“Goodie,” you were thinking, “a review of an Alfa Romeo; a nice new sports car from Alfa.” Then you looked at the pictures, and realised that the Stelvio was not what you’d hoped it would be: a new rival for the Porsche 911.
Alfa Romeo is meant to be the Jimmy Choo of the catwalk, isn’t it? Fans of the Italian car maker would probably argue that its cars should be pieces of art; beautiful and desirable enough to hang on a wall. That they should thrill and enthral a driver. And so what if they’re as highly strung as a sleep-deprived supermodel?
Then again, if you’re not a car enthusiast at heart, perhaps the Stelvio is exactly what you’d hoped for: a four-wheel drive SUV that’s Alfa’s answer to the Audi A5, BMW X3, Jaguar F-Pace and Porsche Macan.
Ah yes, Porsche. You may remember how, 15 years ago, Porsche was accused of selling out. The German sports car maker announced it would sell a 4×4 or SUV and purists scoffed at such an idea. It was like Dr Martens trying its hand at making high heels, they said.
Today, the company’s best-selling model is the Macan SUV, chalking up 95,642 sales in 2016. By comparison, the most popular sports car in its range, the 911, managed just over 32,400 sales last year.
So Alfa needs this car to stay in business. Its new boss, tough-talking Reid Bigland, says it enters what will become “the largest premium segment in the world” this year.
It has put in place the building blocks, including the Giulia saloon, reviewed here. The Stelvio is built on that car’s platform and shares its engines, transmissions and four-wheel drive system.
A Ferrari-powered SUV? Now there’s a thing… it’s only taken 30-odd years to catch up with Lamborghini’s LM002.
Initially, two models will go on sale in the UK, in September. A 2-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged petrol with 276bhp, and a 2.2-litre, four-cylinder turbo diesel with 207bhp. These will be respectively followed up with less powerful, more affordable, 197bhp and 178bhp variants, all built in Cassino, south of Rome.
Both engines will come with four-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic gearbox, and Alfa Romeo’s UK arm says it doesn’t anticipate selling a version with rear-wheel drive or a manual gearbox, because that’s not what British drivers want.
The red-blooded flagship of the Stelvio range is the Quadrifoglio version. It runs the same hardware as the hot Giulia of the same name, which can only be a very good thing indeed, including a 503bhp twin-turbo V6 that’s said to be related to the V8 used in the Ferrari California. A Ferrari-powered SUV? Now there’s a thing… it’s only taken 30-odd years to catch up with Lamborghini’s LM002.
Most drivers, however, are going to be buying the sensible diesel or petrol versions. And they’re the only models Alfa let us drive. So what are they like?
Let’s get the practical stuff out of the way first. The Stelvio makes for a surprisingly good family car. This is a pleasant surprise, as Alfas of past have had driving positions only fit for an ape, back seats fit for a chimp, interiors that felt as flimsy as an Airfix kit and buttons in places you least expected to find them – such as the electric window switches set in the roof.
The Stelvio is deeply rational – a car a family could live with without cursing it every time they had to pile aboard.
The driving position (on left-hand drive versions) is excellent, the seat’s supportive in all the right places and when set for an average-height adult there’s still plenty of leg room in the back seat. It’s even dog-friendly, with a large, flat-sided boot with 525-litres of luggage space – almost matching a BMW X3 and more than a Porsche Macan.
Okay, so the fit and finish isn’t going to give anyone at Audi sleepless nights, but then what car maker can? Only one piece of trim fell off – the bonnet release lever – but generally it’s attractive and looks well executed, if you don’t peer too closely.
The car’s name is taken from the famous Stelvio Pass, one of the highest roads in the Alps. It was chosen because the company wanted to suggest that SUVs could be exciting to drive – and as edge-of-the-seat driving experiences go, they don’t come much more spine-tingling than winding your way along the Stelvio Pass.
Does it live up to the promise of a great drive? We started with the 2-litre, four-cylinder turbo petrol version that produces 276bhp. Unlike Alfas car enthusiasts know and love, it didn’t rev very high or sound special – the rev limit was 5,800rpm, for heaven’s sake – so this is the first Alfa in which you’ll turn the radio up, not down. But with so much torque it delivers a brisk turn of pace. Acceleration to 62mph takes 5.7 seconds and the top speed is 143mph, while the combined fuel consumption is 40mpg.
It feels as though Alfa’s engineers have struck a well-judged balance between control and comfort
The Stelvio’s chassis does a good job of putting the performance to good use – and is greatly helped by the fact that this is comfortably the lightest car in its class, at 1,660kg for the petrol model. The suspension rides bumps smoothly, yet body roll is kept in check and the steering response is – as ever, for an Alfa – more direct than Jeremy Paxman.
The Q4 four-wheel drive system knows how to gives the driver a good time, sending power to the back wheels as a rule and only diverting it to the front when extra traction is required. (Alfa will offer keen drivers a rear, mechanical locking differential as an option.) And it didn’t disintegrate under duress – unlike the last all-wheel drive Alfa I tested, the 33 S Permanent 4.
Overall, it feels as though Alfa’s engineers have struck a well-judged balance between control and comfort. Alfa has set out to make a more entertaining SUV than the competition, and on first acquaintance, the Italian company has done a commendable job. The only slight fly in the ointment was the automatic transmission, which didn’t behave as smoothly as some.
The high-powered, 207bhp version of the 2.2-litre diesel engine elevates the fuel economy to 58mpg. This is a pleasingly smooth, quiet engine with even more torque than the petrol version. That torque makes its presence felt with an even bigger kick of drive to the back wheels that requires a dose of corrective steering lock on a slippery bend, when driven in ‘Dynamic’ mode. Alfa wasn’t joking when it said it wanted to create a more involved driving experience than other cars of this ilk.
To my mind, at least, the Stelvio feels like more of an accomplishment than the Giulia saloon on which it’s based. Alfa doesn’t yet have pricing for the new model, but says it will be competitive with the BMW X3, which starts at £34,400.
Drivers who approach it with an open mind will find this is the SUV that can put the fun into the school run. Skip the Pilates session and take the long way home, says Alfa.
If you don’t like the idea of an SUV, let alone an Alfa Romeo SUV, the chances are you won’t warm to the Stelvio. A lot of people felt that way about the Jaguar F Pace, but look how well that has done for the British-based car maker. If the Stelvio can do the same for Alfa, perhaps then the Italian company can set about creating the Porsche 911 rival we all want it to make.