In-house test bed Alfa Giulietta TBi showed a 17 percent gain in power and torque.

Pretoria - They say you're not a real petrolhead until you've owned an Alfa.

In that case Steve Fischer, founder of the Steves Auto Clinic group, certainly qualifies; he started in the tuning business more than 30 years ago fettling and modifying Alfa Romeos - and he's always had a soft spot in his heart for them.

That's especially true of the current 1750TBi Giulietta; on paper it has the goods to match a Volkswagen Golf GTI or a Ford Focus ST, boasting as it does a 1750cc turbopetrol four with direct fuel-injection, two continuously variable valve timing units and a revolutionary scavenging control system that gets rid of any turbo lag.

It's rated at 173kW and 340Nm, and the maker quotes 0-100 in 6.8 seconds and 242km/h flat out.

The reality, however, isn't, quite that stellar; SAC's own, stock standard Giulietta took 7.63 seconds to reach 100km/h and couldn't top 237km/h - respectable, but not in the same league as the Golf and the Focus.

Most engines today - even in hot hatches - are fairly conservatively tuned, in the interests of economy and longevity. The quick 'n dirty solution is a 'flash tune', where a person, usually armed with a lap-top and not much else, loads a completely new fuelling and ignition map on to the engine control unit and fiddles the parameters until the dyno says "Gee whiz!".

NO SAFETY LIMITS

The problem is that the engine almost always runs rich, slurps petrol, clogs its cats (if it still has them) and, without the manufacturer's programmed-in safety limits on overboost (and overfuelling!) there's a serious risk of terminal damage if the driver's right foot gets carried away.

What Fischer and his team have done, by contrast, is to tweak the original mapping, reducing the deliberate softening at the top of the dyno curves that the manufacturers euphemistically refer as 'torque damping' and boosting the Alfa engine's power and torque outputs by a conservative and reliable 17 percent, while retaining all the safety parameters of the original mapping and running on pump fuel.

Being true petrolheads and Alfa lovers, however, they also decided that the Giulietta should speak with the proper Italian authority - and also liberate a few more full-blooded Lombardy horses - so they ditched the stock exhaust system and its cats in favour of a custom-made downpipe.

And that's all they did - honest, officer.

But back at Gerotek, they found they now had an Alfa that not only spoke fluent Italian, but would hit a hundred in 6.62, disposed of the standing quarter in 14.7, reached 200km/h inside a kilometre from a standing start and topped out at 248km/h.

Which is quick enough to see off a Ford Focus ST, an Opel Astra OPC, a Renault Megane Sport and even a VW Golf GTI.

And they can do the same for your Giulietta, at a cost of R6950 for the ECU software upgrade and another R1950 for the new down, proudly catalyst-free downpipe. It takes from one to three days, depending on which branch of Steve's Auto Clinic you choose.