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On paper, the attractive Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio and the new, funky-looking 2021 BMW M3 Competition are spun from the same bolt of carbon-weave cloth. Both cars are rear-wheel-drive, front-engine members of the compact luxury sedan segment. Each boasts a twin-turbo six-cylinder engine displacing about 3.0 liters. The Alfa and BWM share the same ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic transmission and nearly identical power outputs just a tick beyond the 500-hp mark.

Pricing—both starting and as tested—parallel each other, as well. BMW requires $73,795 for the basest of the base M3 Comp, while Alfa demands $76,095 to get things started with its arrabbiata Quad. Our test-car examples sit at a hefty $93,945 for the Italian and $97,645 for the bright yellow German, so ignite your checkbook if you want to re-create our pairing.

This comparison test is a meeting of technical equals with only a few minor exceptions, at least if you limit your afternoon reading exclusively to our spec charts that follow in this piece. In practice and on the charge, the 2021 BMW M3 Competition and 2020 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio couldn’t be more dramatically different in terms of their ethos.

The Same, Only Quicker

A portion of this perceived imbalance is objective. Before we even have a chance to weigh the sensory and tactile differences between the M3 and the Quadrifoglio, the BMW gaps the Alfa on our test track with tires ablaze and ass akimbo. In Competition form, the M3’s 502-hp engine—and the M4’s by extension—is just short of the 505-hp Alfa. But it spreads an extra 36 lb-ft of torque on its rear Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires like cold butter on toast.

The two supersedans were dead even off the line, right up to the 50-mph mark where the BMW pulled ahead by 0.1 second, and then by 0.2 second at 60 mph. The Alfa took 3.7 seconds to cross that magic 60-mph mark, while the M3 nudged ahead at 3.5 seconds. The Giulia continued to wilt under the M3 Comp’s torque-tastic hammer, with the BMW claiming a 0–100-mph scramble in just 7.5 seconds, bettering the Alfa’s quick-but-not-quick-enough 8.3-second run. The 2021 BMW M3 Competition needs 11.6 seconds to conquer the quarter mile at 125.6 mph, a 0.3-second and 5.5-mph advantage over the red Alfa.

Big Performance Needs Big Space

Big power and big performance meet big rock country: Tired of our usual vehicular stomping grounds, we put the full extent of these sedans’ trans-county capabilities to good use escaping the gravitational tug of the greater Los Angeles metroplex. For two days, the slash of jagged land bordering Death Valley and the Inyo National Forest was our playpen. The locales offered secluded mountain passes that wiggled past campgrounds, and grit-washed desert highways that speared unbroken into the horizon.

Between L.A. and this delicious wasteland is a stretch of semi-populated California highway that’s best endured rather than enjoyed, no matter how quick the car or daring the driver. A perfect opportunity to futz and fiddle with the interior accoutrement and baseline road manners. This was one of the most important parts of the test, considering these are supposed to be the do-it-all multi-tools of the performance-car pie.

Game of Carbon-Fiber Thrones

Just a few miles from our office in El Segundo, the M3 Competition already proved itself a bit of a bummer. Test co-driver and features editor Scott Evans quickly found the new 2021 M3’s hyper-aggressive seats sadistic, its user interface frustrating, and its infotainment Kafkaesque.

“These might be the least comfortable seats I’ve ever experienced in a production car, and I include every track seat and carbon-fiber bucket I’ve ever sat in,” he snipped. “If you plan to do a lot of track time with this car, maybe go ahead and get these seats, but only if you plan to make it a permanent track car or you are willing to buy a second set of normal seats for all the other times you might want to drive it.”

Fire Up a Better Grille

Your ass won’t be the only thing stunned numb by the 2021 BMW M3 Competition. When viewed directly from the front—an inadvisable activity for which we recommend wearing solar-eclipse glasses—the new M3 Competition is an astoundingly ugly car. Do you like its dorky buck teeth? Those gawping nostrils locked in a perma-sniff posture? You’re weird. Don’t even write to tell us you think we’re wrong; we’ll just laugh and tape your letter to the grille of the next G80-series M3 we find so we don’t have to look at it in its totality.

This car looks very much like someone styled a normal BMW 3 from 10,000 feet down in the ocean, then shot it to the surface where it rapidly decompressed like some sort of automotive blobfish. In our 14.7-psi sea-level world, that type of weird just doesn’t work, and no, it hasn’t improved with time since we first saw it. This styling is not growing on us so much as it is haunting our night terrors.

