Logic would dictate that we test the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q, the storied Italian brand's attempt at the burgeoning super SUV segment, on the road that provided inspiration for its name. There are a couple of problems with this.
The first of which is that the Stelvio Pass is located in far northern Italy, almost kissing the Austrian border at its summit, whereas MOTOR is based almost 16,000km away in Melbourne. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the ‘Passo dello Stelvio’ is not an ideal place to road-test anything, especially a 375kW SUV that’s nearly two metres wide.
Much of the 35km between Bormio at its southern end and Trafoi in the north is treacherously narrow, the thin ribbon of tarmac sandwiched between craggy rockfaces and unyielding stone walls on one side and a mixture of low stone blocks, armco or fresh mountain air on the other.
There are plenty of turns, but the majority are first-gear hairpins with the ever-present possibility of facing a bicycle, motorbike or tourist bus around each one. No, while the Stelvio Pass is staggeringly, breathtakingly scenic and an incredible feat of roadbuilding, it’s not the place to explore the performance envelope of a machine that can lap the Nürburgring in 7min51.7sec.
Our test route is a bit more comprehensive and aims to answer the question: can one car do everything? Essentially, that’s what the Stelvio Q – indeed, all performance SUVs – is trying to be, all things to all folks.
There is little point in just tackling our favourite test roads and calling it a day, for approached purely as an on-road performance car these high-riding hatchbacks will always come up short compared to a standard vehicle. For that you can thank the pesky phenomenon called physics.
In the case of the Stelvio, it’s not going to surprise many to learn that on a twisty stretch of tarmac it isn’t as capable or as engaging as the Giulia Q it is based on. No matter how talented Alfa’s engineers may be, they can’t overcome the effects of an extra 250kg and 260mm of height.
But the Stelvio’s make-up has its virtues: the security of all-wheel drive, 200mm of ground clearance and hatchback practicality. Actual boot space isn’t markedly superior to the Giulia sedan (525L vs 480L), but the extra height is welcome with plenty of camera gear, bags and a jerry can to accommodate.
The latter isn’t standard road test fare, but could well be needed where we’re going. Our 700km round trip encompasses virtually every imaginable type of road and surface, from rocky quasi-4x4 trails to Targa-style tarmac stretches and everything in between, but it begins by wending its way through Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs and the Yarra Valley to Healesville, which marks the beginning of the Black Spur. This is usually an irresistible invitation to up the pace, but with hundreds of corners ahead the urgency isn’t there and we’re content to meander through admiring the scenery.
Golden beams of early morning sunlight filter through the proud, rod-straight mountain ash trees that make the Spur a destination for tourists, only for the clouds to close in again as we crest the mountain and pass through Taggerty, thick fog clinging to the ground and resulting in a rather creepy ambience. It thankfully lifts again as we approach our first stop of Eildon and life in the Stelvio is peaceful.
Arguably the Giulia Q’s greatest asset is its superb touring ride quality; its bigger brother isn’t quite so plush, presumably as a result of the need to control the extra weight, but still cushions its occupants from most blows.
The sexy carbon-backed seats are very comfy, but then they would want to be for $7150. They’re set quite high for that commanding SUV outlook, but the steering wheel either couldn’t or wasn’t raised to the same degree so the driving position is compromised – even at its highest, the wheel sits closer to your lap than your chest.
The interior is a curious mix. The highs are very high, particularly the beautiful aluminium shift paddles, Ferrari-esque starter button and splashes of carbon trim, but in general there isn’t the same premium feel as you’ll find in the Stelvio’s German competitors.
It’s most noticeable in the components you use regularly, such as the drive mode knob and gear selector; how big a deal this is will depend on the preferences of the buyer. What’s more annoying is the incessant buzzing from somewhere in the dash – Nathan thinks it’s on my side, my ears tell me it’s on his, but we never discover the source.
Eildon-Jamieson Road is an amazing piece of tarmac, one of those roads that’s almost too much of a good thing. Google Maps says that taking the highway route only takes 10 minutes longer despite being exactly double the length at 132km, but Google Maps doesn’t have 500bhp.
Switching to Dynamic mode wakes up the throttle, switches the suspension to its middle setting and enables the Stelvio to do its best hot hatch impersonation. The 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 isn’t particularly taxed by the extra quarter of a tonne – the Stelvio is still relatively light at 1830kg – and the eight-speed auto does a good job of selecting the appropriate gear for each corner when left in charge. The 3.8sec 0-100km/h claim gives some clue as to its potency, which is actually 0.3sec quicker than the Giulia thanks to all-wheel drive.
