Although many years have passed since the launch of the first SUV-type vehicle from a brand whose entire back catalogue comprises sporting vehicles, the Porsche Cayenne of 2002, there are still outcries whenever news breaks that yet another marque with sporting heritage is developing a model of this type. And yet, there is no denying the critical commercial importance of these vehicles. And no marque needs something to increase their sales by a dramatic margin than Alfa Romeo. Many times over the last 30 years, we’ve been promised an ambitious renaissance for this much-loved and revered brand, and whilst many of the cars that were at the heart of the then new plan – the 155, the 156, 147, new Giulietta – whilst appealing to the marque faithful, and all with considerable merit, they have all failed to increase the total marque sales on a sustainable basis. By the time the eagerly awaited Giulia arrived, it was clear that a mid-sized executive saloon, no matter how good it is – and of course it turned out to be very good – was unlikely to be the car to achieve that sales increase single handed. The market, especially for larger cars, seems to have voracious demand for SUVs, so it can’t have been hard for Alfa to decide to build their first entrant of this genre, and to base it on the underpinnings of the Giulia. The result is the Stelvio, which was first seen in high performance guise at the 2016 Los Angeles Auto Show, with the rest of the range in European spec being seen four months later at the 2017 Geneva Show, going on sale shortly thereafter. The press were immediately impressed by what they found, and the car received good reviews on launch, and sales have been building steadily ever since. I’ve been particularly keen to try one ever since it went on sale. My chance came when I arrived at Bologna airport for my weekend to take in the Auto e Moto d’Epoca event when I found that Hertz had allocated one to me, a considerable upgrade over the category of car that I had reserved. Needless to say, I was delighted to discover that this would be my transport for the weekend.
A combination of Hertz’ paperwork and the badging on the car told me that the particular version I had received had the 2.2 litre diesel engine in its more potent 210 bhp form and the Q4 badging meant all-wheel drive, which is standard with this engine. It’s only a short drive from Bologna airport to the hotel I typically stay at. You don’t learn much riving just 8 kms in the evening rush hour traffic, so detailed impressions were going to have til the morning, but before that I had to get it out of the rental car parking facility. Like many continental airports, this is very tight, with spaces that are very tight in every dimension, and with alley ways between the parked cars which are narrow and tight turns. Having checked the car over and got in it, and adjusted everything so I was comfortable I put the car to its first test, of manoeuverability. This is where a large car feels like a disadvantage compared to a small one, but I successfully extricated the Stelvio and headed off. That 4 cylinder diesel unit is very quiet and smooth on start up, with none of the once-notorious diesel rattle in evidence. That was a particular relief, as with a standard stop/start system, the engine would be fired up many times in the traffic queues that awaited me on the sort journey. The following morning I was able to find out more. Although 210 bhp might not sound a huge amount for a car of this size and weight, the reality was that it seemed just fine, with ample torque and a very smooth 8 speed automatic gearbox which always seemed to be in the optimum ratio without you realising that it had changed gears. The engine was always smooth, and noise levels were low, with just a trace of road noise evident once underway on the autostrada. Like most recent Alfa models there is a DNA button in the centre console, which gives you three different driving modes. You need to set it every time you restart the engine if you do not want the N (Normale) one. Press D (Dinamico) and you can really feel the difference, with not just steering and throttle sharpening up, as well as recalibrating the gearbox, but the first evidence will be as the car really feels like it is straining at the leash with a new found urgency. The A mode is for all-weather driving. Much of my test mileage was done at a steady speed on the autostrada which no doubt helped the fuel consumption, which the trip computer told me averaged out at 7.1 litres/100km, or 39.64 mpg, a good result for a vehicle of this size. It is not just the outright performance that impresses, but also the other driving characteristics. Alfa put a lot of effort into making the Stelvio drive as you would expect an Alfa to do. Despite the taller body with a higher centre of gravity, they seem to have succeeded. The Stelvio is one of the lightest cars in its class, which helps. There is a quick steering rack, which results in the car steering well, with plenty of feel. Although the car has standard all-wheel drive, in normal driving all the power is distributed to the rear wheels, with the fronts receiving some of it only when the sophisticated electronics detect that the rear wheels are losing traction. The result is a car that, despite its taller body and longer springs is still fun to drive on twisty roads. The roadholding is good and the car corners neatly with no body roll evident even on enthusiastically taken curves. My overall impression was of a car with nimbleness that belied its size. There is no penalty with the ride either, the car proving comfortable at all times, with the 235/60 R18 wheels proving the right compromise between looks and comfort. The brakes are “fly by wire”, with no mechanical linkage from the pedal to the hydraulics. Alfa call the system IBS, for Integrated Brake System. It removes the conventional vacuum brake booster and replaces it with system that uses an electric motor to build pressure to aid braking. The unit also controls the ABS and ESC, and as a result is much lighter than a conventional system. One of the other benefits of IBS, however, is that it can vary the amount of assistance it gives to the driver when braking, and can compensate for a long pedal as the brakes get hot. The idea is that, no matter what the circumstance, the brake pedal feels the same every time you press it. Some have commented that this endows the brakes with an unusual feel, but I did not really experience this, finding a progressive feel to the pedal. There is an electronic handbrake with a button in the centre console. I had no issues with visibility, with a good field of view from the mirrors. Rear parking sensors were fitted which helped with judging how close to an obstacle the car was – useful when parking in tight spaces.
