Automotive icon Alfa Romeo has awoken from its slumber. Does the new Stelvio crossover do enough to disrupt the ever-growing premium SUV market and give the German brands a fright?
If Fiat Chrysler’s mission to revitalise the storied Alfa Romeo brand is to work, the Stelvio crossover must do a lot of the heavy lifting. Vehicles like the 4C Spider may define its image as an Italian performance icon, but SUVs are what sell.
The Stelvio’s mission is clearly to broaden Alfa’s buyer base by tempting those who may otherwise have opted for a Mercedes-Benz GLC, BMW X3 or a multitude of others from brands as diverse as Audi (the Q5), Jaguar (F-Pace) and Volvo (XC60).
It’s easy to see why the Stelvio’s branding may pique interest – small wonder Alfa Romeo logos are scattered about the car like Easter eggs – but is the car actually good enough to elicit such comparisons? Mostly yes.
You’d be hard-pressed to argue that it looks the part, with smooth and sinuous styling that evokes the curvaceous ribbon of tarmac for which the Stelvio is named. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it...
Either way, the scowling headlights, flanking a signature inverted-triangle grille (necessitating the offset licence plate), sculpted bonnet, curvaceous side profile, and tapering upper body give the Stelvio a stance and silhouette as much hot-hatch as SUV.
If we’re to be pedantic, the lower portion of the rear bumper is pretty plain, and the silver exhaust pipe surrounds are actually fakes that partially obscure the smaller, genuine twin outlets. Sacrilege?
Much of this design nous carries through to the interior which, though a little sombre, couldn't be accused of being anything but handsome as well. Higher driving position aside, it doesn't feel or look very SUV-like.
The basics are well covered. The thin-rimmed heated steering wheel with a starter button below the left spoke is gorgeous, the solid column-mounted metallic paddle-shifters feel a million bucks, and the embossed leather seats are super supportive.
Infotainment comprises an 8.8-inch screen that's smoothly integrated into the fascia, rather than as a tacked-on tablet, which is controlled by an in vogue, BMW iDrive-style rotary dial flanked by two main menu shortcut buttons.
Touches we like include felt lining in the console, glovebox and door pockets, copious use of squishy plastic or leather padding on the touchpoints, and clean analogue dials with 'Giri' written on the tacho (molto autentico!) bestriding a digital info screen.
We're less fond of the plastic quality in parts; that multimedia controller and the gear stick being two examples. The overall fit and finish is decent, but closer to a mainstream marque than an Audi or Volvo. The AC/heating is also asthmatic.
Standard equipment levels are just 'okay' given the asking price of $67,900 before on-road costs, which about matches equivalent Mercedes, BMW and Audi offerings. It's clear where Alfa feels it should be positioned, as is its prerogative.
Notable features include leather seats with heating (bum-warmers up front only), satellite navigation, DAB+, electric tailgate, proximity key, auto Bi-Xenon headlights, and rain-sensing wipers.
Safety-wise, there's the de rigueur (should that be 'esigere'?) ANCAP five-star crash rating, AEB with collision alert, blind-spot monitor, audible lane-departure alert, rear camera, all-round sensors and run-flat tyres. No adaptive cruise control, though...
Our tester was fitted with a bunch of options, which in this case were bundled into a limited-run First Edition package priced at $6000 and thereby taking the vehicle price to $73,900 RRP.
Highlights of that include 'exclusive' 19-inch alloy wheels, red brake calipers, a panoramic glass sunroof, a thumping 900W 14-speaker sound system, ambient cabin lights, a heated steering wheel and privacy glass.
This package also adds all that lovely brushed-aluminium cabin trimming that provides a glamorous edge, and frequency-selective dampers built into the suspension made by Dutch supplier Koni. More on that later.
Bizarrely, the package results in the discontinuation of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which is standard otherwise. That's just plain baffling given the infotainment menus aren't particularly intuitive. You adjust, admittedly.
In practicality terms, the Stelvio won't win any awards. On one hand, the back seats are extremely supportive and rear occupants are furnished with LED lights, vents and two USB inputs, plus flip-down cupholders.
On the downside, the head room and knee room are only average, with anyone north of 180cm likely to feel hemmed in – a feeling exacerbated by the big C-pillars. If you just carry the kids, they'll have few complaints. The middle perch is almost useless.
The 525L boot (with tyre repair kit) is a smidgen below the class average, but the cargo area itself has a good pull-out cover, bag hooks, rails with adjustable tie-down points, and levers that scrunch the 60:40 back bench seat down.
