Road Tests

First Drive: 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q4

Destination Seventh Heaven: Alfa’s first ever crossover is a charmingly imperfect synthesis of style and substance

No more excuses, no more camouflage, no more pre-production idiosyncrasies. At last we’re in the cockpit of the real thing, Alfa’s first ever crossover in its storied history – the 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio – at Fiat’s vast Balocco proving ground halfway between Turin and Milan.

The sleek crossover is capped by short overhangs, further emphasized by a low, coupe-like roofline. Tire size depends on the model and your budget, but what you see here in these photos is its fat, 20-inch option. As one would expect from a fashion-conscious Italian premium brand, there are no less than 13 different wheel styles to choose from. The equally broad color selection offers such eccentricities as a pastel blue exterior complimented by a burgundy leather interior. The lip gloss attached to Alfa’s trademark scudetto grille is made from real aluminum, and the headlamps boast bright LED eyeliners. Its sleek Coke bottle proportions are simply stunning.

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q4 rear three quarter in motion

Inside, the cabin doesn’t differ much from the Giulia. Functional, yes. Exciting, no. You sit on reasonably comfortable chairs in the eye of a black plastic wonderland which isn’t particularly kind to the eye or the touch. Visibility is a little better than in the Giulia thanks to its elevated H-point, the recalibrated instruments are more easily legible, and some materials are of a higher standard. The rear seats fold, but they don’t recline or slide back and forth. Timber and hide are available, but the down-to-earth character of the Stelvio corresponds equally well with the base cloth upholstery and matte metal accents. Ergonomics are not a forte of Alfa Romeo in general and the Stelvio in particular. Alfa’s new MMI system, developed by Magneti Marelli, is only marginally more intuitive than sudoku for beginners, a head-up display is conspicuous by its absence, and its assistance systems fail to break new ground. Having said that, forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring, and active cruise control are part of the package.

The U.S.-market Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q4 will feature a 2.0-liter gas engine at launch that develops 280 hp. Late next year, Alfa will add the notably spicier 510-hp Stelvio Quadrifoglio. Some markets will also get a brace of diesel options, though none are likely to come to the U.S. For complexity reasons, the only transmission fitted to the Stelvio is an eight-speed automatic courtesy of ZF. Its converter lock-up clutch bites without delay and Alfa is supremely confident in its overall operation, although we suspect a dual-clutch box would shift gears even faster and with more pick-up verve. The 280-hp engine redlines at 6,000 rpm and spreads its maximum twist action of 325 lb-ft from 2,250 to 4,500 rpm. The gearing combines the best of both worlds: close-ratio first to third warrants plenty of take-off grunt, sweet spot-focused fourth and fifth beef up the mid-range urge, long legs in seventh and eighth support economical highway cruising.

Under normal operating conditions, the Stelvio’s Q4 all-wheel drive system is 100 percent rear-wheel drive. Only upon detection of slip will the black box rearrange the torque distribution. Normally, it takes a mere smidgeon of front-wheel pulling power to set the record straight again, but on extremely slippery turf the torque split can momentarily be an even 50:50. Customers who occasionally leave the beaten track on off-road tires should consider the optional mechanical rear differential lock. But ground clearance is marginal by SUV standards, and the same goes for the underbody protection. There is no hill descent control either, and its DNA drive mode selector lacks a heavy-going setting.

Speaking of drive modes, there are three programs to choose from: E for advanced efficiency, N for natural and D for dynamic. On a test track like Balocco, E is the software equivalent to Valium. Lift-off coasting and summoning a taller gear at 2,000 rpm sharp may be wise when you’re running on empty, but not when you’re trying to beat your own good self around the challenging Langhe circuit. Natural is claimed to satisfy all needs from slow urban traffic to fast motorway excursions. Not surprisingly, its middle-ground calibration is not a good choice for burning rubber either. The preferred mode for shenanigans is dynamic. The throttle response is sharp, gear shifts are energetic, steering action is quick, and the damper settings taut. While dynamic is definitely the flavor of the day, the DNA selector lacks a personalization mode that would allow you to blend, say, a cushy ride with aggressive drivetrain characteristics.

