BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Maserati, Jaguar and Bentley. All marques with a rich heritage in motorsports. All of them now producing SUVs, many of which are in such demand they break records as the fastest-selling models for their respective brands.
The latest to hit the road is the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, a close match for size with the BMW X3, Audi Q5 and Jaguar F-Pace, and a key weapon in re-establishing the brand in North America. Named after one of the most evocative driving roads in Europe: the Stelvio Pass – a route that reaches an elevation of 2757 metres and contains 75 hairpin bends.
It will arrive in the UK in September 2017, and arguably is the most crucial model for Alfa Romeo’s future success.
There must be traditionalists who resent the fact that a marque like Alfa Romeo has entered the SUV sector to compete with premium brands, but rather than it being merely a pragmatic decision to create growth, bosses were keen to ensure the Stelvio looks and feels very much like an Alfa.
The Stelvio arrives a few months after the Giulia saloon, and shares its basic structure and technology. This is positive news as the Giulia is a well-rounded and competent alternative to cars such as the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Jaguar XE. The big challenge for Alfa is creating an SUV that does meets the expectations of new customers, as well as remaining true to Alfa’s traditional values.
The Stelvio that made its debut at the Los Angeles auto show in November 2016 was the high-performance Quadrifoglio, using a 510 horsepower turbocharged 2.9-litre V6 also found in the Giulia. This was nowhere to be seen on our test drive, with a choice of 210 hp 2.2-litre diesel or 280 hp 2.0-litre petrol variants, both with all-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic gearbox as the only transmission option. There would be niche interest in manual versions in any case.
Visually, the Stelvio is clearly related to the Giulia, despite its extra height. A short front overhang and long rear overhang are in keeping with saloon or coupe proportions, although both the front and rear tracks are wider, giving it a more purposeful stance, and the wheelbase is an identical 2820 mm.
The latter puts the Stelvio slightly ahead of the Q5 and X3, and a little behind the GLC and F-Pace, although the interior is spacious enough for four adults in comfort, or five a bit more intimately. The minimum boot capacity of 525 litres is pretty good, while the Stelvio’s maximum towing capacity of 2300 kg for the Q4 models we tested is also competitive.
How does it drive?
The Stelvio’s steering is exceptionally direct, while the all-wheel drive system has a rear bias, with up to 50 percent of torque being sent to the front wheels when required for extra traction. It felt razor sharp on the twisty alpine roads of our test route, easily dispatching repeated hairpin bends with barely half a lock of steering and an impressive lack of body roll.
The eight-speed automatic transmission and flat torque curve of the 2.2-litre diesel (more than 331lb ft of torque is available between 1500 and 3000rpm) ensured it almost catapulted along the next straight stretch of asphalt. The engine is perhaps a little noisier than four-cylinder diesels in the X3 and Q5, and the gearbox does like to ensure it holds a low gear for safety when heading downhill, with the resultant intrusion wishing a little more sound insulation was used.
Although most Stelvios sold in the UK will be diesels, petrolheads will want to know the 280 horsepower petrol engine doesn’t disappoint for performance with 0-62mph in 5.7 seconds. But it doesn’t sound particularly special unless it’s at high revs – and with the low-down pulling power of the turbo, there isn’t really much need to go chasing the red line.
At higher speeds, the Stelvio remains exceptionally composed, resisting the urge to lean away from bends when cornering. The ride is on the firm side, and we wonder how this will feel on UK roads compared with the generally smoother ones on our test route.
Like all Alfas, the Stelvio comes with the ‘DNA’ system, which modifies the car’s responses and behaviour. ‘D’ stands for dynamic, creating a more acute steering and throttle, as well as less intervention from the electronic systems. ‘N’ is for natural, although the car feels lively enough even in this default mode. ‘A’ now stands for advanced efficiency (it used to mean ‘all weather’ when Alfa launched the system on the Mito and Giulietta), which maximises energy savings. We don’t imagine any Stelvio driver would be too concerned with this mode.
Should I buy one?
Equipment levels are decent – the entry-level car has a 6.5-inch dashboard screen, DNA system, a central TFT info screen between the speedometer and rev counter (no fancy Audi-style digital instrument screen here), and start button on the steering wheel. Alloys are 17-inch on this model, with fabric seats, although safety systems include lane departure warning, forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection.
Higher versions come with xenon headlights, larger wheels, part-leather or leather seats, and other features. There are two main option packs – luxury and sport, both offering full leather but with different front seat designs, while the former offers wood dashboard and door inserts with the latter providing aluminium. The Stelvio also comes with business specific grades (tailored to different markets), to appeal to company car choosers.
Prices will be revealed later in the year – expect a UK debut at Goodwood Festival of Speed – although we expect cars like the Audi Q5 and Jaguar F-Pace to be in Alfa’s sights.
There have been a number of false dawns for Alfa Romeo. The 156 in 1997 was an exceptionally competent and likeable car, let down by questionable reliability and a poor dealer network. The 159 that followed it looked good, and was a better car than its predecessor on paper, but didn’t have the same zest. The Mito and Giulietta, although long in the tooth, have proved that modern Alfas can have lasting appeal, and evidence shows that both reliability and dealers have improved.
Alfa knows how critical this latest generation of models is, and with parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles taking the tough decision to restrict the Lancia range to one model for the Italian market, the price of failure could be fatal. The Stelvio needs to be a runaway success. Fortunately, it seems to have the ingredients to succeed, and there are enough drivers out there in other cars who have a little benzina running through their veins.