Alfa Romeo Stelvio: Bravissimo - the SUV gets an Italian twist
The Alfa Romeo Stelvio is so good, they were able to launch it in Fermanagh, writes William Scholes
IF you have been on holiday beyond these shores, chances are you have probably experienced the same sense of sinking disappointment as I have when you get back home, writes William Scholes.
I don't just mean the sense of regret at having to return at all, though that is bad enough. Or the fact that, no matter how long you've been away, there still won't be a government at Stormont; so low have expectations sunk, that that can hardly even be considered as a disappointment - it's more a fact of life, like traffic jams on the Westlink or rain on a Saturday.
No, I mean the way that the food or drink that was your holiday favourite simply doesn't taste the same when you get home.
A Greek salad won't taste the same in Saintfield as it did on Santorini, for example, and that pasta you couldn't get enough of when you were in Milan misses the mark when you're back in Magherafelt.
And so it is with cars. Try a new car for the first time in some exotic European location and it is easy to be smitten, beguiled by the weather, unfamiliar surroundings and the pizzazz of a major launch.
But the Portugese sunshine or silky-smooth Spanish asphalt that helps a new model to shine on a launch can distract you from the flaws that will be cruelly exposed by a Dungiven drizzle and coarse Tyrone tarmac.
That's why there is no substitute for driving a car at home to find out how it will truly cope with our unique mix of surfaces, roads and traffic.
Competitively priced, attractively styled and great to drive, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio offers a genuine alternative to the by-now familiar up-market SUVs from the German brands
Thank goodness then for the good folk at Alfa Romeo. With the wisdom of Solomon's Italian cousin, they decided to base the UK launch of their new Stelvio model - the company's first SUV, no less - in Fermanagh.
We'll gloss over the fact that it didn't stop raining; Lough Erne, of course, is in Fermanagh for six months of the year, with Fermanagh in Lough Erne for the rest of the year.
The first day's test route started in Belfast and wound its way to Fermanagh through Armagh and Tyrone; the next day brought us back to Belfast by way of Donegal, Derry and Antrim.
Taking in the best - and the worst - that Irish roads have to offer, it was a route that would give a comprehensive work-out to any car, especially in the chassis department.
This is probably more relevant to the Stelvio than it is to most of the other SUVs prospective buyers might also consider, because Alfa Romeo is pitching it directly at punters who enjoy driving.
On this evidence, it has comfortably hit the target. For the money, no other SUV handles, steers and rides with the verve and sheer enthusiasm of the Stelvio.
The Portugese sunshine or silky-smooth Spanish asphalt that helps a new model to shine on a launch can distract you from the flaws that will be cruelly exposed by a Dungiven drizzle and coarse Tyrone tarmac
This is perhaps not a huge surprise, for the Stelvio is essentially an SUV version of the Giulia sports saloon which we have enjoyed on these pages previously.
The Giulia's DNA coarses through the Stelvio. Driving enthusiasts will always prefer the dynamics of a low-slung sports saloon to those of a heavier, higher-riding SUV.
Yet the reality is that the market for saloons is shrinking while demand for SUVs of all shapes and sizes is apparently insatiable.
That's why the Stelvio is such an important car for Alfa Romeo. If the rejuvenated brand is to make any in-roads against its mainly German premium opposition, not only does it have to banish the reliability travails of the past but also produce a credible SUV. It's what the people demand...
The Stelvio has the same immediacy of response to steering inputs as the Giulia, but it is the suppleness of the chassis and the way the suspension keeps the body under control that really sets it apart from something like an Audi Q5 or BMW X3.
It's not quite a case of having your cake and eating it, though, for while the Alfa Romeo might carve through corners and smooth out a bumpy road at speed, is not quite as cosseting and insulating a cruiser as, say, a Volvo XC60.
It is a well finished and robust feeling car, standing easy comparison with the German cars and the Volvo, though perhaps lacking their final veneer of premium sheen.
And if it isn't quite as roomy in the back seat and boot as some of the rivals, that can probably be explained by the fact that the Stelvio engineers' priorities have been directed elsewhere; think of it more as a large hatchback than a full-on estate-style SUV. In any case, space for passengers and luggage is still sufficient.
Engines include a lusty 2.2-litre diesel with either 178bhp or 207bhp and a 2.0-litre petrol with either 197bhp or 276bhp.
Whatever you choose, an eight-speed automatic gearbox is your only choice. The least powerful diesel can be had with either rear-wheel-drive or Alfa Romeo's Q4 all-wheel-drive system; the other engines can be had only with four-wheel-drive.
Alfa doesn't make any grand Land Rover-esque off-roading claims for its 4x4 system; rather, you get the solid impression that it has been engineered primarily to facilitate fast road-driving. The system's default position is rear-wheel-drive, with the car able to shuffle up to 50 per cent of torque to the front axle when slip is detected.
For the money, no other SUV handles, steers and rides with the verve and sheer enthusiasm of the Alfa Romeo Stelvio
Light weight is one of the reasons the Stelvio goes so well - it weighs between 1,604kg and 1,660kg, which is positively skinny for a posh SUV. The 276bhp petrol model is pleasingly brisk - 0-62mph is rated at 5.7 seconds - and the more powerful diesel is usefully quick, too, with a 0-62mph time of 6.6 seconds.
Safety is an outstanding aspect of the Stelvio. As with the Giulia saloon, the Stelvio has achieved a five-star Euro Ncap safety rating, including an excellent 97 per cent score in the adult occupant protection element of the test.
Trim levels start at 'Stelvio' and rise through Super and Speciale to the range-topping Milano Edizione; the cheapest is a 178bhp rear-wheel-drive Stelvio, starting at £33,990, with the 276bhp Milano Edizione starting at £45,390.
Options are as extensive as you would expect of a car in this class, with plenty of opportunity to pay extra for special paint finishes, larger alloy wheels, luxury leather trim, upgraded sound systems and driver assistance packs.
Even the standard car is well equipped, but a diesel in Super trim looks like it could be the sweet-spot, costing £38,790 with the 178bhp engine or a worthwhile £800 more for the 207bhp unit.
Competitively priced, attractively styled and great to drive, the Stelvio offers a genuine alternative to the by-now familiar up-market SUVs from the German brands. It's lighter on its feet and more cohesive to drive than Jaguar's efforts, too.
As Alfa Romeo's first go at an SUV, the Stelvio is mightily accomplished.
By attempting to do something different than the opposition - and, more importantly, succeeding - the company hasn't just built an excellent SUV; it's built a really good Alfa Romeo. And it works especially well on our roads...
AT A GLANCE
Alfa Romeo Stelvio 2.2 Turbo Diesel Q4 AWD Super
Price: £38,490. As tested £45,610. Options included: leather upholstery £850; gear shift paddles on steering column £275; yellow-painted brake callipers £300; metallic paint £770; 10-inch alloy wheels £850; spare tyre £275; cold weather pack with heated seats and steering wheel £550; driver assistance package plus with automatic high-beam, parking sensors, rear-view camera and blind spot detection £700; power-adjustable front seats £750; convenience package with keyless entry and ignition, air quality system and cooled central armrest £525; power-folding door mirrors £275
Engine and transmission: 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel turbo, eight-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel-drive; 207bhp, 347lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 134mph, 0-62mph in 6.6 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 58.9mph (EU combined), 37.6mpg (real world), 127g/km
Car tax: £160 in first year, then £450 annually
Benefit in kind: 27 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (97/84/71/60), 2017