In contrast, the pretty-ish 2020 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio is a veritable master class in design when lined up against the German.

“I briefly considered running the M3 into the Alfa in hopes that some of the Giulia’s beauty would rub off on it, only to dismiss the idea under the rightful fear of achieving the exact opposite,” Evans said after his highway stint in the BMW.

Forgiving Past Sins

Much of our BMW complaining subsided after we slipped off the highway and planned our charge up the side of Mt. Whitney. In many ways, the new G80-generation—G80? Gee, ugly—M3 Competition feels like a tight-lipped half-apology for the rather brutish F80 M3/F82 M4 cars it replaced. Our complaints with the prior car were numerous: steering that was both cinder-block heavy and alarmingly vague, a dual-clutch transmission with chalky operation, a bind-prone rear-axle, the S55 3.0-liter engine that sounded like a brass can of rich, schnitzel-fed farts. And crucially, it delivered too much power down low, with a greasy rear end that hopped, skipped, and smoked even with careful inputs once you got beyond moderate throttle.

Naturally, the Munich Maniacs figured more power was the solution, so the 2021 BMW M3 still vapes the rear rubbers like flash paper with an absolute ripper of an engine. The new S58 twin-turbo inline-six proves that while BMW pivots toward electrification, it still has the internal combustion know-how. The 503-hp rating is merely a suggestion; it must make that much at the wheels, because this 3.0-liter pulls like something closer to 550 hp. It both feels and sounds extraordinarily power-dense, like a leaf blower hoovering up a pile of honed titanium wind chimes.

The Alfa’s 2.9-liter Ferrari/Maserati-sourced twin-turbo V-6 feels every bit of its 505 hp and 443 lb-ft—no more, no less. The initial syrup-thick charge tapers off soon after you cross the upper end of highway speeds, while returning a muted, fuzzy soundtrack rather unbefitting of its Maranello origins. It’s not an unpleasant sound, but it’s a one-dimensional blat that is drowned completely by the M3’s volcanic crackle.

Drive Mode Methods

Happily, the 2021 BMW M3 Competition drives far better than it looks, and the 2020 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio drives more thrilling than it sounds. The main event of this brief desert sojourn was an empty-ish mountain road that does a stunning Yankee impression of Italy’s Stelvio Pass. But before we could splatter the rear panels in molten rubber, we idled at the mountain’s base, twiddling with assist systems and drive modes to put both cars into their max-attack stance.

More frustrated grunts emanated from the M3’s open window while properly locking in the BMW’s drive settings for the first time. Navigating the wildly complex and counterintuitive menus, sub-menus, and sub-sub-menus was a total pain: The morphine only kicked in once our preferences were mapped to the bright red “M1” and “M2” antennae buttons jutting from the upper sides of the steering-wheel center. After that, you just toggle between the two for your desired preset mode profile.

The Alfa continued to be the Bizzarro-world alternative to the M3. It’s dead simple—too simple, really. The rotary drive-mode selector on the center console offers four choices, only two of which are noteworthy for fast driving. Like the M3 Competition, the Giulia Quadrifoglio rides on adaptive suspension. Unlike the BMW, you cannot toggle between suspension stiffness outside of their tethered drive settings.

Alfa’s Wacky Suspension Settings: Why?

The 2020 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio’s suspension is set to medium stiffness while in Dynamic mode, with the driver given the option to soften things by poking the suspension button located in the center of the drive-mode selector. We found Dynamic mode too soft, so we skipped straight to Race mode where the suspension is at its hardest, and where it can be toggled down to Dynamic mode’s middle setting for extra comfort.

Frustratingly, engaging Race mode also forces the stability control and traction-control off, so you can’t access the stiffest suspension without also running your 505-hp monster without driver aids. Fine on the track, but it’s initially frustrating and nerve-wracking on a mountain pass with unprotected drop-offs.

After just a few corners, our concerned scowls flipped into open-mouthed grins. It’s simply beautiful to drive. The steering is wonderfully delicate, giving you intimate control of the sweetest modern rear-wheel-drive sedan chassis on the market. Even with all assist systems off and a dangerously heavy right foot, the Giulia is unshakably neutral with just a smidge of understeer until you act like an absolute moron. Then, the rear swings out fluidly with all the predictability of finding a burger wrapper in a McDonalds trash can. Catch, correct, and charge hard down that straight. Too fast? Dance on the cheek-rippling carbon-ceramic brakes that gave us only the slightest bit of fade during hard back-to-back sprints. The brake-by-wire system is too touchy for smooth commuting, but the instant bite and neck-wrenching stopping power is almost worth the binarity.

