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Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio v Audi RS4 Competition – the battle of the sixes

Audi’s RS4 is going out on a high with the Competition version; Alfa Romeo’s Giulia Quadrifoglio fights on with a new facelift. The two meet for a shootout

It’s nightfall when I collect the RS4. It’s tucked up in the evo office car park, squatting menacingly in the shadows, orange sodium light from the security lamps hinting at the outline of its broad box arches. Its wheels are tucked up inside its arches too, making it clear this is not a standard RS4 Avant. 

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The RS4 Competition is limited to just 75 cars in the UK, bidding farewell to the B9 generation with devil-in-the-detail software and hardware tweaks, chief among which is the option of low-riding, manually adjustable, coilover suspension. You might remember it from evo 314, when it squared up to the BMW M3 Touring. 

> BMW M3 Touring review

While the current RS4 is reaching the end of its life cycle, the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio is gearing up for the twilight years of its own run with a 2024 model year facelift. Like its Stelvio Quadrifoglio SUV sister tested on page 24, it’s been given new headlights, a 10bhp power bump, an interior spring-clean and a new mechanical limited-slip diff. The Giulia Quadrifoglio now starts from £78,195, while the RS4 Competition is £84,600, an increase of around £11,600 over the regular RS4. Tomorrow morning we’ll bring the two cars together. But first the prologue: the journey home in the Audi, and my first miles behind the RS4 Competition’s Alcantara-trimmed wheel. 

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I’ve just returned from an overseas launch, swapping from the Fast Fleet 911 GTS into the Audi after hacking up from Heathrow on a wiggly reroute around closed roads. It’s late, I’m tired and slightly wired, my mind partly on the writing I didn’t quite manage to finish on the plane, and I just want to get home. Perfect RS4 conditions, in other words. Roads mostly empty barring a few dawdling cars. Cold tarmac. Heated seats on. The B9 RS4 has always been an easy – and very swift – car in which to make fatigue-busting progress. Just not a hugely involving one. 

A few hundred metres into the journey, it’s clear this RS4 is cut from different cloth. The ride is purposeful. Even after the 911, it feels like a particularly firm car. A far from uncomfortable one, though: such is the quality of the body control, the dexterity with which it deals with bumps, that it’s not a harsh experience. You feel connected to the road but in a supple, controlled way; a skier absorbing moguls rather than a toboggan bouncing over them. The new springs bring a significant increase in stiffness, and the anti-roll bars are thicker too (contributing to around 20 per cent increased stiffness at the front and 30 at the rear).

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Perhaps that, together with the standard-fit Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres, is a contributing factor to surprise number two: actual steering feel. UK-spec RS4 Competitions have a fixed steering ratio rather than the variable dynamic steering Audi often applies to its performance cars. Feel and feedback through the slim (by modern standards), nicely contoured steering wheel is genuinely superb.

Surprise number three: a bit of experimentation through the first couple of roundabouts and the Competition pivots into mid-corner oversteer; not under power, nor with an emphatic lift of the throttle, but through the natural balance of its chassis (cold tyres and tarmac notwithstanding). While the B9 RS4 isn’t a nose-led understeerer as some stereotypes suggest, oversteer is normally a fair way down its menu, in relatively small script. The Competition is clearly happy to go off-menu. It’s a very good first impression.

The next morning, photographer Dean Smith, contributing writer Antony Ingram and I turn our heads in unison when staff writer Sam Jenkins pulls up at our meeting point in the Etna Red Alfa, its V6 ticking over with a dull rasp. It definitely looks the part.

Its ‘3+3’ graphic headlights – first fitted to the limited-run 100 Anniversario special edition in 2023 – are part of the facelift, along with a choice of new finishes for the gorgeous phone-dial-meets-flower-petal wheels, but otherwise the Giulia looks the same as it always has. No bad thing. Antony says the lights remind him of the old Alfa SZ, a link I hadn’t spotted before. They’re fully adaptive LED matrix lights, which means in theory you can set-and-forget the Giulia to main beam at night, if you trust such systems. The Audi, too, has similar LED matrix headlight tech.

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In fact both cars look pretty mouth-watering. The sunlight picks out purple overtones in the Audi’s crystal-effect Sebring Black paint (all UK-bound Competitions are available in any colour you want, as long as it’s Sebring Black), and the matt carbonfibre finish for its front splitter, lower rear bumper and mirror caps looks subtle rather than showy. The Competition’s milled wheels look fabulous too (and are reportedly around 2kg lighter each than the RS4’s standard rims; that reduction in unsprung mass, together with standard carbon-ceramic brakes, no doubt playing a part in its ride quality). Sitting Super Tourer low on its suspension (which can drop a further 10mm for a track set-up, if you wish), it’s almost difficult to fit your hand between tyre and wheelarch, making its ride quality all the more impressive. Yet the Alfa is every bit its equal for visual drama.

