Driving Alfa’s First Modern SUV
They named this car the Stelvio. The Stelvio Pass on the Italian/Swiss border is one of Europe’s highest and most visually memorable mountain roads. In winter it’s slippery; at any time, it’s a cascade of hairpin corners. It’s a good name for an AWD vehicle with sporty pretensions. Except if you ever drive the Stelvio, you’ll likely be stuck behind a crawling tourist bus. But let’s not allow dull reality to obscure Alfa Romeo’s extravagant sense of romance.
We won’t make a fuss that Alfa Romeo has just started with SUVs. Launching SUVs is just what you do if you’re a premium sports company that wants to stay in business. (Anyhow, trivia fans, it isn’t quite Alfa’s first utility vehicle. There was a Willys-Jeep-like scout car known as the Matta in the early 1950s.)
More interesting is that Alfa Romeo has just started making good cars of any kind. Before World War II Alfa was the pinnacle of both racing and luxury, the equivalent of today’s Ferrari and Rolls-Royce combined. But it was a long slide down, and since the 1990s its cars have been ridiculously patchy. You really don’t need to feel deprived that it has absented itself from the North America during those years.
Now we have the Giulia, and we know how good that is. Was it a freak, or can Alfa repeat the trick and build a range of strong players? Stelvio and Giulia sing off the same song sheet, using the architecture named Giorgio, unrelated to anything from Maserati or anywhere else in FCA.
The body is rich in high-strength steels. Bar the roof, the whole skin and the suspension are aluminum. The prop shaft is carbon fiber no less. The suspension is a control-arm setup at the front, with multiple links abaft.
I’m at Alfa’s factory under Monte Cassino near Naples, Italy. It’s not actually a new site, but it has been rebuilt and is totally new inside. I’ve just had a tour, and it sure looks like a place capable of turning out high-quality cars. A Stelvio is outside, and I itch to jump in and drive. Except I bump into Alfa’s chief engineer, ex-Ferrari genius Roberto Fedeli, and ask about his aims for the Stelvio.
It’s supposed to feel like a car not an SUV. (Indeed there was supposed to be a Giulia wagon, but they cancelled it when they realized how carlike the Stelvio was turning out.) Critically, the height of the seating position relative to the roll axis is the same in the Stelvio as the Giulia.
You sit 7.5 inches higher in the Stelvio versus the Giulia, this being the result of raising the floor 2.8 inches via chassis mods, taller tires, and setting the seat 4.7 inches higher off that floor. The front tread is also about 2 inches wider, thanks to longer suspension arms.
Although Alfa got its initial splash by unboxing the Instagram-magnet 510-hp Quadrofoglio edition at the L.A. show, the first Stelvio to go on sale is the 280-hp four-cylinder. It’s a 2.0-liter job with Multiair fully variable valve timing and lift. Downstream of the flywheel, we find ZF’s industry-straddling eight-speed.
Along the road, it’s a fine engine. The Stelvio is light for its class, and 280 bhp is strong for a four-pot. The little pistons—it’s only a two-liter—reciprocate as smoothly as you like, heading to the 6,000-rpm limiter with keen abandon and an engagingly fizzy timbre. Clearly you need lots of boost to get that power out of such a small engine, but it’s well calibrated and arrives with tidy manners.
Slowing down is equally strong but less well mannered. Alfa claims a breakthrough braking system that more closely integrates the electronics and hydraulics. It’s supposed to shorten stopping distances. We’ll see when we test it. But it also makes it infuriatingly difficult to be smooth in the sub-5-mph (sub-8-km) region, turning stop-start traffic into a jittery mess.
The steering is high geared, which is great for the twisty mountain road up to Monte Cassino’s spectacular monastery. High-geared but not twitchy, it cruises the autostrada in calm stability. But whatever you ask the steering to do, you first have to squeeze through a thin rubbery wrapping. It significantly erodes Alfa’s talk of sportiness.
The Stelvio sure grips in the bends and resists body sway and understeer gamely. But there’s not quite the subtle interaction between throttle, steering, and trajectory that characterizes a Porsche Macan. The center differential sends nearly all torque to the rear on straights then divides it more equally when slip is detected. It feels like that process begins early.
The ride isn’t as plush as a Mercedes GLC. It swallows big undulations better than most but can send a shock upwards on sharp surface changes, followed by a fluttery turbulence.
OK let’s back up here. If the handling isn’t far off a Porsche and the ride not tragically far behind a Mercedes, maybe the Alfa is a finely judged compromise. But it isn’t the engaging and sporty chassis Alfa people say it is nor that the engine deserves.
Alfa is playing it very straight here. It’s proving it can get the basics right, so a more involving setup can be released on a later tune. And the basics are well sorted. The suspension is well balanced, the behavior is free of surprises even under severe duress, and the body shell always feels very rigid.
Inside, too, it’s about getting the underlying stuff right. Quality comes first: complication will be later. Almost everything is well made and feels solid. The biggest departure from the premium-car norm is the shortness of the optional equipment menu. Semi-autonomous emergency braking is standard, and blind-spot warning and follow-to-stop cruise are options, at least in Europe. But you can’t have any system that overlays an autonomous input over the steering—it’s lane departure warning, not lane keeping assist.
There are no massaging seats, reconfigurable main instrument TFTs, complex connectivity systems, or electric sunshades. Even Apple CarPlay and Android Auto remain on the to-do list. It feels like a simpler age. One mercifully free of distractions, it has to be said.
It’s a rather beautiful cabin, too. The styling inside, as outside, is curvier and more finely elegant then most rivals. It’s also roomy, with decent rear space and a bigger trunk than the compact dimensions might suggest.
A first-effort SUV from an Italian startup? You might have been expecting over-ambitious flamboyance and a certain flakiness. Instead, you get the solid basics. There might be unnecessary romance in the name Stelvio, but the vehicle is well grounded.