Anyway, you've heard enough about the cabin. This car is called Stelvio, and what matters is how it drives! And on that count there are few foibles – none of which rear their head when you're really having a crack at some corners.
Despite sharing an owner with Jeep, the Stelvio is really just a passenger car. It's based on the same super-stiff FR platform as the Giulia, with double wishbones up front, multi-link at the rear and those auto-adaptive dampers all round.
Like any premium crossover should, the Stelvio offers adept and surefooted handling with a high cornering speed ceiling, yet at the same time offers excellent ride comfort over brittle and broken surfaces that surprised us given the 19-inch wheels.
This means it's comfortable enough in daily usage, but has the chops for a weekend blast somewhere outside the city limits. We feel the same about the Giulia. Alfa Romeo's late leader Sergio Marchionne insisted on as much from the engineers.
The AWD driveline is rear-biased, but can send half the engine's torque to the front wheels if required to stabilise the car on bad surfaces. We took on some long, fast corners on a wet Melbourne day and felt secure and planted.
Befitting its sporting bent, the Stelvio is light with a tare weight of 1620kg – that's 88kg less than the equivalent BMW X3 and about 350kg lighter than a like-for-like Mercedes GLC. Small wonder those 330mm x 320mm brakes haul you in so reassuringly.
Alfa Romeo claims to have furnished the Stelvio with the most direct steering ratio in the class, and it's evident. If anything, the steering is a little too responsive from centre, almost twitchy under small inputs. It lacks feedback, a little like the Audi Q5.
It's not getting off entirely scot-free, though. Slow, sharp turns at lock cause the 235/55 Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres to push on in undignified fashion or 'crab'. The GLC has been accused of the same, hence the mention of dynamic 'bugs' at the top. This is an unimpressive feature on any car – more so on a premium one.
The entry Stelvio range comes with two engines: an unimpressive 2.0-litre turbo petrol with 148kW/330Nm, or a more potent 2.2-litre turbo diesel as tested here with 154kW of peak power and 470Nm of torque from 1750rpm.
That outguns the Mercedes-Benz GLC220d (125kW/400Nm), BMW X3 xDrive20d (140kW/400Nm) and Audi Q5 TDI quattro (also 140kW/400Nm), and enables a sharp 0–100km/h time for an oil-burner of 6.6 seconds.
We should note that the Stelvio Ti has a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol shared with the Giulia Veloce, making 206kW/400Nm and allowing a 0–100km/h time of just 5.7sec. Then there'll be the full-fat Quadrifoglio, the fastest SUV around the Nürburgring.
The diesel is a little clattery from the outside, diminishing the sporty look when you're just idling there, but it's refined from behind the firewall and more importantly offers above-average muscularity and response. It's clearly the pick at base level.
The DNA switch near the infotainment controller lets you select the car's Dynamic mode, which sharpens up the engine, transmission and throttle tip-in calibration.
Fitted as standard is an eight-speed automatic transmission supplied by ZF, with a manual mode controlled by those gorgeous paddles (the diesel engine's circa 4500rpm redline limits the fun).
Under more intensive driving, we found the driveline pretty intuitive and shunt-free, but there were a few moments when we had the odd lurch in stop-start traffic, and the switchable auto stop/start system isn't the smoothest system going around.
Being a Euro 6d-compliant diesel, it's a comparative fuel miser. Alfa's factory claim is just 4.8L/100km, though our everyday driving returned 7.1L/100km over a 300km loop. That's still pretty respectable given we weren't going easy on it...
From an ownership perspective, the Stelvio comes with a three-year/150,000km factory warranty, and annual service intervals. At the time of writing, the company quoted prices for the first five visits of $395, $695, $1295 (!), $695 and $1395 (!!).
Right, so that's a look at the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, which is a laudable first crossover from the Italian marque. It's suitably sporty, though the Ti derivative might do an even better job than the more grand-tourable diesel.
Sure, it's not the most practical SUV out there, nor the cheapest to own and run, or most upscale inside. The Audi or Volvo eat it in that department. And those small, urban driving gremlins we flagged raised our eyebrows a little.
But to its credit it is beautifully designed, generally comfortable, relatively well priced, and as dynamically adept as the badge suggests when you feel the need for speed. More importantly, it's not a ubiquitous German offering.
More than just a badge, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio is worth a look if you like to stand apart from the mainstream, but have to at least pay lip service to practicality.
Note: At the time of writing, Alfa Romeo Australia was offering a five-year warranty (its factory three-year cover plus two extra years provided by Eric Insurance, with $99 transfer fee), and three years of free servicing.