ALFA ROMEO is new to the SUV game, but it leaps out of the starting blocks with a midsize crossover that sits smack-bang on the boundary between a sporty passenger car and a high-riding wagon. Result? A sports utility vehicle that skews heavily toward the ‘sports’ side of the equation, while still boasting plenty of ‘utility’.
WHAT IS IT?
Based on Alfa’s lauded Georgio platform, the Stelvio shares much of its inner architecture with the Giulia sedan family. That’s very much a good thing, given how delightful that car is to drive, and it endows the Stelvio with a degree of athleticism that is difficult to find elsewhere in the SUV segment. Available initially in Australia in base diesel and petrol configurations – all with automatics and AWD – the Stelvio range will expand later this year when a high-output petrol Stelvio Ti arrives, followed by the hardcore Stelvio Quadrifoglio.
Prices start at $65,900 for the base variant petrol and $67,900 for the entry-level diesel, and tops out at $78,900 for the Stelvio Ti. Pricing for the Quadrifoglio flagship is yet to be announced.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
The Stelvio is Alfa Romeo’s first effort at an SUV – with buyers continuing to migrate toward high-riding wagons, the Stelvio is thus a critical model for the Italian automaker’s commercial success.
Its success hinges on the Stelvio’s ability to deliver the performance, driving enjoyment and premium feel that Australia’s discerning buyers demand, wrapped up in competitive quality and style.
Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class, BMW X3, Audi Q5, Lexus NX, Jaguar F-Pace
THE WHEELS VERDICT
Alfa’s Stelvio deserves kudos for proving that SUVs can be just as dynamic and enjoyable behind the wheel as a lower-slung sedan and, even at the lowest end of its range, provides ample substance for keen drivers. There are some packaging compromises – most notably in the boot – but Alfa Romeo has still managed to endow its first SUV with a healthy amount of usability nevertheless. Light on its feet and with class-leading agility, it’s the perfect medicine for driving enthusiasts who see SUVs as dull, boring and not worthy of their attention.
PLUS: Class-leading driving dynamics; sharp styling; value for money
MINUS: Cheap cabin plastics; smallish boot; grabby brakes
THE WHEELS REVIEW
IT’S NOT enough to just be sexy anymore. Looks count for nought if the fundamentals aren’t right, which is why it’s so pleasing that Alfa’s first effort at a tall wagon is not only easy on the eyes, but satisfies other more meaningful criteria as well.
Constructed on top of the Giulia’s capable Giorgio platform and swinging for the likes of BMW’s X3, Benz’s GLC, Audi’s Q5 and Jag’s F-Pace, the Stelvio is now on our shores in entry-level 148kW petrol and 154kW diesel guise. The range will be bolstered later this year with the arrival of a 206kW petrol Stelvio Ti mid-ranger, followed by the AMG-chasing twin-turbo V6-powered Stelvio Quadrifoglio, but right now it’s the base petrol and diesel that you can drive out of an Alfa showroom.
Those entry points can also be optioned to First Edition spec for a $6K premium: a limited-series grade that adds fancier trimmings along with luxe features including heated sports leather seats, a panoramic glass sunroof, heated steering wheel and Koni dampers all round.
Our first local drive was at the wheel of First Edition cars, so it’s important to note that the base suspension grade wasn’t on hand to test. There are three types of suspension offered in the Stelvio: base with Koni dampers on the rear, a mid-spec that puts Konis in all four corners, and an electronically adjustable adaptive damper setup. We’ll sample the base and high-spec hardware in due course.
Why are we so hung up on suspensions? Because at our first taste of the Stelvio overseas in Northern Ireland, there were some question marks over the rear-end’s ability to contain big vertical movements over lumpy tarmac. Alfa’s selection of equally challenging mountain roads for the Stelvio’s local launch indicates they’re confident those issues have been tamed.
And, whipped hard across the full length of Victoria’s Reefton Spur, the Stelvio First Edition shows big promise as an SUV that’s sportier than most. Its crisp and direct steering is undoubtedly the highlight for drivers, with the fastest rack ratio in its class and keen turn-in from just off centre. Roadholding is also outstanding, with the Stelvio’s four Pirelli Scorpions providing ample traction and the suspension proving highly resistant to both roll and understeer – a 50:50 weight distribution definitely helps with the latter.
That performance and balance combines with a chassis that’s also the lightest out of all mid-size SUVs. Tipping the scales at 1619kg in petrol form (add a single kilo for the diesel’s weight), the Stelvio is far from porcine – and works in the base 148kW/330Nm petrol’s favour, given its somewhat modest power output. The result is a 0-100km/h sprint of 7.2 seconds, giving the petrol Stelvio near-hot hatch acceleration. Hop into the 154kW/470Nm 2.2-litre Stelvio diesel, and the zero-to-hundred falls to a Golf GTI-rivalling 6.6 seconds.
A lot of that straight-line competence can be attributed to the eight-speed automatic, which sends power to all four wheels as standard – there will be no two-wheel-drive Stelvio variants in Australia. Gearshifts are snappy and the auto works well when left to its own devices, while traction under power is difficult to breach. It’s a shame about the sensitive brake-by-wire system, with snatchy engagement taking some getting used to.
It’s fantastic news for keen drivers, but on-road performance is arguably secondary in the SUV segment. Comfort and versatility are paramount, and the Stelvio’s report card in these areas isn’t quite as impressive as its credentials as a driver’s car.
Some of that comes down to its form factor. Unlike its chief rivals, the Stelvio doesn’t have a traditional SUV wagon body. Its turret terminates at the C-pillar with no side glass aft of the rear doors, giving it a profile that’s more akin to a supersized hatchback than a medium SUV. Even so, its 525-litre seats-up boot capacity is actually ahead of competitors such as the Mercedes GLC (505 litres), Volvo XC60 (490 litres) and Porsche Macan (500 litres), though the Jaguar F-Pace’s 650-litre capacity truly puts it in the shade, as do the BMW X3 and Audi Q5’s 550-litre boots.
Note that you’ll only get the 525-litre capacity if you’re okay with an inflator kit rather than a dedicated space-saver spare tyre. Opt for the spare, and luggage space shrinks to 499 litres due to the loss of some underfloor storage space.
Comfort-wise, the seats are nicely contoured at the front and mounted low for a sportscar-like feel, while the rears offer plenty of legroom and are canted back for a better long-distance posture – though are also fairly firm in their cushioning. Like its Giulia cousin, there are also some shortfalls in the Stelvio’s cabin quality – some better quality plastic textures and finishes would go a long way to lifting the interior’s ambience.
There are better people carriers around, but does that diminish the svelte Stelvio’s appeal? It might for the more pragmatically minded among us, but there’s no denying the Stelvio holds the upper hand when it comes to driving engagement. Few SUVs feel as sporty at this end of the price spectrum, and it’s little surprise that the Stelvio Quadrifoglio holds the record of ‘fastest SUV’ around the Nurburgring Nordschliefe. It also happens to look pretty fetching in the metal, and for a great many people that still counts for a lot.
Model: Alfa Romeo Stelvio First Edition petrol
Engine: 1995cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power: 148kW @ 4500rpm
Max torque: 330Nm @ 1750rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, AWD
Fuel economy: 7.0L/100km
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