This Alfa Romeo feels much like an M3 by way of Ferrari. A corny sentiment, perhaps, but it’s the best way to describe just how sweet this car slips around.

“This is a company that gets it,” Evans said. “It’s incredibly engaging to drive and draws you in with its personality. You really feel like you’re driving fast and having the time of your life.”

BMW’s Beautiful Brutality

If the Alfa is a careful caress, the new 2021 BMW M3 Competition is a dark-alley sucker-punch to the skull. If you covet outright capability, stop reading here and mark down the M3 as the winner. The G80 M3’s pace, limits, and brutal capability are fantastic; even the quicksilver Giulia fell a step behind when the BMW’s wick burned at full flame. The M3 absolutely rips up a mountain when it’s driven correctly; it’s enormously capable, more so than the Alfa.

Capable doesn’t always mean better. In sharp contrast to the prior M3’s/M4’s concrete-thick steering weight, the 2021 M3 Competition’s inputs are light as soap foam. Steering is quick and very predictable, but not great in terms of feel. In fact, the Alfa is a great example of how to do light steering without giving up too much grain. The BMW’s ceramic brakes—while potent—suffered the familiar pedal mushiness we’ve experienced in recent BMW M products. Whether the culprit is a set of slag-prone street-focused brake pads or low-temp brake fluid, modern M cars’ brakes go soggy quicker than those of its competitors’ do, particularly on those with ceramic brakes.

The M3 Competition was violence in motion through the gravel-strewn hairpins. Compared to the floor-it-anywhere Alfa, the BMW required a much, much gentler touch on the loud pedal—that is, if you followed the path of max efficiency. Unlike the Giulia, we left all of the M3’s assist systems on. If we fed more than half throttle at the corner exit, the rear-end teeter-tottered ever so slightly under the restraint of driver aids.

Even with that spooky rear torsion, the M3’s explosive forward motion remained entirely unaffected—just make sure everything is set up correctly. Driven fast in lesser modes, the BMW feels like it transfers way too much power across the rear axle, and it makes the car feel overpowered and unstable. On the other hand, set the car in the correct modes, and it puts down power incredibly well, with driver-inspiring confidence, to boot.

A Tale of Two, Er, One Transmission

Both cars provided a case study of just how far traditional automatic transmissions have come in the past decade. Again, the venerable ZF eight-speed auto is shared between the Giulia and M3, giving us a rare opportunity to experience marque-specific differences between what is essentially a shared crate of gears. We had no complaints about the BMW; shifts were snappy when we wanted them and subtle when we didn’t, and BMW’s shift logic is one of the better examples on the market. Not once did we miss the clattery old dual-clutch from the previous car, as the ZF provided all of the quick-shifting upsides with none of the loud, balky downsides.

The Alfa’s eight-speed was similarly quick-shifting, but its shift logic while in max-aggro mode was best avoided by manually shifting via the paddles or console shifter. The transmission guffawed occasionally in some of the sharper, slow corners, cutting power and limiting revs to a couple thousand below redline. No warnings flashed, so we assumed it was a bug and carried on.

BMW M3 Competition vs. Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio: The Verdict

Two cars, two personalities, one winner. In terms of raw speed, the trophy goes without doubt to the 2021 BMW M3 Competition. But if this was just a spec-panel showdown, what’s the point of all these accumulated miles? The BMW is barbarically quick by every parameter, but there’s nothing particularly joyful about the way it scours a path. It’s clinical and cold, and it spat us out at the end of the mountain road not with a “Wow!” but with a “Yeah, that’s about right” kind of reaction.

Still, if you seek a reasonably comfortable, well-appointed four-door that could moonlight as a terrestrial Mach 3 reconnaissance craft, the 2021 BMW M3 Competition is a good place to start. This assumes you can stomach its ugly mug and you leave the unforgiving seats on the shelf. A great car, a good experience.

As capable as the M3 Competition is, the 2020 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio is driving ambrosia. There wasn’t a stretch of paved road the Alfa didn’t flow down like melted garlic butter. And as the gap between the BMW and Alfa grew on the straights, so did our grin: The Alfa just gave us more room to poke and prod the Quad’s limits on our own time. The car is rewarding to drive fast, easy to drive slow, nice to look at, simple to operate, and it positively crackles with personality. A great car, a great experience.

