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Alfa’s new Junior EV delivers on brand’s sporty DNA

Alfa Romeo’s all-electric Junior crossover lives up to its driving promise on the Balocco proving ground

Alfa Romeo Junior test drive at the Balocco proving ground in Italy
The Alfa Romeo Junior will come with a selection of powertrain options.

What’s in a name? A lot, if you happen to be an Italian politician on the hunt for some easy publicity.

Alfa Romeo’s long-awaited compact crossover — a potential cash cow for the brand’s latest resurrection — was meant to be called the Milano. On the eve of its unveiling in April, Italy’s industry minister Adolfo Urso said its name violated an Italian law that targets “Italian sounding” products that falsely claim to be Italian.

“Milano” was meant to be a tribute to the northern Italian city where Alfa Romeo was founded in 1910. The “Junior” name also references the Italian brand’s history, as it evokes one of its successful models from the 1960s.

Alfa Romeo chief executive Jean-Philippe Imparato said the group was not happy to be drawn into the quarrel.


He noted that the “Milano” name had been disclosed in December, and the decision to produce the car in Poland, alongside other Fiat and Jeep models with which it shares its platform and many parts, had been public for a long time.

“The government just could have moved this criticism before, not the day after the launch,” Imparato said.

Now, sitting at the car firm’s famous Balocco proving ground, where its Italian engineers and staff spend years instilling Alfa driving DNA into its cars, it’s clear that the war of words still stings.

He says the issue has moved on, but Alfa “is watching to see what happens when other car companies call their cars after Italian towns or regions”.

Daniel Guzzafame, Alfa Romeo’s product director is more forthright. “As an Italian citizen and part of the team that developed the car, I don’t feel okay about a ministry that defines “made in Italy” as “assembled in Italy” because there is much more beyond the assembly.

He said: “That to me was not 100 per cent fair, because if you take the number of people that participate in the development, the marketing and the like, it is the same order of magnitude if not above, the number who produce the car.”

Guzzafame said: “From a long-term view, as an Italian citizen I think the State should focus on the knowledge, on the capability to create, to design and think rather than only assemble.

“The new factories in China are capable of producing thousands of vehicles often have 100 workers in them.”

He said this approach does not recognise the value added, but instead rewards those in assembly, who actually don’t assemble but rather control the machines that assemble the cars.

Alfa Romeo Junior test drive at the Balocco proving ground in Italy
Alfa Romeo Junior test drive at the Balocco proving ground in Italy

Back with the car, now billed the Junior — a name with its own Alfa heritage — and the crossover is ready for the road. Or in this instance the test tracks of the famous grounds.

When it lands in showrooms, the Junior will come with a selection of powertrain options: a 136hp 1.2-litre petrol regular hybrid or an all-electric in either 156hp or 280hp output. Range is promised to be 410km on a full charge of the 156hp version.

Alfa Romeo Junior test drive at the Balocco proving ground in Italy

Externally, it blends the various Alfa design traits, particularly on the front nose and even the tall rear tailgate. Designer Alejandro Mesonero is quick to reference a montage of previous Alfa models to defend every design decision.

Inside, there are a mix of stock Stellantis parts and distinctive Alfa attributes. The transmission control is shared across the group’s family, but the “cannocchiale” twin-dial binnacle format is here, along with figure-hugging sport seats.

Alfa Romeo Junior test drive at the Balocco proving ground in Italy

There are some quirky foibles: the front stowage or “frunk” is little more than a dedicated storage box for the charging cable; one that few motorists will be bothered to use very often given the rigmarole required to access it and then precisely fold up the cable each time to make it fit. Then there are the rear seats, which are decent for two adults but will be a tight squeeze for three teenagers.

Our test car is the flagship all-electric 280hp Veloce version, designated to define the uniquely Alfa characteristics honed into a platform that’s shared across several other Stellantis models.

The desired trait is balance. More than that: it’s the motorcycle effect. “We want to capture the synergy between driver and machine,” explains Domenico Bagnasco, responsible for validating the vehicle’s driving dynamics. Bagnasco has been integral in working through the dynamic traits Alfa hopes define the Junior, and differentiate it from the rest of the overcrowded compact crossover class.

Alfa Romeo Junior test drive at the Balocco proving ground in Italy

Those traits are a smooth responsive throttle, direct informative steering and a chassis that wends its way through the bends at speed without either front nose or rear tail veering offline.

We get the chance to put Junior to the test on Balocco’s 20km Langhe Circuit and the high-performance Alfa Romeo Track, test-bed for the generations of the brand’s racing efforts.

On the undulating twists and turns of Langhe, Junior handles like an Alfa when in its Dynamic driving mode.

But despite the hopes of its engineers, it’s not all Alfa DNA. In efficiency mode or even in Normal, it’s much harder to defer this car with any distinctively Alfa traits.

Alfa Romeo Junior test drive at the Balocco proving ground in Italy

The Junior is meant to fulfil the needs of people who don’t really know Alfa Romeo, whose priorities are first range and family practicality.

In this heartland of Alfistas (Alfa’s fanatical fans) the idea of an Alfa EV is heresy. To prance it around Balocco is sacrilege.

The problem is that defining the red lines of Alfa isn’t as easy as you might think. Is it in the styling, having the number plate to the side, for example? Several famous Alfas don’t have that. Is it a big grille? Or no grille? Is it a sharp, short-throw and precise manual gear shift? That rules out several impressive automatics.

Is Alfa more than a driving mode, dialled up as required on any Stellantis platform? This car has engineering traits not featured on siblings with which it shares its underpinnings. For example, this range-topping EV boasts a specially developed Torsen slip-diff that is not in other Stellantis cars, or other Alfa Junior versions either.

For some Alfistas, it is more about the mechanical feel, the engine sound and the senses those arouse. Certainly, those aren’t replicated in any EV. But, Alfa is perhaps as much about the drive.

But it does beg the question of whether Alfa could at some future stage find itself more characterised as a distinctive driving mode than a fully differentiated brand.

It’s suggested that Alfa’s big challenge is to persuade Alfistas that EVs can retain the DNA of the brand. But in reality, the greatest hurdle remains in persuading the public — particularly premium buyers — to overcome long-held perceptions over reliability. Overcome that issue and the sun will certainly shine on Alfa, regardless of how it powers its cars.

Michael McAleer

Michael McAleer

Michael McAleer is Motoring Editor, Innovation Editor and an Assistant Business Editor at The Irish Times