Also part of the Quadrifoglio’s update is a refreshed interior, with four switchable displays for the updated TFT instrument screen and new open-weave, rough-to-the-touch carbonfibre trim applied pretty much everywhere. I’m not a fan of the latter – I think it looked nicer, and felt more expensive, before – but the Alfa’s cockpit is still a very special place to be. All the more so for the view ahead over its low-set dash, the visible weave along the trailing edge of the carbon bonnet a constant reminder that you’re driving a car far from the ordinary.

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As is the way the Quadrifoglio drives, full stop. There’s an eagerness to its responses, and a litheness to its movements. Sam comments immediately on how strikingly fast its steering is; as with a Ferrari, you drive with tiny inputs to the wheel and it takes some time to adapt to – not helped necessarily by the slightly incongruous lightness of the power steering. It’s a bit like picking up a hefty wooden baseball bat and finding it feels like a carbonfibre badminton racquet. But once you’re fully tuned into it, the feeling of responsiveness it imbues the Quadrifoglio with is fantastic, and a big part of its character. 

As before, there are three drive modes via the ‘DNA’ twist switch: Dynamic, Natural and Advanced Efficiency (previously labelled All-Weather). While the Audi’s suspension is fixed (unless you use its supplied tool kit), the Alfa rides on adaptive dampers and you can ramp through different levels of firmness on the move. Natural mode is smooth-riding and the Giulia still possesses a fair bit of body movement for a car of this level of performance, even though part of its 2024 update includes slightly thicker, stiffer rear anti-roll bars. Some of the settings from 2021’s Giulia GTA have been mapped over, particularly the specific tuning for the electronically controlled dampers.

In its softest setting it’s almost a little too loose-limbed on fast but bumpy roads. The Audi’s body control is more together on its trick suspension (adjustable for high- and low-speed compression, and low-speed rebound). Dynamic mode, conversely, makes the Giulia’s dampers unyieldingly firm; Race mode (which, as before, turns off the stability and traction control) firmer still. But there’s still a separate damper button on top of the switch. Press it while in Dynamic and it gives you back the softest setting; press it in Race for a ‘mid’ setting.

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Driven gently around town, the Giulia is actually a docile, relaxing car, absorbing bumps sweetly, its twin-turbo V6 easy and tractable (despite somehow squeezing 513bhp from 2.9 litres), its transmission slurring smoothly between ratios – like the RS4, the Alfa uses an eight-speed torque converter. Away from town, however, it shows its full character and bandwidth of ability.

Straight-line performance is truly explosive, the V6 taking on an urgent second wind and more metallic note in the higher reaches of its rev range. Although peak torque of 442lb ft is available at 2500rpm, peak power is at 6500rpm. In Dynamic mode, shifts thump through the transmission abruptly (perhaps, you sense, for effect as well as for speed) and they’re snappy in Race – which adds shift-up lights to the new digital dash display while you change gears manually via the big, blade-like metal shift paddles. Never mind supersaloon, this feels supercar-quick.

But corners are always more fun than straight lines, and that’s where the Giulia’s biggest mechanical change comes to the fore. In place of the electronic torque vectoring system, there’s a mechanical limited-slip differential (with carbon friction clutches), which offers two big advantages over the old e-diff. The first is that it’s no longer fallible to overheating issues; the old system was wont to light up the dashboard with warnings after a few laps of a circuit and needed cool-off time to continue. The second is precision at the limit. You can get on the power early (on fresh tyres, at least) and it hooks up progressively and cleanly. Even when the roads become greasy after a cloudburst, the rear axle gives you confidence. It responds in the same way, time after time, and you trust it. More than ever, the Giulia is a steer-from-the-rear kind of car.

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‘I can’t think of a more docile or less intimidating 500-horsepower car,’ Antony says. ‘It’s so easy to meter out exactly as much power as you want, with no nasty spikes in delivery.’

Less confidence-inspiring is the brake pedal feel: Sam’s not a fan, and neither is Antony, though he notes it’s improved since the original Quadrifoglio. ‘They’re nowhere near as grabby as before at low speed and the pedal seems to have a more consistent feel when working them a bit harder too,’ he says.

