Alfa Romeo has a lot riding on the Stelvio. It's the Italian brand's first crossover and aims to cash in on the increasingly competitive and popular luxury medium SUV segment currently dominated by the BMW X3 and Mercedes-Benz GLC.
The Italian marque has just added a new variant to the line-up – the Stelvio Ti – a sportier variant sitting between the standard model and the twin-turbo V6-powered Stelvio Quadrifoglio.
Priced from $78,900 plus on-road costs, the Ti is $5000 more than the diesel-powered First Edition launch variant, and $13,000 more than the entry-level turbocharged petrol grade. But, it's also $70,000 more affordable than the Quadrifoglio.
For the extra spend, you get the 206kW/400Nm 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine from the Giulia Veloce sedan, hydraulic 'Frequency Selective Dampers' by Koni, a rear mechanical limited-slip differential, a 10-speaker sound system, 20-inch alloy wheels, red brake calipers, and privacy glass.
There are also sports front seats with heating, a heated steering wheel, adaptive cruise control with stop/go function, along with aluminium sports pedals.
Carryover equipment from lesser grades includes an 8.8-inch navigation system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, dual-zone climate control with rear air vents, keyless entry with push-button start (on the steering wheel, no less), leather upholstery, electric front seat adjustment, rear-view camera with dynamic guidelines, Alfa's 'DNA' selectable drive modes, autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, front and rear parking sensors, lane departure warning, and hill descent control.
Our tester had several options fitted too, including a panoramic sunroof ($3120), the quite lovely Misano Blue metallic paint ($1690), an anti-theft alarm system ($975, really?!), a beefier 14-speaker Harman Kardon sound system ($1950), and a space-saver spare wheel ($390, again really?).
That takes the as tested price to $87,025 plus ORCs, which is getting up there. For not much more you're looking at six-cylinder performance models from German brands, like the BMW X3 M40i ($99,529) and Mercedes-AMG GLC43 ($103,129) – before you say "$10,000 is heaps", at this end of the market that's not that big of a gap.
At least the Stelvio stands out in terms of its looks, with a bold face inspired by the Giulia and wide haunches that give it a muscular and athletic stance.
In the eyes of this reviewer, the Stelvio is quite an attractive crossover, especially in the beautiful Misano Blue paint we had on our tester. The 20-inch star-spoke alloys fill the arches nicely and add to the sporting theme, while the angular LED lighting signatures at both ends are another point of difference compared to the Stelvio's competitive set.
The interior isn't quite as flash, though. While the Stelvio draws heavy inspiration from the related Giulia in terms of the dashboard design and layout, it lacks the visual appeal of the exterior.
Sure, opting for red or brown leather may bring some extra excitement compared to the black-on-black scheme on the vehicle you see here, but the Stelvio also lacks the high-grade finishes and ambience that one would expect of a premium SUV at this price point.
The dash and door tops are trimmed in yielding soft-touch plastics, though the highest tier has this odd overly-grainy finish that doesn't match anything else in the cabin and also looks rather weathered.
Between the door tops and leatherette door cards there are also hard, scratchy plastics that really detract from the overall feel. Additionally, the centre tunnel is lined with hard plastics that don't feel very premium, and the weird painted ornamental inserts that adorn the dash, centre tunnel and doors are a bit 'merda', as the Italians would say.
In saying that, the main touch points are all nice, with smooth leather on the steering wheel, perforated inserts on the grained leather sports seats, embossed 'Alfa Romeo' logos on the headrests, and padded leather-look surfaces for the front centre armrest and door inserts.
Speaking of the steering wheel, it's a very sporty design that mirrors that of the Giulia. The thin centre cap is flanked by slim spokes that incorporate the various multifunction controls, and it even has the start button like a race car.
Behind the steering wheel are two massive metal paddle shifters, which are nice to look at but get in the way every time you try to indicate or turn on the wipers.
There's also no head-up display or fancy digital instrument cluster like those offered in rival models – though not all will find that a bad thing.
Further to that, there's almost no indication that you're in the Ti other than the sports seats, which may prove an issue to those who are wishing to stand out from lesser models.
Hopping into the second row, the Stelvio isn't the last word in passenger accommodation. Legroom is adequate, even behind a taller driver like six-foot-one-ish me, though head room with the optional panoramic sunroof is tight, especially if you're sitting in the middle seat.
