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If looks could kill, the 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio is the sniper’s rifle of SUVs, such is its devastatingly handsome visage. Every design detail, every trim finish, every angle and flash as the light catches its sinewy body is indisputably Alfa Romeo – exactly as it should be.
Medium SUV is one of the most savagely competitive segments in the modern motoring world though, so the Stelvio also needs to do more than just look the part, it needs to be bloody good on the road, too.
The Stelvio is the highest paved mountain pass in the western alps and is famed for its sinewy switchbacks, lung-busting altitude and torturous Giro d’Italia ascents. The Stelvio is all about conquering height. It's such heights, the Stelvio in vehicular form, must now begin to summit.
We won’t be driving the Stelvio to the summit of Stelvio though, no we’re in a much more fitting SUV location…
Arriving in Belfast, we’re met with the kind of dreary, variable weather this part of the U.K. is renowned for – it changes from cloudy/sunny to torrential rain in the blink of an eye, and the slippery, twisty B roads promise to be the perfect test for Alfa Romeo’s latest salvo in its resurrection – and perhaps its most important.
You’d have to have been living under a rock for the past decade to not notice the rampant, rabid, vociferous success of the SUV brigade, European or otherwise. While the Giulia (which shares the same ‘Giorgio’ platform as the Stelvio) needed to impress for all the obvious reasons, the Stelvio must resonate with the buying public, and resonate loudly.
Thankfully, recent time spent behind the wheel of the Veloce and Quadrifoglio Verde (QV for short) variants of the Giulia have highlighted the excellence, competence, and beautifully rounded characteristics of the platform underpinning the new Stelvio. It’s a platform that is inherently well balanced, rides beautifully, delivers sporting intent and is allegedly broad enough to support numerous body styles. So we know there is latent competence there to be exploited.
As I always remind myself, styling is subjective, but this is a stunning SUV from any angle. Forget cash-grab attempts at the coupe body style – think BMW X4 and Mercedes-Benz GLC Coupe in this segment – the Stelvio almost perfectly nails the balance between SUV and sloping sedan roofline, with none of the compromises. The proportions are right, the glasshouse beautifully in tune with the sheetmetal, the styling accents and lines, the lights, and that signature grille up front – all delivered with exceptional balance.
It’s such a distinctive SUV on the road too, that those of you who like to stand out, will be drawn to its classy exterior. It doesn’t look like anything else in the segment, is more stylish and gentle in execution, arguably even more premium in essence than even the Maserati Levante. As you roll up through the model range, you’ll find the Stelvio only gets even better looking.
The cabin is another area of note. I reckon Alfa Romeo stylists have done an even more fluid job inside the Stelvio than the layout of the Guilia. I love the sweep across the dashboard, the twin binnacles above the gauges that echo Alfa Romeos of old, and the leather trim, so tastefully stitched. The soft touch surfaces feel premium too, and while the screen (or controls for that matter) aren’t the best in the segment by a long shot, they actually look more at home here in the Stelvio than they do in the Giulia.
The centrepiece of the cabin, and the driving experience, is the steering wheel, which to look at might seem a little small, but is a beautiful implement to work with. The start button, the control layout, and the trim all strike a near perfect balance between luxury and sporting pretensions. I’d like to be able to move the steering wheel further out from the dash when setting up my driving position, but I certainly wasn't uncomfortable.
Visibility is excellent and I liked the way I could drop the seat right down into the floor to get lower in the Stelvio, which suits the sporty feel of it. SUVs that you seem to sit on top of, rather than down into, are a bugbear of mine – especially if they claim to be sporty. The rear-view camera is clear too, and the proximity sensors also keep tabs on things well.
Those of you familiar with our reviews of the Giulia, will be aware of the infotainment system and how it works – at launch, we used the satellite navigation system extensively, tested Bluetooth and paired our phone to the system via USB as an audio device. The satellite navigation was fast and accurate, even when we deliberately ignored commands, quickly getting back on track with no wigging out. Bluetooth worked seamlessly too, clear and reliable, and the audio connection was likewise excellent.