Final ingredients in the Quadrifoglio’s 2024 facelift are updated driver assistance systems, including active cruise control and lane-keeping tech; you can opt out of some of those systems by avoiding the ‘ADAS Level 2’ pack.

Hopping back into the Audi’s cabin, there are no prizes for guessing that it feels a notch or two up from the Alfa in terms of fit, feel and finish, though the A4/RS4 interior which once felt quite advanced now feels old-hat. Not in a bad way: physical air-con controls, calm graphics, calm ambience. I like it.

The pair’s engines are within a few cc of one another and have near-as-dammit the same peak torque, though the Audi’s is spread more broadly all the way from 1900 to 5000rpm. Yet there’s a 69bhp power differential: 444bhp in the Audi plays 513bhp in the Alfa. Not that that matters on the road; both are so quick you’d very rarely be able to use their entire envelope of performance. The Alfa limits its torque delivery noticeably in its first two gears in Natural and, to a lesser extent, Dynamic modes. In Race, the shackles are off and it’s possible to light up the rear tyres all the way into third.

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Refreshingly, Audi’s Competition package doesn’t add extra power: its remains as it was when this generation of RS4 was launched more than six years ago. The transmission, engine and stability control and ABS mapping have all been altered, however, as has the Dynamic mode calibration for the torque-vectoring rear diff (the tech the Alfa has eschewed for its new mechanical diff, though it retains torque vectoring by braking). As well as the usual Comfort, Sport and Dynamic, there are further RS modes, with short-cut buttons on the steering wheel to save your favourite settings for diff, steering, engine and transmission maps, and exhaust sound. 

The softer tyres and revised gearbox programming get the all-wheel-drive Competition from zero to on-paper 62mph two tenths quicker than the standard RS4 – though Alfa claims the exact same 3.9-second time for the rear-drive-only Giulia Quadrifoglio. No doubt its lighter kerb weight – a claimed 1660kg versus 1745kg for the Audi – plays a part. Alfa claims 50:50 weight distribution, and that’s exactly how it feels – balanced. It changes direction more keenly in fast S-bends than the RS4, too.

‘However much it actually weighs when you stick it on some scales, I don’t think any other car of this type feels so light on its feet,’ says Antony. ‘Its responses have the feel of a much lighter car. It feels smaller on the road than the Audi, too.’

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Naturally, a RWD saloon is always going to feel different from an AWD estate car. (A Giulia Sportwagon estate, incidentally, was cancelled at the drawing board stage for fear of cannibalising Stelvio sales: feel free to draw a dotted line joining the Alfa’s bootlid to roofline in these pictures to visualise the super-estate twin test that sensible product strategy has denied us all.) But the RS4 Competition really does come closer to the Giulia Quadrifoglio for involvement and satisfaction than one might expect.

The RS4 lost out to the M3 last time too, but don’t take two losses in two tests the wrong way – this is a great car. In terms of feedback and enjoyment, it’s a world away from the original B9 RS4 I drove on its launch in 2018. Audi Sport has unlocked its potential just as it finishes its run.

Happily, the Giulia Quadrifoglio will be around a little longer, and Alfa insiders hint that its V6 may even survive into the Euro 7 era. The next Giulia and Stelvio will be pure electric cars, in line with Alfa’s policy of zero tailpipe emissions from new vehicles from 2027 (though they will feature Quadrifoglio versions, too). 

Meanwhile, the current car continues as a legend in its own lifetime. Its skunkworks-team, race-against-time roots are already the stuff of folklore and it’s still a uniquely charismatic car to drive. The new diff only enhances its abilities. 

I’d love to own the Audi: there’s a space for an RS4 Competition in my imaginary Lottery garage. But it would need to have a wild sports car or two alongside it. The Alfa can be a saloon and a wild sports car in one. It can thrill in ways the RS4 – and most other cars – cannot, and it now has added traction and precision to complement its wild side.

 Audi RS4 Avant CompetitionAlfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio
EngineV6, 2894cc, twin-turboV6, 2891cc, twin-turbo
Power444bhp @ 5700rpm513bhp @ 6500rpm
Torque442lb ft @ 1900-5000rpm 442lb ft @ 2500rpm
Weight1745kg 1660kg
Power-to-weight259bhp/ton314bhp/ton
TyresPirelli P Zero CorsaPirelli P Zero
0-62mph3.9sec 3.9sec
Top speed180mph191mph
Basic price£84,600£78,195

This story was first featured in evo issue 321.

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