There are two Isofix child seat mounts on the outboard rear seats for the little kiddies along with three top tether points, and families can have peace of mind with the Stelvio's safety credentials – it scored an impressive 97 per cent for adult occupant protection and 84 per cent for child occupant protection in Euro NCAP testing, giving it a 2018-stamped five-star ANCAP safety rating.
Behind the second row of seating, there's 499L with the seats up, and 1600L with the rear bench folded. That's behind just about every direct competitor, meaning the Stelvio probably isn't the top choice if one of your main requirements is load lugging.
Our tester had the optional space-saver spare wheel under the boot floor, and while we lament at the $390 extra spend required to get it, it has a cool motorsport-like design. If you don't opt for the spare wheel, you get a tyre repair kit.
Anyway, let's get to the driving, shall we?
It's under the bonnet of the Stelvio Ti where the biggest difference lives – a high-output version of the company's 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine shared with the Giulia Veloce.
Outputs are rated at 206kW (@5250rpm) and 400Nm (@2250rpm), which is on the higher side for the class in terms of four-cylinder engines.
Drive is sent to all four wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission and mechanical limited-slip rear differential. It's worth noting the Stelvio's all-wheel drive system is of the rear-biased variety for a more sporting drive.
Alfa Romeo claims the Stelvio Ti can accelerate from 0-100km/h in a brisk 5.7 seconds, on its way to a top speed of 230km/h – not that you'll ever get near the latter in heavily-policed Australia.
It certainly feels pretty punchy by the seat of the pants, and the eight-speed automatic is brilliantly snappy under hard acceleration or when using the almost comically large metal column-mounted paddle shifters.
You can feel the four-pot motor start to run out of puff at the top end, though, and the transmission's abilities at the top end aren't always replicated in slow-moving traffic. At least it sounds okay, though you won't get any aural drama like pops on upshifts or overrun.
At times the Stelvio can feel a touch laggy and lethargic on take off or at low speeds, taking a moment to get you to that peak torque curve.
Other aspects of the driving experience are a bit of a mixed bag, too. The steering is very quick to respond, though it's very light and lacks feedback so you don't always feel like you have a direct connection with the front wheels.
In the bends the Stelvio feels planted and exhibits little body roll, though it can feel like it rolls a bit due to the high driving position, which kind of feels you're sitting on the Stelvio, not in it.
Because the driver's centre of gravity feels a bit higher than the vehicle's you can roll around a bit even with the heavy bolstering of the front sports seats, and this again detracts from the promised sporty drive.
Around town the Stelvio's firmer suspension tune can get a little fidgety, which became quite annoying on Melbourne's imperfection-riddled urban roads.
You are often caught bouncing around over series of lumps and bumps, and it seems to pick up any undulation on the road surface – while it's all part of the 'sporty' vibe, it may not appeal to some. We'd recommend ticking the adaptive suspension option, which commands a $2200 premium.
However, the Stelvio proved to be a pretty capable and comfortable highway cruiser, offering excellent insulation from engine, road, and wind noise at all speeds. The ride is also a lot more settled on the highway than it is around town.
The adaptive cruise control with stop/go was used quite a bit during our time with the Ti, which is a glaring omission in lower grades. It operates intuitively, recognising lead vehicles and accelerating or braking accordingly in a smooth fashion.
Despite claiming to use 7.0L/100km on the combined cycle, we could only return an indicated 10.6L/100km after more than 300km of mixed driving, though it was skewed more towards high-traffic commutes and spirited back road squirts.
In terms of ownership, the Stelvio is covered by a three-year, 150,000 kilometre warranty with three years' of complimentary roadside assistance. While three-year coverage is fairly standard for the premium segments, we'd like to see Alfa Romeo offer a better ownership program as a challenger brand.
Scheduled maintenance is required every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first. Going by the company's online service calculator, the first five visits will cost $345, $645, $465, $1065 and $345 over the course of 60 months/75,000km – a total of $2865.
That's about middle band for the class, though Alfa Romeo's local division is currently advertising three years of free scheduled servicing, which is a saving of $1455.
Overall, the Stelvio Ti is a mid-pack offering in an ever-competitive segment, made harder by the fact Australian luxury buyers are often plagued with badge snobbery.
There's also the issue of pricing: it's quite expensive despite lacking some features offered on competitors, and ticking a few options boxes will send you very close to the $100k mark on the road.
However, if you want to stand out from the crowd, the Stelvio offers head-turning looks in addition to a wide range of eye-catching colours, and there aren't too many running around at the moment, so it's quite exclusive.
Also worth noting: you could have two Stelvio Tis, or one Stelvio Quadrifoglio. What would you pick?