The interior design of the Stelvio takes inspiration from Alfa models of yore, with a double hump on the top of the dash for the recessed instruments, and a curved design that feels like it is focused on the driver. Some have complained that the interior quality is not up to the levels of that achieved by many of the Stelvio’s rivals but I beg to differ. Whilst it might not quite rival an Audi, it is well up to par with everything else, with plenty of soft touch surfaces, and judicious use of chrome and metal effect highlights and a larger dash inlay in a brushed dark metal-effect. Everything feels substantial to the touch. Those two humps in the dash mean that the main instruments, speedometer and rev counter are presented at the right height to make them easy to read. The water temperature and fuel gauge are presented as small bar-charts using a series of illuminating inset around the lower edges of the larger dials. Between them is a digital display are which presents trip computer and other data which you can cycle through. The steering wheel hub has the cruise controls on the left hand spoke and audio repeater buttons on the right hand one, with the larger button to start and stop the engine inset in the lower part of the left hand spoke. Lights are operated by a rotary dial on the dash to the left of the wheel and there are twin column stalks for indicators and wipers. The central part of the dash contains a well integrated 8.8″ colour display screen for the infotainment system. It is smaller than that which you will find in some cars these days, but the graphics including those for the navigation unit were clear and the system was responsive. There is a control wheel in the centre console which was easy to use. Below this are a pair of air events and then three rotary controls for the dual-zone climate control. The centre console houses the gear lever, electronic handbrake and the DNA button and that is it. Overall, the effect is one that is clean and simple looking, lacking the fussiness that you find in many cars these days.
Seat adjustment for those in the front is all manual, with plenty of variability for height, fore/aft movement and indeed backrest angle for those with especially long arms. Combine that with a steering column which telescopes in/out as well as up/down and I was quickly able to get the perfect position for me. The seats were leather trirmmed, and proved very comfortable. My notes record the fact that I did feel very much that I had a commanding position, exploiting the SUV-ness and sitting that bit higher than you do in a regular saloon car. There is plenty of space for those who sit in the rear of the Stelvio. Headroom is particularly generous, a consequence of the bodystyle, but there is also ample legroom. The central tunnel is smaller than you find in many cars, so a middle seat occupant would not find it interfered unduly, and the rear face of the central console did not protrude back too far. It had a pair of air vents on it. There is a drop down central armrest. As well as bins on the doors there are nets on the back of the front seats. Even with the load cover in place, the boot is a good size, being both wide and long. There are stowage wells on either side which occupy the space between the rear wheel arches and the rear of the car. A space saver is to be found under the boot floor. It sits in a well which fits quite tightly, so there is no real space around it for any odds and ends. The rear seat backrests are split asymmetrically 40:20:40 and they simply drop down on the rear seat cushion. The resulting load area is flat and long, making the Stelvio a capacious load carrier in this mode. Inside the cabin, there is a fairly small glovebox, bins on the doors, a small cubby over the driver’s left knee and one under the central armrest.
Italian market Stelvio models seem to mirror those offered in the UK. At launch there were four trim levels available, the entry level Stelvio, Super, Speciale and the limited production Milano Edizione and there was a choice of two engine versions, the 2.2-litre 210 bhp diesel Q4 AWD of the test car and a more potent 2.0-litre 280 bhp petrol Q4 AWD, both combined with an ZF eight-speed automatic transmission as standard. A few weeks later less powerful versions of each engine was made available, with a 180 bhp version of the 2.2 litre diesel and standard rear wheel drive, as well as a 200 bhp petrol car, with the Q4 all-wheel-drive. The potent Quadrifoglio version tops the range with deliveries starting around the time of this test. Stelvio comes with 17-inch 10-spoke alloy wheels, adaptive cruise control, Alfa Connect 8.8-inch screen, auto lights, auto wipers, auto emergency braking, DAB radio, dual-zone climate control, electric parking brake, engine start button, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, reversing sensors and a tyre inflation kit. Super trim adds 18-inch alloy wheels, 7-inch TFT instrument cluster, navigation, front parking sensors, part leather seats and a two-tone interior finish. Speciale adds 19-inch alloy wheels, xenon headlights, aluminium interior finishing elements, heated power leather seats, heated sports steering wheel, heated washer nozzles, power-folding door mirrors plus red brake calipers. Milano Edizione adds 20-inch alloy wheels, 10-speaker audio system, keyless entry, reversing camera, gloss black window surround, tinted rear glass and sports seats with power adjustment.
I was expecting to like the Stelvio. And I did. The positives start with the looks. To my eyes this is one of the best-looking cars of its type, successfully combining Alfa styling features with an overall design which avoid the fussiness that afflicts some rivals and yet which does not ask for compromises in the practicality which is why people buy cars of this genre. It drove well, too, with an impressively refined diesel engine which gave the car plenty of urge. Good steering and roadholding along with a pliant ride and low noise levels made this a fun car to take both for long distances or on twistier rural roads. With good levels of comfort and space and a nicely finished cabin, it ticked all the other important boxes equally convincingly. Whilst I have yet to sample all the Stelvio’s direct rivals, I would venture that they are unlikely to tick more of the proverbial boxes than this one did, so at least for now, I put it at the top of the class.