Into the second row, and even with long-legged occupants up front, there’s room for two adults, or three kids across the bench. The seats are sculpted enough without being bucket-like and you can get your feet under the seat in front as well. We loaded a full-size hard case into the luggage area, along with two on-board cases and a backpack, so there’s plenty of room for a family to stow the requisite amount of gear.
At launch, we were able to sample both the 2.0-litre petrol engine and the 2.2-litre diesel. The turbocharged petrol four-cylinder generates 149kW and 330Nm and will scoot from 0-100km/h in 7.2 seconds. The diesel engine is also turbocharged and makes 156kW and 450Nm and will get from 0-100km/h in 7.6 seconds, not far behind its snappy petrol sibling.
There’s some high tech wizardry beneath the skin, not the least of which is a carbon-fibre driveshaft across the Stelvio range. The engines are both matched to an eight-speed auto, and while you can paddle shift it manually if you prefer, we found it to be snappy enough in full auto mode.
First up, the diesel and its most obvious characteristic beyond the punchy torque delivery, is how quiet and refined it is. At highway speeds, there’s almost no engine noise whatsoever, and even when you ask it to work hard off the mark, there’s barely any note to identify it as an oiler. The mid range surge is strong, as we’d expect from a diesel, and it’s a beautifully flexible engine, matched perfectly to the gearbox.
The petrol engine, while audibly more enthusiastic and not quite as effortless as the diesel, is still an option worth considering for those of you who don’t spend countless kays on the freeway or rack up bulk kays around town.
Once up to speed, it maintains highway speed easily, and it certainly doesn’t sound harsh when you work it right out to redline. You hear it working more than you do the diesel, and it tends to hold gears a little longer under part throttle, but it’s otherwise impressive in the way it gets down to work.
We expected the Stelvio to be sporty in the way it drives, but what most surprised me was how well it ‘does the SUV thing’, for want of a better term. That is, it rides and soaks up poor roads as we’d expect an SUV to, and in a way which so many European SUVs don’t.
We blasted from Belfast in the east right across to the west coast of Northern Ireland (and back) and the B roads we sampled were very much like Australia’s urban fringe. There was a mix of smooth and coarse chip, potholes, ruts, dips, and uneven surfaces, as well as plenty of standing water.
The cabin has a real solid feel to it, too. There are no noises, creaks, or looseness that translates into the seats no matter how hard the road. It’s an important part of delving on the premium sensation, that feeling of solidity, and the Stelvio does it well.
The Stelvio, regardless of engine variant or trim grade, soaks up rubbish roads with ease. The suspension never bottomed out, crashed, or found itself unsettled even over the harshest of mid-corner bumps. It's an impressive balance between sporting, which it needs to be, and comfortable, which it should be. I look forward to pitting it against the current segment leaders, but my gut instinct is that it might in fact be better than most of them.
The steering, which Alfa Romeo claims to be best in class, is sharp, precise and responsive. It matches the tautness of the chassis, and delivers as much feedback as you want without being overly twitchy or nervous. We piled into a few tight corners a little too hot on wet roads, and after an enthusiastic conversation with the brakes, you simply turn the Stelvio in and hold your line through the corner. It’s confidence inspiring and more sports car-like than SUV-like.
On the subject of brakes they, like the suspension, are excellent. We could repeatedly pull the Stelvio up on wet roads with assurance, and they bite so evenly that we never even worked ABS into the mix despite plenty of decent pedal weight when errant tractors wandered into our path on a country lane.
It remains to be seen how the Stelvio stacks up against the segment leaders when it arrives toward the end of quarter one in 2018, but on first appearance, it promises to make things mightily uncomfortable for those it hopes to outperform. The fact it looks so good is merely icing on the cake, if it is as capable as it seems on first impression.
The path that FCA will take locally when it finalises its model range is to pack as much value and equipment into each model grade as possible. As such, the Stelvio will come loaded across the range with a full suite of safety features including autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, lane-departure warning and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-path detection.
In a sea of cookie-cutter SUVs, the motoring world absolutely needs a ray of light like the Stelvio. The Giluia might have started the legendary Italian marque’s renaissance, but much weight will sit on the shoulders of this, Alfa Romeo’s first mass market SUV. I can’t wait to give it a working over when it lands in Australia.
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