Alfa's twin-clutch misses the groove

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IOL mot pic nov1 Alfa Giulietta TCT 1

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Italian flair and sharp handling define Giulietta 1.4 TBi, but get the manual.

We’re no strangers to the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. We got up close and personal with one on a six-month long-term test last year, and, suspension niggles aside, we found it to be a very decent offering in the highly-competitive hot hatch segment. This sentiment was echoed with the Giulietta being selected as a 2012 SA Car of the Year finalist.

Since then the Italian carmaker has developed a six-speed DSG-style dual-clutch automatic gearbox, and among other ranges has bolted it into the Giulietta to try and attract those buyers preferring two pedals to three. Just one model in the Giulietta range gets the new technology, the 1.4 TBi which makes 125kW and 250Nm - which is exactly the same model we had in six-speed manual guise as our long-termer, making it easy to compare real-world performance and consumption variances between the gearboxes.

DRY CONDITIONS

Alfa calls the new transmission TCT, or a Twin Clutch Transmission, and technically-speaking it’s almost identical internally to other dual-clutch units already available in cars such as VW's Golf and the Ford Focus.

The only major difference is that the Italians decided the plates of the mechanicals should operate under dry conditions, rather than in an oil-bath like in the others. Alfa’s reasoning is that this approach saves weight and increases efficiency, but we wonder if the lack of lubrication (and cooling) will affect the lifespan of the unit.

Spending a fair amount of time testing the new ’box, in both stop/start commuting and open road driving terms, has revealed a few concerns.

IOL mot pic nov1 Alfa Giulietta TCT 2

Everything the twin-clutch transmission can do, the manual does better.

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The greatest appeal of these dual-clutch setups lies in how they work.

They’re usually as slick as hot knives through butter, carving through gears with swift and surgical precision. Gearshifts happen faster than you can blink, and the seamless nature of the technology usually results in the engine being kept on its toes and ready for your next move.

Not so much with this TCT though.

We’ve known from our long-termer that there is a bit of turbo lag from this 1.4-litre plant, and having three pedals meant that we could ride the clutch a bit to avoid most of the power pause. The auto ’box takes away this privilege, and pull-offs can become a delayed and frustrating affair. It also doesn’t help that the software generally makes the TCT Giulietta take off in second gear, compounding the issue further.

PROPER MANUAL MODE

One way around this is the manual mode, found by sliding the gear lever to the left. This, to its credit, is a proper manual setting and won’t change into a higher gear for you, even on the rev-limiter. You can change using the gear lever or the paddles behind the steering wheel, and this tends to keep things moving along a little more smoothly.

IOL mot pic nov1 Alfa Giulietta TCT 3

Slide the gear lever across to the left to select manual shift.

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Another way, which works slightly better, is via Alfa’s DNA (Dynamic, Normal and All-Weather) technology. It tweaks driving parameters dependent on your mood through a switch near the gear lever. Dynamic, which aside from sharpening engine and steering response, keeps the gearbox in a sportier gear and ensures that pull-off happens in first gear at all times - which helps with the lag but doesn’t cure the problem entirely.

SPONGY GEARSHIFTS

Lag aside, the changes themselves are also not great. They feel a bit spongy and aren’t as sharp as those offered by competitors with the wet-clutch setup. I also found that when going up steep ramps the gearbox would just about let the engine stall before taking a lower gear (Dynamic mode helped a little with this).

Alfa’s promise to buyers is that the same car, mated to the manual gearbox, is heavier on fuel and slower in performance terms. Our real-world figures disagree. Our manual long-termer averaged 8.6 litres per 100km, hit 100km/h from standstill in 9.1 seconds and disposed of the quarter mile in 16.6 seconds. The TCT averaged 10.1 litres per 100km, got to 100km/h in 9.9 seconds, and crossed the quarter mile in 17.4 seconds.

Look past these gearbox issues and the Giulietta is actually quite a sorted package with the right ticks in the right boxes.

The handling is a definite plus, thanks to Alfa’s Q2 electronic differential which acts like a limited-slip diff and transfers torque to the outside wheel when the inside one loses traction through a corner. Push the Giulietta through the bends and you’ll notice how planted it is, and how that nose seems to resist understeer.

Build and ride quality are also impressive, with barely any wind or road noise permeating the cabin and a comfy and smooth ride on offer. Interior surfaces look and feel of a good quality, the seats are supportive, and the dials are sporty. The Italian car’s overall build feels solid, with no cabin rattles or squeaks noticed. Many may not agree, but I also like the body styling – it’s got that typical Italian and Alfa design flair going for it.

VERDICT

At R315 000 the TCT version of the 1.4 TBi Giulietta costs R17 200 more than the manual, and unless you’re restricted to automatic cars we reckon there’s no way you can justify the additional expense. Unlike in competitor hot hatches where the wet dual-clutch setup makes a real difference in performance and driver enjoyment terms, the TCT setup in the Giulietta takes away from an otherwise entertaining package. - Star Motoring

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