Alfa Romeo Stelvio

Italians deliver an SUV worthy of way more than a Pass marque

TONY O’KANE

FIRSTDRIVES

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

DESPITE demonstrating it was capable of progressive thinking back in 2003 when it unveiled the Kamal SUV concept, Alfa Romeo spent the next 13 years sitting on its hands. But now the iconic Italian brand’s first SUV, the Stelvio, is finally imminent, with a local launch set for March next year. The expectations are understandably high.

And so they should be. The arrival of the Cayenne revitalised a struggling Porsche in the early 2000s, while Jaguar – another marque renowned for swift passenger cars with no prior SUV history – has been kicking goals with the F-Pace that landed in Australia last year and quickly became its top seller. Alfa Romeo is clearly hoping the Stelvio will replicate the success enjoyed by European rivals.

It gets off to a good start.

Based on the Giorgio platform that underpins the Giulia – a Wheels favourite that’s already acquitted itself well by winning two comparos – the Stelvio’s longitudinally engined architecture has been engineered to keep weight low and dynamic ability high.

Among the mid-size SUV crowd it certainly feels like it has an athletic edge. Weighing just 1660kg in its heaviest configuration and boasting 50:50 weight distribution, the Stelvio feels light on its tyres – a lightness that’s promoted by its fastreacting steering rack (2.1 turns lock-to-lock), agile front end and good suppression of bodyroll.

A firm ride over smallamplitude, high-frequency bumps gives way to a more supple experience when travelling over longer undulations, with the Stelvio making the most of its

SPECS

Model Engine Max Power Max Torque Transmission Weight 0-100km/h Fuel economy Price On sale Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q4 1995cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo 206kW @ 5250rpm 400Nm @ 2250rpm 8-speed automatic 1660kg 5.7 seconds (claimed) 7.0L/100km $77,000 (estimated) March 2018

long-travel suspension displaying excellent rebound control from bigger hits. Our top-spec Q4 model was shod with 20-inch wheels and tyres, which may explain some of that low-speed fussiness. Opting for smaller wheels may dial that out, albeit to the detriment of aesthetic appeal.

At eight-tenths, the Stelvio drives superbly. The steering is not only quick, it’s connected to Michelins that bite the surface keenly and refuse to relinquish their grip until speeds get properly excessive.

But pushed harder at high speed on truly diabolical Irish launch roads – some of which bear a resemblance to Australia’s worst country backroads – the Stelvio’s rear suspension begins to lose its composure, frequently finding its bumpstops and bouncing out of sync with the otherwise stable front end. Adaptive dampers will be standard for the highperformance Stelvio QV in Australia but not on others.

Pedal feel from the brake-bywire set-up is also at odds with the taut chassis and alert steering, with initial dead travel followed by an abrupt engagement that’s difficult to modulate.

While the chassis turns in a mixed report card, the powertrain and drivetrain score straight-As.

The 206kW/400Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four we drove in Ireland is yet to be locked in for Australia, but it neatly plugs the gap between the low-output 149kW/330Nm 2.0-litre turbopetrol and the harder-hitting twin-turbo V6 Quadrifoglio flagship that’ll arrive in late 2018.

If the 206kW car doesn’t come our way, it damn well should.

With an incredibly strong midrange and a tacho needle that happily rotates right to 6500rpm, this four pot has the muscular feel of a much larger V6 – especially when the drive mode selector is twisted to ‘D’ for ‘Dynamic’. It sounds pretty rorty in the upper reaches of its rev range, too.

There’s a 154kW/470Nm 2.2-litre turbo-diesel in the line-up, but its gravelly note at idle and sedate power delivery don’t mesh as well with the Stelvio’s sporty nature.

Unfortunately the 149kW turbopetrol wasn’t available to test.

Regardless of which powertrain you choose, all our Stelvios will feature a superb eight-speed auto and all-wheel drive (for roughly a $7K premium over a Giulia with the same engine). And the traction provided on damp Irish roads at its launch was difficult to breach. In Dynamic mode, manual upshifts are executed with a racey ignition cut that imparts an even sharper feel to what is already a crisply calibrated transmission.

The interior isn’t quite as convincing. It certainly looks the part with a sleek Italian elegance that doesn’t stray too far from the Giulia’s cabin treatment, but coarsetextured lower dash and console plastics detract from its appeal, while a rough-edged gearshifter is a sign that cabin quality could benefit from greater attention to detail. The infotainment system also lacks the intuitiveness and slick operation of BMW’s iDrive and Audi’s MMI.

Then again, those lovely metal shift paddles are a tactile delight and encourage the use of the eight-speeder’s manual mode, while rear-seat headroom is generous, given the Stelvio’s D-pillarless glasshouse.

Rearward vision suffers due to a shallow rear screen, while the decision to eschew a more pragmatic wagon bodystyle in favour of hatchback-like proportions hasn’t eaten into luggage space, with the seats-up cargo capacity measuring an acceptable 525 litres.

The added benefit is a silhouette that sees the Stelvio stand out from the luxo-SUV crowd. And stand out it must.

This high-output turbo four has the muscular feel of a much larger V6

PLUS & MINUS

Gorgeous styling; sharp steering, great engine/gearbox combo Brake feel; road noise; taut ride on 20-inch wheels

Glass act

With all of its side glass being fixed to the doors, the Stelvio’s profile view may make it look compact, like a hatchback on stilts. It’s anything but small, however, and the optical illusion created by its D-pillarless design camouflages its true size well. In fact, at 4687mm long, the Stelvio is lengthier than the BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLC and Audi Q5 – all of which sport traditional wagon silhouettes. Only the Jaguar F-Pace and (by an even greater margin) the Range Rover Velar eclipse the Stelvio for length.

Alfa reckons the Stelvio’s daintier styling will endear it to buyers looking for something more elegant than a traditional SUV.

OR TRY THESE...

Audi Q5 2.0 TFSI Sport $73,211

Classy Q5 provides the benchmark for cabin design and finish. It also shows way forward for refinement while demonstrating excellent handling and packaging. Like the Alfa, it’s best enjoyed as a petrol.

Jaguar F-Pace 25t R-Sport $81,787

A pricey contender in the medium premium SUV segment, but packing plenty of Pommy persuasion and a sizeable interior. Its 184kW is bang on the Q5 2.0 TFSI’s output, and its handling is similarly dynamic.