At 3,660 pounds, the Stelvio is heavier than the Giulia, and it also generates more drag and rolling resistance. You’d expect this weight and girth to take a toll on performance, but its roughly 5.6 second 0 to 60 mph time is as lively as its 144 mph top speed. Predictably, the Stelvio takes a little longer than the Giulia to unravel the final 15 to 20 mph.

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q4 side profile in motion 01

While the 2.0-liter is not as radically tuned as a comparable AMG unit, it packs enough punch to push the Stelvio close to the top of the SUV entertainment ranking. Especially when fitted with the extra-cost (!) shift paddles, the under hood fireworks turn the go-almost-anywhere Alfa into a true crackerjack capable of taking on the F-Pace, GLC, Macan, and Q5. It’s not so much peak power and torque but the seamless flow of motion which makes the Stelvio a rather special piece of kit. This crossover is quite simply very good at carrying momentum through corners, using intentional weight transfer to speed up turn-in, and building up ground-effect fourth and fifth-gear road holding that doesn’t wane after five or six laps. It responds with subtlety and promptness to steering and throttle orders, decelerating when needed as hard as if hit by a massive headwind. It did all that with aplomb for 26 memorable laps when ground control eventually black-flagged the blue beauty and escorted us back to base.

Are we waxing lyrical here? Perhaps one should mention once more that this impressive proof of talent was staged on home turf where the Stelvio was developed, tested and fine-tuned. Another major contributing factor is the tires. The brand-new Michelin Pilot Latitudes are quick to build up temperature but slow to overheat, which is why grip and traction prevail much longer than rivaling rubber compounds. As a result, the Stelvio honors small steering angles, late turn-ins and patient torque feed. Its overall balance is so confidence-inspiring that one keeps on pushing. You brake late, then later still. You lift a little then don’t lift at all. You change down then stay in gear and smile. You adjust the lines then bundle them to the fastest one.

In the Giulia, ESP can be easily disabled in order to perform proper slide shows. In the Stelvio, dynamic is as close as this car gets to being a wild thing. Sounds like frustration galore, but full enjoyment does prevail even at ten tenths when the electronics interfere ever so softly with pursed chips. Despite the ground-hugging chassis, super-prompt steering and the guillotine brakes, the suspension never ever embarrassed itself with compromised spring travel and compliance. True, there is an underlying softness which absorbs the worst kinks, ridges, dips. But even though we’ve seen the Stelvio airborne for the blink of an eye, take-off and landing were always super-smooth and progressive. Says Roberto Fedeli, the man in charge of R&D at Alfa and Maserati: “In this segment, our vehicle is the benchmark in terms of agility. At 12.0:1, we have for instance the most direct steering. Other fortes are effortless controllability, directional stability and handling precision. Having said that, the Stelvio was not designed to be everybody’s darling. Like every Alfa, it aims first and foremost at enthusiast drivers.”

So what SUV to buy? The X3 costs ten percent more than its newest competitor, and yet it is outmoded and uninspiring. The Q5 is as fresh as it is bland. The F-Pace comes close to the Alfa in more ways than one. The GLC is pricey yet competent. The Macan remains all but invincible. While the Stelvio falls a little short in terms of technical innovation, perceived quality, connectivity and ergonomics, it’s good-looking, affordable, lively, rewarding, and fun to drive. A lot of fun to drive.

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q4 Specifications

ON SALE Fall 2017
PRICE $35,000 (est)
ENGINE 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16 valve I-4

280 hp @ 2,250 rpm, 306 lb-ft @ 2,250-4,500 rpm

TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
L x W x H 184.5 x 74.9 x 65.8 in
WHEELBASE 110.9 in
WEIGHT 3,660 lb
0-60 MPH 5.6 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 144 mph

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