Alfa Romeo Stelvio: Putting the 'S' into Sport Utility Vehicle
The Stelvio, the first SUV to wear an Alfa Romeo badge, is worth a close look, says William Scholes
I had rather hoped that we would have seen more examples of Alfa Romeo's fine Stelvio on our roads by now.
In a dreary sea of me-too SUVs, the Stelvio - the Italian marque's first go at a car like this - is one of the few to properly stand out. The Stelvio is a delicious block of Neapolitan in a freezer stuffed with bland vanilla.
The Stelvio impressed me upon first acquaintance, and not just because Alfa Romeo chose Fermanagh as the base from which to launch it to journalists.
Putting their new SUV at the mercy of the, erm, idiosyncrasies of Northern Ireland's roads as well as those in Donegal spoke volumes about Alfa Romeo's confidence in how the car would perform, particularly in the handling, suspension and body control departments.
But it also allowed the Stelvio's other qualities to shine through, chiefly its verve and the way it shrugs off the drawbacks normally associated with the way SUVs drive to be properly engaging.
It's not perfect - the 'brake by wire' system feels like it needs some fine-tuning, for example - but the Stelvio is miles more fun to drive than any other entrant in the posh family SUV class, until you step up a price bracket towards the Porsche Macan.
Nor is it as broadly talented as the - in my view, undisputed - class leader, the Volvo XC60. It is, however, a heap more interesting than the mainly German opposition.
It isn't quite as spacious in the back seat and boot as some rivals, which may rule it out for some would-be buyers. It is hardly cramped, though.
The Stelvio is essentially an SUV version of the Giulia sports saloon which we have also enjoyed on these pages previously.
An SUV is never going to drive with the vim of a saloon - the elevated ride height mitigates against that - but the Stelvio comes far closer to emulating the Giulia's smile-factor than, by rights, it ought to.
It 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.
The Stelvio is a delicious block of Neapolitan in a freezer stuffed with bland vanilla
The flip-side of this is that it doesn't cosset and relax like the Volvo. You can't have it all, I suppose.
Engines include a 2.2-litre diesel with either 178bhp or 207bhp and a 2.0-litre petrol with either 197bhp or 276bhp.
Open your wallet wide, and in exchange for £70k you can also have the Quadrifoglio version, complete with a 2.9-litre V6 twin-turbo with 503bhp and a 0-62mph time of 3.8 seconds. Which is ridiculous.
But back to the real-world versions. An eight-speed automatic gearbox is your only choice, and 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.
Though doubtless competent, the all-wheel-drive system doesn't pretend to be a rival for Subaru when it comes to traversing muddy fields or climbing mountain trails.
Here, Alfa is using 4x4 to give extra grip and confidence on the road; in any case, to underline the Stelvio's sporting intent, the system's default position is rear-wheel-drive, with the car able to fire up to 50 per cent of torque to the front axle when slip is detected.
A kerb weight of between 1,604kg and 1,660kg, which is supermodel slender for a family SUV, helps contribute to the Alfa Romeo's quick reflexes and sense of energy.
Alfa has worked hard at this, with components such as a carbon fibre driveshaft showing it has put its money where its mouth is. The four-wheel-drive systems adds just 56kg to the rear-drive car's weight, which is also impressive.
Whichever version you opt for, the Stelvio is one of the most striking SUVs on the road. It couldn't be mistaken for anything other than an Alfa Romeo, which contrasts with all the derivative German cars
It has also been very careful about where it has placed the weight, with the result that the Stelvio has the 50/50 front/rear weight distribution normally associated with sports cars.
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.
Light weight hasn't come at the expense of strength - the Stelvio scores 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 to be the sweet-spot, costing £38,790 with the 178bhp engine or a worthwhile £800 more for the 207bhp unit.
Whichever version you opt for, the Stelvio is one of the most striking SUVs on the road. It couldn't be mistaken for anything other than an Alfa Romeo - no-one else styles the front of their cars like this, for example - which contrasts with all the derivative German cars.
SUVs now account for a third of new car registrations in Europe, and the Alfa Romeo Stelvio should, if there's any justice, be caught in that rising tide.
A kerb weight of between 1,604kg and 1,660kg, which is supermodel slender for a family SUV, helps contribute to the Alfa Romeo's quick reflexes and sense of energy
It is a better car than that, though. The Stelvio has a broad enough range of attributes, from road manners to styling, to merit success on its own terms - not because it is an SUV, or even an Alfa Romeo, but because it is a very fine family car.
AT A GLANCE
Alfa Romeo Stelvio 2.2 Turbo Diesel Q4 AWD Super
Price: £38,535. As tested £44,655. Options included: leather upholstery £850; aluminium gear shift paddles on steering column £275; yellow-painted brake callipers £300; metallic paint £770; 19-inch 10-spoke 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: £165 in first year, then £450 annually
Benefit in kind: 30 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (97/84/71/60), 2017