The fact that Alfa Romeo still exists at all is something to celebrate, but when it also produces cars that not only look great but drive well enough to compete against the big boys, it warms the hearts of car lovers the world over. With the Giulia, Alfa showed that it could keep up with the Germans in the sporty sedan market while also producing a car that looked good doing it.
With the Stelvio, Alfa Romeo is trying to bring its customary Italian style and driving pleasure to the world of SUVs. Alfa's first attempt to break into this market comes at a time when it seems like no manufacturer's lineup is safe from the addition of a sport utility vehicle. Certainly for Alfa Romeo -- which stands for romantic notions of motoring and has historic motorsport heritage from the world of Formula One, the Mille Miglia et al -- it would seem uncharacteristic to produce anything as uncouth as an SUV.
Alfa Romeo, however, maintains that its driving quality and heritage as a brand will remain intact, and that this will feel every part as special to drive as even the most staunch Alfista would expect.
Bold claims indeed.
To achieve this, Alfa has equipped the Stelvio with a 280 horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, a ZF 8-speed gearbox and a sophisticated suspension setup. In addition the all-wheel-drive system will, in most cases, send all of the power to the rear wheels. The end result is a car that has enough power to feel sporty, if only just, and a transmission that gives you sharp ratio changes. It corners flat and handles like it's rear-wheel-drive.
Weight saving plays a big part in this. Heavy use of aluminum for the engine, suspension and body panels as well as a carbon fiber drive shaft have kept the weight to a minimum, which is what allows the car to get away with modest horsepower, bringing it to 62 in 5.7 seconds.
Out in the Italian Alps, the conditions were challenging enough to make use of the Stelvio's ability to switch from all of the power going to the rear, to sending up to half of it to the front, seamlessly. In a fraction of a second the engagement of a rear-wheel-drive ride, switches to the security and confidence of AWD and back, without the driver ever really having noticed. The fact that the car isn't careening down the side of a mountain is the only indicator that anything happened at all.
This allows a combination of driving enjoyment and security that permitted me to give it the beans around cinematically stunning mountain passes. The clever suspension set up allowed for a relatively compliant, if a little firm, ride on the straights. But, in tight turns where you could forgive a top-heavy SUV from leaning a little, the Stelvio held its ground and held it remarkably flat.
The ZF gearbox, which in every other car works incredibly well, seems to have been meddled with slightly in the Stelvio. Let the car shift for you and the logic behind gear changes, or the apparent lack thereof, seems questionable. Take manual control over the gears, though, and the paddle shifters let you exploit every last revolution of the engine, adding a level of engagement to the drive that helps preserve a sporty character.
Combined, all these attributes can help you forget the size and shape of the car you're driving and focus on the driving itself.
The cabin certainly helps with this. Simple, uncluttered, bordering on barren, there is a distinct lack of buttons and switches to fiddle with. There is a 14-speaker Harmon Kardon stereo available, and you are going to want to keep the volume cranked up. This is because the engine sounds like a diesel van, long past its best, despite its willingness to play sporty. Under load, the engine sounded terrible, but decent noise deadening makes it tolerable most of the time.
Styling wise, the Stelvio sticks to Alfa's new design language, and will be instantly recognizable. Its soft, curvy body makes it a less aggressive alternative to certain testosterone-laden models in the sector. The rounded front with unmistakable Alfa hallmarks lead around to a voluptuous body that still manages to look compact. Short overhangs at the front and rear contribute to that. With exactly the same wheel base as the Giulia, the Stelvio doesn't feel as large as some SUVs, but it doesn't sacrifice on interior space.
Overall, the Stelvio was able to capture most of an Alfa's driving pleasure. The package might not be every Alfista's preference, but it retains enough flair to be attractive. More importantly, if the Stelvio and Giulia can make it onto enough driveways, Alfa Romeo might be able to get back to the types of cars we all want to see it make. And for that reason alone, this car should be welcomed with open arms. The fact that it's also a decent ride that's nice to look at is just a bonus.