Alfa Romeo has high hopes for its new TCT semi-automatic transmission. So high in fact, that it chose the International Space Innovation Centre* near Didcot in Oxfordshire as the venue at which to launch the new Giulietta TCT. If you’re aiming high, why not reach for the sky and go beyond? But then there’s a buoyant mood around the Alfa Romeo camp right now, not least because the manufacturer enjoyed a solid 2011, including its highest yearly new registration figure since 2002. And of the 11,563 cars registered, some 7,113 were Giuliettas. No doubt Uma Thurman had a part to play in that.
The days of questionable reliability and poor customer service also appear to be a thing of the past, with Alfa Romeo finishing joint tenth with Volkswagen and Toyota in the JD Power Customer Satisfaction survey. Residuals appear to be on the up too, which is another historical problem for the brand. What’s more, take into account the fact that the average age of an Alfa Romeo owner is just 48, lower than some its more mainstream rivals, and you can see why Alfa’s mood is positive. Who’d have thought an A-list celebrity could have such an effect on a brand? Perhaps David Cameron should be asking Uma Thurman to sort out the country’s debt crisis too?
Keen to maintain momentum, Alfa Romeo has now added a semi-automatic option to the Giulietta range. Its Twin Clutch Transmission (TCT), which has taken six years and 120 people to develop, is designed to reduce engine emissions and increase the car’s efficiency. These days, CO2 is the game and every manufacturer is chasing the lowest score possible.
Alfa Romeo flew Constatinos Vafidis, the TCT’s project engineering director, across from Italy for the event. He naturally waxed lyrical about the transmission’s qualities and provided a frank and often humorous presentation on the subject, describing standard automatic boxes as ‘bloody heavy’ and VVTs as a bit rubbish. He’s right, but I’m not sure his choice of words would have gone down well with Alfa’s PR team. I on the other hand say bring it on. Honesty is the best policy and the more access we get to the project teams, the better.
On paper at least, the TCT is an impressive piece of kit. It’s 10kg lighter than an automatic box, which in itself will help with efficiency. But because it uses a dry clutch, it only pumps transmission oil when changing gear, a significant improvement over a wet clutch, such as VAG’s DSG. When you consider that the pump is only on 20% of the time, it makes sense. Combine these factors with the TCT’s ability to optimise up and down shifting and you can begin to see why the fuel economy on the 1.4 Multiair rises from 48.7mpg to 54.3mpg on a combined cycle. It would appear that we’ve been driving Alfa Romeos all wrong. Or perhaps not, as I’ll attempt to explain later.
Alfa’s TCT has six forward and one reverse gears and is combined with the ubiquitous Alfa Romeo D.N.A system. This gives three driving modes, Dynamic, Normal and All Weather. The default setting is Normal, with Dynamic sharpening up the throttle response and steering. For a petrolhead, this should be the default setting, so it’s annoying that it automatically reverts to Normal after the engine has been switched off. According to Alfa Romeo this is likely to be rectified in the future. Good.
In common with other units of this type, the TCT is controlled using a centrally mounted shifter, with D for Drive, R for Reverse and P for Park. Move the lever to D, release the handbrake, proceed as normal and you’ll find the TCT to be a smooth and well mannered system. Drive in a leisurely fashion and the changes are barely noticeable. It’s an impressive display that has the potential to flatter the most erratic of drivers.
Push the Giulietta a little harder and things start to go a little awry. A sudden press on the gas pedal sends the transmission into a mild panic while it decides what to do. Once it’s made up its mind, it gives you the extra burst of power you demanded and away you go. It’s the same in both Dynamic and Normal mode and although certainly no worse than other units of this type, it’s worth bearing in mind. It’s also worth noting that on the 2.0 JTDm diesel Giulietta I tested, there’s a noticeable thud from the transmission when it changes up at the rev limit. I don’t recall it doing the same thing on the 1.4 MultiAir. But weirdly, the petrol version does have a strange vibration from behind the bulkhead when at the rev limit.
Around town, in Dynamic mode, the automatic ‘box has a mild tendency to get a little confused. It’s nothing serious, but it’s as though it gets a little excitable, not really knowing if you want a boy racer pull away or one of those more accustomed to a Honda Jazz driver.
