People who exclaim that sexy Italian car brands should stay away from building boring SUVs are usually the ones who leap to their feet in incredulous joy when they see the final result.
The Alfa Romeo Stelvio takes the modern compact luxury crossover in all its elephantine two-box blandness and injects it with personality, verve, and panache. And although there are people haulers and people haulers that haul ass, none do the latter with such glamour as the Stelvio. Damn, this thing looks good. And I hate SUVs.
Let’s take stock: The Stelvio’s intimidating front fascia and Scudetto triangular shield communicates its business purpose in no uncertain way. The muscular and taut body-side sheetmetal looks fast just standing still. And the sculpted fastback-tapered tailgate is a bit busy but still looks marvelous. The Stelvio is what you would expect from a design studio that won’t allow function to compromise form. Never will you make an entrance in your Stelvio and have someone say, “Oh … that’s, umm, nice.” Expect gushing.
It gets better when you get inside. Sharing the Giorgio component set of the Alfa Romeo Giulia sedan—which we have loved in both base and Quadrifoglio editions—the Stelvio rides on the same 111.0-inch wheelbase but carries 1.5 inches more in overall length and about an inch more width.
The interesting thing is how the Stelvio carries this incrementally larger size. Although the Giulia rightly feels like a member of the compact sedan segment, the Stelvio carries the substantial heft of a larger crossover without losing any suggestion of a compact’s nimbleness. The Giorgio platform is rear-drive-biased and can send 100 percent of engine power to the rear axle for that energetic driving feeling but up to 60 percent to the front wheels when added traction is needed.
Over the course of a sodden, soggy day along Tennessee’s Natchez Trace Parkway and surrounding winding roads, I found the Stelvio to be a new contender for the best-handling SUV on the planet. Sure, Motor Trend recently tested top-end versions of the Porsche Macan, Mercedes GLC, and Jaguar F-Pace, which will scoot quicker, but if we’re looking at just base models, the Alfa could very well take the crown for most-fun-to-flog crossover. And just wait for the first quarter of 2018, when the Stelvio Quadrifoglio variant with its 505 hp, arrives to destroy all comers.
But back to the matter at hand. Ignoring the wishes of Sun Belt drivers and burnout-minded enthusiasts, Alfa Romeo is not offering a Stelvio rear-wheel-drive variant. Rather, every Stelvio comes with all-wheel drive, sending the longitudinally mounted 2.0-liter turbo-four’s 280 hp and 306 lb-ft through a ZF eight-speed automatic out to Continental CrossContact LX Sport 235/60R18 run-flat all-season tires. Alfa claims the horsepower and torque numbers are best in class.
But perhaps the most stunning number is the Stelvio’s claimed 0–60 time of 5.4 seconds. This blitzes the competition, many of which cannot crack six seconds, yet the Stelvio gets a claimed 28 mpg on the highway.
If there’s a drawback to the turbo-four, it’s that its revs elevate so smoothly that you will hit redline far before you think the engine should—which in manual shift mode means you’ll be banging harshly off the 5,500-rpm redline. It sounds so glorious from 3,200 rpm upward that you don’t want the aria to end, and it is rudely interrupted at that. A tragedy. But because the ZF eight-speed automatic transmission rips through shifts in less than 100 milliseconds, you’ll at least be able to grab that next cog in a hurry.
As with the Giulia, Alfa Romeo offers its DNA driving modes—for dynamic, normal, and fuel-efficient passage. But in the taller Stelvio, normal mode seems meant just for straight-line long-haul driving. As soon as the roads get twisty, normal mode’s steering feedback feels loose and sloppy. Fortunately, Dynamic mode clears that up. Although there are no actual changes to the suspension settings, you do get racier traction control response and quicker reactions from the accelerator, brakes, and steering.
As to be expected with thicker sidewall rubber, the Lusso’s 19-inch wheels provide a bit more compliance than the performance-minded 20-inchers of the Sport model. Regardless of wheel size, the double-wishbone front and multilink rear suspension proved adept to blasting the slaloming roads of the Natchez Trace well past the speed limit, shifting the Stelvio’s 4,044 pounds with minimal head toss or body roll. Both the base and stiffer Sport suspension are an absolute blast to drive on twisty roads. When was the last time someone said that about a SUV?
