Finding Middle Earth in Japan in an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

09/20/2020
Ken Saito

It was supposed to be a great day.  I had been monitoring the weather forecasts all week.  And the day I was supposed to take the best sports sedan on sale right now – the magnificent Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio – to one of the best roads in Japan was supposed to be perfect.  The road in question is the Venus Line in Nagano Prefecture, a good 125 miles west of Tokyo.

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Photo: Ken Saito

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Photo: Ken Saito

Billed as a ‘scenic driving route’, the Venus Line is one of Japan’s most well known day trip destinations for its stunning views.  Normally we would’ve been treated to picturesque scenes of lush green rolling hills and alps dominating the view out the windscreen.  And furthermore on a nice day, a postcard perfect sight of the lake.  But not today…instead we got rain, fog, and even more rain.

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Photo: Ken Saito

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Photo: Ken Saito

Nagano is one of my favorite areas in Japan for its stunning scenery and relatively close distance to Tokyo, making it the ideal area for a day trip.  I had first heard about the Venus Line as it was used for the Rally Nippon route a couple years back.  I remembered seeing photos from there and couldn’t believe it was in Japan.  It looked more like the UK or New Zealand than Japan, which brings me on nicely to the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio.

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Photo: Ken Saito

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Photo: Ken Saito

My first car was my mom’s old Alfa Romeo 156 V6.  I got that car after passing my driver’s test and absolutely adored that car.  From a monetary point of view, a 20-year old Alfa Romeo sedan with 100,000 miles is worthless to most; but to me, that car had plenty of sentimental value.  All the road trips we took around the South Island of New Zealand when I was a kid, driving that car from Christchurch up across the Cook Strait onwards to Wellington for university, and of course all the great driving roads I discovered in it, made it all the more special to me.  That’s why I fought tooth and nail to keep it in storage while here in Japan.

So when the opportunity presented itself to drive what’s essentially the modern day version of the car I had in New Zealand, I wanted to take it to the most Middle Earth looking area that I could think of – Venus Line.  Unfortunately, the weather was also quite Kiwi and unpredictable.

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Photo: Ken Saito

Upon arrival at the base of the Venus Line, the weather was overcast skies.  It was also a long weekend which resulted in more traffic than I had expected.  I wasn’t worried too much as the road stretches further up ahead, reaching a peak of around 6500 feet above sea level, to where there’s be plenty of opportunity for spirited drive and breathtaking views.  Except there wasn’t today.

The rain only got stronger; and the higher up the road I went, the foggier it became.

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Photo: Ken Saito

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Photo: Ken Saito

Eventually, the road did clear up as other drivers sought refuge from the rain and rested in the various parking areas scattered up the road.  Putting the Giulia Quadrifoglio’s drive mode selector in ‘Dynamic’ to have the sportiest setting with ESP on, it was time to see how much fun Milan’s answer is to the BMW M3 and Mercedes-AMG C63.

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Photo: Ken Saito

Powered by a 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6 engine that can trace its roots back to a Ferrari V8, there’s 503hp and 443 lb-ft of torque on offer.  0-62 mph is done in 3.9 seconds with a top speed of 191 mph.  More than enough on a wet mountain road.

This engine is an absolute peach and loves to rev.  Get it up to its redline and you’re treated to an ear-pleasing note.  Hit the right column-mounted paddle shifter and you can do it all over again.  The paddles on the Giulia are worth it alone to get one over a BMW or AMG.

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Photo: Ken Saito

You’d expect on conditions like this, the Giulia would be compromised – certainly in a M3 or C63, the back end would be more lively than an over excitable puppy.  But that wasn’t the case in the Giulia.  It kept its rubber planted on the tarmac despite the wet surface.

The steering was sublime.  It’s got such a playful nature, and the typically quick Italian steering was full of feel.  You could point it at exactly where you want it to go, and it’ll just dart there like an Italian mosquito.

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Photo: Ken Saito

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The chassis is the best in its class.  It’s unmistakably rear-biased but without all the pants-browning skittishness you’d get from Munich and Stuttgart.

This was perhaps one of the heaviest rains I’ve ever experienced while on a road like this, but the Giulia kept its composure.  The only thing hampering any sort of fun was the fog.

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Photo: Ken Saito

Luckily, once we got past the peak and onto the flatter highlands part of the Venus Line, the weather calmed down and I was then able to push the Giulia a bit more.  On roads like this and in conditions like this, I really felt like I was back in New Zealand.  Old memories started flooding back in; only this time I wasn’t in a compromised front-wheel drive Alfa, but instead in an Alfa with a fantastically balanced rear-wheel drive chassis, quick and fun steering, and confidence inspiring handling.  This was the most fun I’ve had in a four-door car in a very long time, even in tough conditions like this.

I decided to keep driving up to see what the weather was like closer to the peak.  It didn’t get better though.  In fact, the fog got so bad that I decided to go back down the same way I came up.

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Photo: Ken Saito

That turned out to be the wise decision as the clouds had cleared up down here, and it turns out I had found Middle Earth in Japan.  The view out front of the green hills and little European-looking huts looked like they were lived in by hobbits.

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Photo: Ken Saito

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With the rain taking a brief respite, it was time to get the Alfa into Race mode.  You immediately notice how its personality changes.  It becomes more vocal with the exhaust valves opened up, the engine is primed and ready to challenge whatever German cars it sees.  The gear shifts are more brutal and most important of all, ESP is switched off.  You can’t have the exhaust valves open and ESP on – it’s one or the other.  But that said, the QV even in Race mode is anything but predictable and controllable.

This was the first four-door car I’ve driven that just made me want to drive it more and more, even on roads during miserable grey days.  Any doubts I had about it not being a “proper” Alfa were quickly thrown out the window.  This thing is utterly fabulous, and I can’t imagine how great this would be on New Zealand roads.  Maybe one day…

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Photo: Ken Saito

 


Author’s Biography

Ken Saito is a Guest Writer specializing in Automobiles who resides in Japan. With a B.A. majoring in Media Studies with minors in Asian Studies and History from Victoria University in New Zealand, Ken has contributed to motoring websites like DriveLive New Zealand, CarsOfTokyo (Japan), Jalopnik (USA) and Petrolicious (USA), as well as magazines like Lords Magazine (France) and Automobile (USA).

Ken may be one of the few people to have been ‘canyon carving’ in a Cadillac SUV against a Ferrari F40…

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