As a petrolhead, you’ll undoubtedly want to know that the transmission is like on a B-road. Well fortunately, the launch event took place just a few miles away from Wantage, which just happens to be the start of one of my favourite drivers’ roads of all time. The B4494 snakes its way across the Oxfordshire and Berkshire border and into Newbury. I discovered it by chance when searching for a detour when the A34 was shut. Crossing the Ridgeway, it’s a drivers’ delight and although the early section on the Wantage side is now a 50 limit, it remains every bit as good as I remembered. So I ignored the pre-planned test route and went for a play.
In automatic mode, the TCT does everything it can to dilute your enjoyment. It simply cannot match the feel of a manual ‘box and generally leaves you feeling detached from the car.
But switch the lever into manual sequential mode and things start to improve. Up and down shifts are achieved by moving the lever up or down in a touring car-style fashion. The shifts are instant and provide the ability for rapid multiple and late changes. But it still can’t match the feel of a manual ‘box though.
The final means of shifting comes in the form of the optional steering wheel paddles. In true F1-style, it’s the left paddle for down shifts and right paddle for up shifts. Once again, the changes are instant and it’s damn good fun stringing together a series of bends. Can they match the feel and involvement of a manual gearbox? No. But on the right car, they can be a lot of fun.
At £260, the paddles are hardly going to break the bank and if you enjoy driving and you’re in the market for a Giulietta TCT, make sure you spec them. Just be prepared for the perpetual annoyance associated with paddle shifts. Pulling away from junctions, it’s impossible to change up until you’ve straightened up and can release one of your hands. So you end up over revving the engine and making a clown of yourself. I suppose you could pull away in auto mode, but that’s not really the point.
What is unforgivable is the dreadful stop/start system. On manual cars, they seem to work well enough. Pull up at the traffic lights, flick the car into neutral and engage handbrake. Hey presto, the car stops.
But on the Giulietta TCT, life isn’t so simple. As it’s an auto, it has to second guess when it needs to stop the engine. So it leaves it a couple of seconds and then decides to switch off. Great. Only it isn’t, especially when you’re just about to pull away from a junction. On two occasions it caught me out, forcing me to abort a pull away. So I switched the system off. If only you could turn it off for good. Which of course you can’t, so it automatically switches it back on the next time you start the engine. At best, it’s a frustrating feature. At worst, it has the potential to put buyers off.
So in summary, the TCT is good if you’re not a petrolhead and the stop/start system is rubbish. And I think this sums the car up.
It’s clearly a very talented car. On the B4494 it made a good account for itself with nicely weighted steering, terrific pace (especially from the 1.4 petrol) and an accomplished chassis. In true Alfa Romeo style, it’s also a beautiful thing to look at, arguably the best looking car in its segment. And in Veloce spec, it has a nice cabin that’s very well equipped.
But despite all of this, it doesn’t quite feel like an Alfa Romeo. I want my Alfas to be involving. I want them to stir my soul. I want them to make me feel special. But the Giulietta TCT fails on all three counts.
I know the brand has to have a diesel in its line up, but as a purist, I want my Alfa Romeos to be fed by pure, liquid V-Power. I don’t want to choose between D,N or A. I don’t want it to take the pleasure of driving away from me, which is what the TCT seems to do. You’re much better off sticking with the manual gearbox and saving yourself the £1,350 price tag that TCT unit commands.
It will sell well and many, many people will be happy with their Giulietta TCT. Indeed, if you want the most fuel efficient and frugal Giulietta and are happy to forgo some driving pleasure, then tick the TCT option box. But it’s not a car I see myself lusting over in ten years time.
I’ll take my chances with a 145 or 147, even if the dealer is rude to me and keeps me waiting for an hour and a half.
That’s PetrolBlog logic for you.
*I had absolutely no idea we had a space centre in the UK. If you’re interested, the website is here.
Alfa Romeo Giulietta 1.4 MultiAir 170bhp TCT
Alfa Romeo Giulietta 2.0 JTDm 170bhp TCT
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