The anti-lock braking system—bolstering the 13-inch four-piston Brembos up front and 12.5-inch single-piston units in back—was truly impressive. Driving a desolate stretch of wet, greasy Tennessee tarmac, I performed a controlled panic stop from high speed. In most vehicles, such a dramatic event would trigger an instant and uncomfortable ka-dunk ka-dunk ka-dunk from the ABS fighting for traction. Instead, I felt zero kickback in the brake pedal as the Stelvio dove to a quick stop without fuss.
Indeed, the dynamics of the Stelvio seem more akin to a tall sport sedan than a two-box SUV. (A perfect 50/50 weight distribution and a 12.0:1 steering ratio helps.) Following that enthusiastic line of thinking, Alfa will not offer any sort of terrain-sensing system to amplify its all-wheel-drive system. While it reportedly can handle snow and other slippery stuff just fine, “We don’t see many people in the premium segment looking for off-road, though we won’t stop them from doing so,” said Pieter Hogeveen, director of Alfa Romeo North America.
So what happens when you aren’t driving some back road with your hair on fire? On those long, straight drives, just set DNA in Naturale mode, finger the precisely programmed adaptive cruise control, and cruise. It wouldn’t be Italian if it didn’t look and feel great just walking down the street.
For the U.S. model’s $42,990 base price, the Stelvio comes with an impressive list of standard features: leather seats all around, a power liftgate, 18-inch wheels, a carbon-fiber driveshaft, bi-xenon headlamps, LED rear taillamps, traction control and electronic stability control, hill-descent control, rain-sensing windshield wipers, aluminum roof rails, keyless entry with push-button start and remote start, 10-way power seats up front with 40/20/40 splits in back, dual-zone climate control, start-stop ignition, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a backup camera with rear parking sensors.
There are Sport ($44,790), Ti ($44,990), Sport Ti ($47,490), and Sport Lusso (also $47,490) grades, as well. The base model’s interior color choice is limited to black, although red, chocolate, or crema are available on certain upmarket trim levels. Moving upscale also gains access to 19- or 20-inch wheels, a sunroof, a sport-tuned suspension, a 900-watt Harman Kardon stereo, and the usual other luxury accoutrements. Sadly, those stunning aluminum paddle shifters are only available with the Sport and Sport Ti models. But it’s clear that Alfa thinks it can do a lot of damage in the segment by well-equipping its base model and undercutting its German and Japanese premium rivals on the value equation.
Inside, all soft-touch surfaces have a premium tactile feel, and the metallic accent pieces give the sensation of running your fingers over an electric shaver’s foil head. It felt supple and crisp all at once.
The Stelvio’s back seat is fairly spacious. In my personal 6-footer-behind-6-footer test, there was plenty of kneeroom, thanks to front-seat cutouts, but I barked my shins, and the footwell was just a bit cramped. Plus the sexy downward dash of the roofline meant second-row headroom began to encroach on a taller passenger. So it could be better. But it’s far from worst in class.
For technology, the infotainment system’s 6.5-inch screen comes ready for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto—although the user interface is from Magneti Marelli rather than the FCA Uconnect parts bin. I found the system relatively intuitive, though the screen graphics seemed to lack a certain sharpness compared to the Audi or BMW systems. It’s a very basic layout with a paucity of buttons and knobs in the center console, which made me wonder about wasted space when the center cubby barely fit two wallets. That’s OK, though, because there’s a larger second cubby near the driver’s left knee, which will swallow all sorts of contraband.
Gripes? A few. The engine drones a bit when cruising in the 2,500- to 2,800-rpm range. The navigation system cuts out all audio—rather than quieting it slightly—when it gives directions. The steering wheel requires manual tilt and telescoping adjustment rather than powered controls, which seems petty except that most luxury players offer it. The stop-start system is slow to react, and when it does, it’s with an unpleasant jolt (but it can be defeated, fortunately). For the tactile sexiness of the Ferrari-esque paddle shifters, the center console gearshift was plasticky and wimbly. And those paddle shifters also get in the way of activating turn signals and windshield wipers, a sacrifice I’m personally willing to accept just to run my fingers over the shifters’ luscious surfaces.
But these are minor quibbles for a vehicle that is dynamically outstanding and does a good enough job of ergonomics and features while packaging it all in a beautiful wrapper.
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