As the road narrows and the corner frequency increases, another click to Race firms the suspension again, deactivates the ESP and injects a shot of adrenaline straight into the cylinders, the exhaust note altering from a smooth purr to a deep-chested roar.
Race suspension is a bit much on the road, but a press of the damper button softens them back to the middle Dynamic setting – a trick nicked from Ferrari and a very welcome one. On this particularly testing road the Stelvio’s Achilles’ heel quickly becomes apparent. Front end grip.
Like in the Giulia, the steering is extremely direct and results in very sharp turn-in. At first it can feel darty but you soon learn to slow your initial input and revel in the immediacy of the response. It makes the Stelvio feel eager and agile, but only delays the moment at which weight takes over and the 255/45 front Pirellis start to scrub wide. Countering this is as easy as reducing corner entry speed, but do so and it doesn’t feel as though you’re fully exploiting the Stelvio’s potential.
Keeping the nose in check does open up options in the second half of the corner. Alfa’s Q4 all-wheel drive system sends 100 per cent of the drive rearward until slip is detected, at which point in can send up to 50 per cent forward, while a pair of electronically-controlled clutches in the rear differential split the torque left and right.
Thankfully, the theory delivers in practice, the Stelvio feeling predominantly rear-wheel drive and capable of antics you wouldn’t expect from an SUV. Accelerate early and decisively and the 285mm rear tyres break free and smear themselves across the road.
Oversteer feels a little strange when you’re perched so high but some corrective lock gathers it up easily. An acrid smell in the cabin betrays the workload of the brakes, but they refuse to fade and provide better feel than early Giulias, often a problem with by-wire systems where there is no physical connection between the pedal and the rotors and calipers.
Arrival in the quiet town of Jamieson completes the first leg of the journey. Autumn is in full swing, star-shaped leaves raining from the trees as we watch and laying a thick carpet of red and orange on the town’s streets. The Stelvio needs another drink and so do we.
Curious locals gather at the thankfully 98RON-equipped service station. Curious and knowledgeable; one is a regular tarmac rallyist, the other an elderly gent who is very much enjoying his Hyundai i30 N. They provide handy information on the route ahead, as we won’t drive on a sealed road again for almost 100km.
Jamieson-Licola Road scales Mount Skene, crosses the Victorian High Country and links the doorstep of the Alpine region with Gippsland around 150km to the south-east. It should be amazing, but it’s also a bit of a stab in the dark, my research limited to watching a motorcyclist’s helmet GoPro footage – still, it’s not like we could be stranded with a puncture hours from civilization, right? We assume the 41km/h average speed suggested by Google is deeply conservative and to begin with it is as we surf along well-surfaced farmland roads.
The terrain quickly changes as dense bushland crowds in on either side and the surface becomes rougher and rockier. Our speed drops dramatically both to prevent our teeth rattling out and to keep the tyres in one piece – at our request Alfa Romeo supplied two spare Pirellis but didn’t mount them on rims, so given we’re short a tyre-changing machine they were left behind. It’s on roads like this the performance SUV begins to make sense; an hour ago we were tearing up one of Victoria’s best driving roads, now we’re climbing a mountain.
We relentlessly ascend through countless switchbacks, constantly hoping the road will smooth out and we can up the pace. The Stelvio Q isn’t as much fun as expected in this environment, feeling more all-wheel drive than it did on the road, presumably because the rear is always detecting a certain degree of slip and shuffling power forward.
After around 30km – which take more than 45 minutes – the leafy canopy overhead disappears, the tree line thins and we crest a rise to discover a vista that defies description. Hazy mountains stretch off as far as the eye can see, the road a caramel-coloured ribbon intermittently visible as it snakes in and out of view over the next half a dozen hills.
Every time we think we’ve taken in the scope of the scenery we round another corner and it expands again. A peak altitude of 1558m seems as good a place as any to stop for lunch, the complete stillness broken only by the sound of chewing and the click-click-click of Nathan’s camera as he continues to capture frames.
Shortly after our descent begins Jamieson-Licola peels hard left, the road straight ahead signposted as “4WD Vehicles Only”. The flora also does a u-turn, densely packed shrubs and dead trees giving way to lush, ferny forest, while the surface becomes softer, smoother and sandier.
Finally our speed can increase and the Stelvio roars its approval, doing its best Lancia Delta S4 impression – a car with the same power but half the weight – as it slithers through corners and charges down the straights, the crack of every full-throttle upshift echoing through the trees. This is fun, the rear edging out under brakes and the throttle holding it there while the all-wheel drive system still ensures forward motion – does Pirelli make rally tyres in 20-inch sizes?