Second Place: 2021 BMW M3 Competition

Pros: 

  • Spectacular engine with brutal power
  • Reasonably comfortable when not in most aggressive setting
  • Extraordinarily easy to drive extremely quickly
  • One of the most capable sedans you can buy

Cons: 

  • Ultra-light steering
  • Mushy brakes at times
  • Comes off as a bit joyless
  • Look at it

First Place: 2020 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

Pros: 

  • Delectable steering
  • Excellent chassis
  • Delightful day-to-day ride comfort
  • Dazzling brakes

Cons: 

  • Silly suspension settings
  • Rudimentary drive modes
  • Brake-by-wire system too aggressive for daily use
  • Engine sound could be more exciting
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS 2020 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio Specifications 2021 BMW M3 Competition Specifications
DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT Front-engine, RWD Front-engine, RWD
ENGINE TYPE Twin-turbo 90-deg V-6, alum block/heads Turbocharged I-6, alum block/head
VALVETRAIN Direct-injected DOHC, 4 valves/cyl Direct-injected DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
DISPLACEMENT 176.4 cu in/2,891cc 182.6 cu in/2,993cc
COMPRESSION RATIO 9.3:1 9.3:1
POWER (SAE NET) 505 hp @ 6,500 rpm 503 hp @ 6,250 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 443 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm 479 lb-ft @ 2,750 rpm
REDLINE 6,700 rpm 7,200 rpm
WEIGHT TO POWER 7.6 lb/hp 7.4 lb/hp
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic 8-speed automatic
AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO 3.09:1/1.98:1 3.15:1/2.02:1
SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR Multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar Struts, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar
STEERING RATIO 11.8:1 15.0:1
TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK 2.2 2.0
BRAKES, F; R 15.4-in vented, drilled, carbon-ceramic disc; 14.2-in vented, drilled, carbon-ceramic disc 15.7-in vented, drilled, carbon-ceramic disc; 15.0-in vented, drilled, carbon-ceramic disc
WHEELS, F;R 8.5 x 19-in; 10.0 x 19-in forged aluminum 9.5 x 19-in; 10.5 x 19-in, forged aluminum
TIRES, F;R 245/35R19 93Y; 285/30R19 98Y Pirelli P Zero Corsa AR Asimmetrico 275/35R19 100Y; 285/30R20 99Y Michelin Pilot Sport 4S
DIMENSIONS
WHEELBASE 111.0 in 112.5 in
TRACK, F/R 61.2/63.3 in 63.7/63.2 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 182.6 x 73.7 x 56.1 in 189.1 x 74.3 x 56.4 in
TURNING CIRCLE 37.0 ft 40.0 ft
CURB WEIGHT 3,818 lb 3,745 lb
WEIGHT DIST, F/R 53/47% 53/47%
SEATING CAPACITY 5 5
HEADROOM, F/R 38.6/37.6 in 40.6/37.8 in
LEGROOM, F/R 42.4/35.1 in 41.6/35.6 in
SHOULDER ROOM, F/R 56.1/53.6 in 56.0/54.6 in
CARGO VOLUME 13.4 cu ft 13.0 cu ft
TEST DATA
ACCELERATION TO MPH
0-30 1.6 sec 1.6 sec
0-40 2.2 2.2
0-50 2.9 2.8
0-60 3.7 3.5
0-70 4.6 4.4
0-80 5.7 5.3
0-90 6.9 6.4
0-100 8.3 7.5
0-100-0 12.1 11.3
PASSING, 45-65 MPH 1.6 1.4
QUARTER MILE 11.9 sec @ 120.1 mph 11.6 sec @ 125.6 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 99 ft 102 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.97 g (avg) 1.03 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 24.0 sec @ 0.82 g (avg) 23.8 sec @ 0.85 g (avg)
TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH 1,700 rpm 1,500 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
BASE PRICE $76,095 $73,795
PRICE AS TESTED $93,945 $97,645
ON SALE Now Now
AIRBAGS 8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee 8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee
BASIC WARRANTY 4 yrs/50,000 miles 4 yrs/50,000 miles
POWERTRAIN WARRANTY 4 yrs/50,000 miles 4 yrs/50,000 miles
ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE 4 yrs/Unlimited miles 4 yrs/Unlimited miles
FUEL CAPACITY 15.3 gal 15.6 gal
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON 17/25/20 mpg 16/23/19 mpg
RECOMMENDED FUEL Unleaded premium Unleaded premium

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