural and all-weather modes. It works, but you can’t help but wonder how much of this car’s character has been carefully concocted in the lab, rather than on the track. 

Ultimately, none of this matters, for Alfa is, for now, still recognisably different. The Giulietta is precise and rewarding to drive, if not earth-shatteringly swift, with an interior that’s just the right side of Italian idiosyncrasy without being an ergonomic challenge. In short, Alfa lovers will not feel short changed.

The challenge is to channel this difference into far higher sales, driven by the high visibility of niche flagship products like the 4C sports car. Alfa will soon bring its all-new Giulia to showrooms, a sporting saloon that promises to be even more of a return to form, headed up by a top of the range Quadrifoglio model that’s something of a mini-Maserati in terms of looks and performance. For the first time in two decades, the future looks bright for this much-loved motoring brand.