There is a surprising amount of traffic out here in the middle of nowhere. A couple of five-car convoys rattle past, the Hiluxes, Rangers and Rodeos heavily laden with camping gear a stark contrast to the pearl white Alfa Romeo, like coming across somebody wearing Nike active wear while hiking in the Himalayas.
As we continue to lose altitude the road becomes unbelievably smooth, like a gravel highway. The reason for this is soon apparent as we hit tarmac once again; clearly there are plans afoot to extend the black stuff.
It’s now late afternoon but this epic journey has one more surprise in store as we round yet another bend and look out across an enormous valley, the road cut into the hillside as it slowly descends. You can see many corners ahead, but while they’re within throwing distance to reach them by car takes much longer as the road clings to the cliff, following its every nook and cranny.
Nathan and I can’t believe it; it’s like someone has used one of those video game track builders to create motoring journalism paradise – even the light is stunning. It’s a perfect place to let the Stelvio off the leash one last time.
With hundreds of kilometres behind us there’s now an instinctive feel of how much speed the front tyres will accept and the confidence to drive through the initial understeer and exploit the rear-biased drive system. As long as there’s sufficient space, familiarity allows the throttle to be used to overcome the gentle front-end push and transition to neutrality or even slight oversteer.
It’s truly remarkable how hard this high-riding family bus can be driven, though I don’t know if I’d be signing up to emulate that record-setting Nürburgring lap – at least it was until the Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S stole Alfa Romeo’s thunder – in a hurry.
Compared to most of its competitors, the Stelvio offers more control and can be bullied to a greater degree, but it’s when the limit is transgressed that you become acutely aware that almost two tonnes sitting up high is travelling very quickly.
Other issues are a lack of mid-corner steering communication – it’s not bad, but you tend to drive on trust and reaction rather than information – and ultra-short gearing, the latter really just requiring a re-think as to how corners are tackled. In order to sharpen that 0-100km/h claim, first runs out at 52km/h and second disappears at 82km/h, making it suitable for only the very sharpest turns.
But there is far more positive than negative: a cracking powertrain, entertaining chassis, decent ride quality and room for the family. Whether it’s better than a Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S would require a back-to-back comparison, but the Stelvio Q is certainly good enough to make a strong case for itself. With the Jaguar F-Pace SVR, BMW X3 M Competition and facelifted Porsche Macan Turbo not far away, I feel a group test coming on.
MOTOR comparison: Urus v G63 v Range Rover
As for the question of can one car do everything? If you’re prepared to make a slight compromise in terms of ultimate handling ability, then yes it can. Of course the Giulia is a more involving, capable steer in the right circumstances, but the Stelvio handled everything that was thrown at it with a minimum of fuss. If there’s only room for one car in your life, the performance SUV has its merits, and it’s difficult to think of a two-car garage within the Stelvio Q’s $149,900 ask that could match its talents in such a wide array of disciplines.
It’s not perfect, but when it comes to driving entertainment this Stelvio gets an easy pass.
All about the drive on MOTOR car reviews
2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q
BODY: 5-door, 5-seat SUV
ENGINE: 2981cc V6, DOHC, 24v, twin-turbo
BORE/STROKE: 86.5 x 82.0mm
POWER: 375kW @ 6500rpm
TORQUE: 600Nm @ 2500-5000rpm
POWER-TO- WEIGHT: 205kW/tonne
TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: double wishbones, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (r)
TRACKS: 1622/1675mm (f/r)
STEERING: electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
BRAKES: 360mm ventilated/drilled discs, 6-piston calipers (f); 350mm ventilated/drilled discs, 4-piston calipers (r)
WHEELS: 20.0 x 9.0-inch (f); 20.0 x 10.0-inch (r)
TYRES: Pirelli P Zero, 255/45 R20 (f); 285/40 R20 (r)
PRICE: $149,900 ($162,250 as-tested)
PROS: Fast, entertaining, practical; decent value
CONS: Thirsty; compromised ride; some cheap interior bits
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
The Road: Eildon to Licola, Victoria
This one’s an epic. Starting in the lakeside town of Eildon head back towards Melbourne and turn left at the sign post for Jamieson. More than 60km of constantly twisting mountain road awaits you, but be careful of over-enthusiastic bikers.
Jamieson provides an opportunity to refuel both man and machine while the entrance to the Jamieson-Licola Road is located on the east side of town. The road is reasonably well surfaced, rocky at times, posing no great difficult to the Stelvio on its 20-inch rims and relatively low-profile tyres.
Punctures are possible and the upper section of the road is closed between June 13-October 31 inclusive unless permission is granted by Four Wheel Drive Victoria. Our story ends at Licola but from there to Glenmaggie is an unbelievable section of road, but that’s a tale for another day.