Alfa Romeo Stelvio: The thinking driver's SUV
Compared to its dull rivals, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio is an SUV that makes you feel special, writes William Scholes
AS well as being asked if I'm related to surly former Manchester United midfield magician Paul (I'm not), one of the most tiresomely familiar questions people shoot at me is 'what car should I buy?', writes William Scholes.
It's a daft question, really. You may as well ask me 'what shoes should I wear tomorrow?'
I might suggest, for example, that a smart pair of lace-up brogues would do the trick, only for you to tell me that wouldn't work because you're going on a hike up the Mournes or cutting the grass, and that you would prefer something with a grippier sole or which was waterproof. Well, how was I supposed to know what you wanted to use the shoes for?
And so it is with the 'what car should I buy?' question. My opening gambit is a Volkswagen Golf, but usually it turns out that this isn't really what you had in mind...
What most people, even those with no discernible interest in or knowledge of cars, do seem to have in mind is an SUV.
In these sorts of social situations I've found there's not a lot of point in trying to argue that yes, I can see why you might like an SUV, but you really shouldn't rule out a Golf, or any other decent saloon, hatchback or estate...
The appetite for 'high-up' cars is huge, and growing.
They now come in all shapes and sizes, with options at every price point, from the value-for-money, charming and capable Dacia Duster to the grotesque obscenity that is the Rolls-Royce Cullinan. There really is something for everybody.
There might be a bewildering amount of choice, but I can't be alone in finding most of the offerings visually boring.
Some makers seem to have concluded that they don't really need to bother. How else to explain the latest SUV offerings from the German premium brands?
The latest BMW 'X' cars - apart, perhaps, from the X1 and X2 - lay bare just how lost in design doldrums that marque has become. Resorting to a 'big grille' is a sure sign that you've run out of ideas.
Meanwhile, Audis are a yawn and a Mercedes-Benz SUV looks like it's been designed for China, Dubai or LA.
If you want an upmarket but thoughtfully designed SUV, it's best to avoid the German makers.
No-one has a better range of small, medium and large SUV models than Volvo, with its XC40, XC60 and XC90 trio.
The Mazda CX-5 is a great looking family car, too, and Range Rover has settled on a design language that makes the Germans look positively overwrought.
And then there's the car on these pages, the lovely Alfa Romeo Stelvio. Might it be the best looking mid-size family SUV of all?
Wisely, Alfa hasn't tried too hard to make the Stelvio look like a proper mud-plugging off-roader.
And why bother? The fact is that while a Range Rover Evoque, let alone a BMW X3 or Audi Q5, might be capable of all sorts of 4x4 shenanigans, very few will ever be asked to get their tyres dirtier than a shopping trolley at Sprucefield.
Bolstering the Stelvio's credentials as the thinking driver's SUV is its Giulia DNA. The Giulia - criminally overlooked, in my view - is arguably the best sports saloon money can buy and its 22cm more upright SUV sibling is a similarly good steer
What most people really like about SUVs is a seating position that is relatively higher than their traditional saloon, hatchback or estate counterparts and the feeling of extra interior space.
Examine the Stelvio closely or park it next to a rival, and you'll see it looks more like a grown-up hatchback or sleek estate than anything else; this is meant as a compliment.
It's obviously taller than the Giulia saloon car, whose platform it shares, but not to the same degree that an X3 feels higher than a 3 Series, for example.
The Stelvio, then, gets an SUV-like raised driving position but not to the extent that it is saddled with the same negative compromises in ride, handling and driver enjoyment that taller rivals inflict upon their passengers.
Bolstering the Stelvio's credentials as the thinking driver's SUV is that Giulia DNA. The Giulia - criminally overlooked, in my view - is arguably the best sports saloon money can buy and its 22cm more upright SUV sibling is a similarly good steer.
It has the same immediacy of response to steering inputs as the Giulia, but the suppleness of the chassis and the way the suspension keeps the body under control sets the Stelvio apart, even if it doesn't insulate you from the road as effectively as the relaxing Volvo.
The Stelvio offers a large 525 litre boot, which swells to 1,600 litres when the back seats are fully folded. The tailgate is electrically powered.
No-one should have any complaints about the rear seat space either.
Engines include a 2.2-litre diesel with either 187bhp (332lb.ft, 0-62mph in 7.6 seconds, 44.4mpg, 139g/km, 41.2mpg and 149g/km with four-wheel-drive) or 207bhp (347lb.ft, 6.6 seconds, 41.2mpg, 149g/km).
A 2.0-litre petrol comes with either 197bhp (243lb.ft, 7.2 seconds, 29.8mpg, 182g/km) or 276bhp (295lb.ft, 5.7 seconds, 29.8mpg, 182g/km).
There is also the bonkers, but highly desirable, Quadrifoglio performance version with a Ferrari-esque 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6, 503bhp, 443lb.ft and a faintly ridiculous 0-62mph time of 3.8 seconds.
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 come only with four-wheel-drive.
As already hinted, Alfa doesn't really suggest that its all-wheel-drive system is going to give Land Rover or Subaru a sleepless nights.
Rather, it is deployed 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.
The steering is fast, too, which encourages you to use more of the Alfa's capabilities and lean on its abundance of grip.
A slender kerb weight in the mid-1,600kg territory - which makes it comfortably lighter than any rival - contributes to the Alfa Romeo's quick reflexes and sense of energy.
Components such as a carbon fibre driveshaft help here, and the four-wheel-drive systems adds just 56kg to the rear-drive car's weight.
Alfa Romeo has also thought carefully about where it has placed the Stelvio's weight, with the result that it has the 50/50 front/rear weight distribution normally associated with sports cars.
Trim levels start at Super, rising through Nero Edizione and Speciale to Milano Edizione; the cheapest is a 187bhp rear-wheel-drive Super from £37,745 stretching to £47,445 for a Milano Edizione with the 276bhp petrol turbo.
The Quadrifoglio, meanwhile, is a heap more expensive and costs £70,900 to reflect its extreme performance.
All versions are well equipped, but the German brands and Volvo offer longer, more complicated options list.
Still, all Stelvio models have an 8.8-inch digital screen with sat-nav and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring as standard.
Crucially, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio makes you feel special both when you look at it and when you drive it. There are few enough cars, let alone SUVs, which can do that these days
And as with the Giulia, Alfa Romeo has given the Stelvio a comprehensive after-sales package to help ease any lingering doubts over reliability.
It includes a five-year/75,000 mile warranty, five years of roadside assistance and three years' scheduled servicing.
Desirable to behold on the outside, it's a treat inside too. Further lifting the ambience is the option of steering column-mounted gearbox paddle shifters crafted from long fillets of aluminium; these give a real race car vibe.
The Alfa Romeo is certainly not boring. Crucially, it makes you feel special both when you look at it and when you drive it. There are few enough cars, let alone SUVs, which can do that these days.
The Stelvio is a cracking car, and if you're considering adding to the numbers of SUVs on our roads you owe it to yourself to try one.