STAND AN OMEGA SPEEDSTER PROFESSIONAL on its face, and you'll find an inscription on the case back: "Flight-qualified by NASA for all manned space missions. The first watch worn on the moon." For a certain kind of person, that inscription is irresistible. It's a piece of something bigger, the ordinary made exceptional. The appliance that can go into orbit.
That person wants a European sedan. Eighty large in pocket, the well-to-do modern enthusiast is jonesing for an over-powered commuter with paddle shifters and pedigree. He or she is spoiled for choice. BMW, Mercedes, and Alfa Romeo all made hay on the back of touring-car racing. Each earned a cult following decades ago by way of competition-minded engineering and sharp homologation road cars. Machines like the E30 M3, Mercedes 190E, and Alfa 155 defined the breed. BMW and Mercedes offer successors to those icons in the four-door M3 and C63. Now, after more than two decades absent from the U.S. sedan market, Alfa Romeo has returned with the all-new Giulia Quadrifoglio, reuniting a holy trinity of sorts.
We wanted to know if the Alfa is a legit contender, and how the descendants of those track-qualified touring-car icons stack up on the racetrack. So we went to the Thermal Club, a private road course complex outside Palm Springs. We gathered the new BMW M3, the Mercedes-AMG C63 S, and the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. And we sent them into orbit.
OUR PARTY REPORTS AT 8:00 A.M. to walk the circuit. Contributing editor Preston Lerner, soft-spoken club-racing veteran, is here. So is the boss, editor-in-chief Kim Wolfkill. We'll start the day at the North Palm course, a 1.2-mile Armco fortress opening with a fast carousel and ending with a tricky hairpin. The surroundings reek of resort, all ozone-scraping palm trees and half-built luxury condos. The track is new but already scuffed, like secondhand high-tops. Most of the tire marks disappear into run-off; many end abruptly at the barriers. This is where we'll take turns caning the Alfa, an initiation. "Welcome back. Glad you're here. Go climb that curbing."
We'd usually be gunning for the BMW. Now in its fifth generation, the M3 represents the traditional track-focused choice in this segment. Our 3662-pound tester has a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and the new Competition package, which adds 19 hp. The least powerful engine here, the BMW's twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six pumps out 444 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque. The Mercedes-AMG C63 S is more hot rod, a leather-stuffed living room with a V8. Curb weight is 3958 pounds, and AMG's twin-turbo 4.0-liter is rated at 503 hp and 516 lb-ft. That runs through a seven-speed automatic, which has a fluid-bathed clutch pack in lieu of a torque converter.
But Alfa has our attention. The storied brand, once purveyor of high-energy, tail-happy featherweights, hasn't done a rear-drive sedan since Dire Straits was touring. We know this new car weighs 3822 pounds and reaches a claimed 191 mph. We know it packs 505 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque from a twin-turbo 2.9-liter V-6 mated to a conventional eight-speed automatic. But we don't know much else.
The first lap is a shocker. The steering isn't huge on feedback but feels airy through the Giulia's thin wheel, delicate like a Ferrari's. Skim milk to the usual German cream. It's straight-razor-sharp, too, a sensation amplified by the quick 11.8:1 ratio. Wolfkill makes the day's first proclamation. "Without knowing the track, I feel more comfortable going quickly in this car than an M3. On first impression, the Alfa seems flatter. It's got more grip, better turn-in."
The brakes are great, too. The Giulia we're driving has carbon-ceramic rotors, 15.4 inches front and 14.2 inches rear, a $5500 option. The standard kit is plenty. We tested the iron-rotor setup later, and it pulled the shortest stops of the group.
The Quadrifoglio is stable scrubbing speed and generally light on its feet. Plus, it's got the stoutest engine: A small, twin-turbo V6 doesn't read as exciting, but this one is effectively a Ferrari California T's V8 minus two jugs?same bore and stroke, same 90-degree angle. Boost is set at a manic 35 psi. So, the Quadrifoglio moves like an arms-grade pressure cooker: lame down low, then incendiary between 3500 and 6500 rpm. It's a belligerent spool-and-shove routine with induction whirl and exhaust whap to match. Next to that, the M3 might as well be parked on the front straight.
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