Alfa Romeo has finally joined the lucrative (but saturated) SUV segment. Does the company’s Stelvio SUV have what it takes to beat the competition? And is it still a ‘proper’ Alfa?
When it comes to the SUV market, Alfa Romeo is somewhat late to the party. Interestingly though, the company has been toying with the idea of building an SUV for a long time. As early as 2003, Alfa unveiled an SUV (called the Kamal) but nothing came of it. Now, 14 years later, we have the Alfa Romeo Stelvio (named after a famous mountain pass in the eastern Alps).
The question is: has the Stelvio been worth the wait? Is Alfa’s first ever production SUV, well… still an Alfa? Or is it a cynical cash grab that sacrifices Alfa DNA in an attempt to create a vehicle with mass appeal? That, indeed, is the tough task that Alfa Romeo – and Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche and Maserati, for that matter – are faced with: they need to create an SUV that will appeal to mainstream buyers, while also satisfying performance-focused brand loyalists. This is not an easy trick to pull off. In fact, it can be argued that it isn’t entirely possible: some compromises are always required. However, if you can protect brand DNA while offering a practical and versatile vehicle, you can satisfy all but the most hardcore of purists. Just look at Porsche, which no longer needs to work nearly as hard to defend the existence of the Cayenne. If you can build a vehicle that brings fun and sportiness to the SUV segment, and it helps finance ludicrous little sports cars in the process, you have a winner on your hands.
THE LOOK OF IT
But what about the Stelvio? Is it a winner? Well, let’s start with the look of the vehicle. It certainly looks like an Alfa, especially in the company’s signature red paint. At the front, there’s the famous Alfa ‘cloverleaf’ with large black air intakes, narrow lights and a sculpted bonnet. As you’d expect, nothing else on the road looks quite like it, certainly nothing in the compact SUV segment. Some might not like the looks, but that’s a good thing, since it shows that Alfa hasn’t created a boring SUV. Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it. And Alfa purists are unlikely to find much wrong with it.
The rear is arguably less successful, although it has to be admitted that the inherent shape of a compact SUV doesn’t leave designers much to work with. A nice touch, though, is a pair of shiny exhaust tips and a prominent protection plate that add some visual flair to a slab of a rear end with rather small lights.
In general, the Stelvio’s design can be called a success. It transposes essential Alfa design elements to an SUV body without the end result looking like a Frankenstein creation.
The interior of the Stelvio looks great, especially the cabin of the First Edition. It is stylish and modern, and has those quirky design flourishes we’ve come to expect of the Italians (these include a stop/start button fitted to the steering wheel and a centre screen that has been elegantly integrated into the dashboard). Design, build quality and finishes are perhaps not quite on the same level as some competitors (like the all-new BMW X3), but there is nothing to complain about here. The cabin is modern and well equipped, providing a great experience. It’s not class leading, but it is luxurious. And once again, it feels like an Alfa. Slide into that sporty leather seat and grasp that chunky steering wheel, and you know you’re in an Alfa Romeo.
THE ENGINE AND GEARBOX
When it comes to the engine, Alfa has kept things simple. There is only one engine available: a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol unit that develops 206kW of power and 400Nm of torque. You might have expected something burlier in a performance-oriented SUV (perhaps something with six cylinders), but don’t dismiss this engine too quickly. When you combine its performance capabilities with the Stelvio’s class-leading 1 660kg kerb weight, you’re left with an SUV that is quick and eager. The Stelvio can accelerate from 0–100km/h in 5.7 seconds, and has a top speed of 230km/h.
The engine is mated to an eight-speed ZF gearbox (the same one you’ll find in the X3 and Jaguar F-Pace) that shifts quickly, smoothly and reliably. Stick to
Alfa’s ‘normal’ driving mode, and shifts are silky smooth. Opt for ‘Dynamic’ mode, and you get a puncher experience with a gearbox that’s more likely to hang onto engine revs. Add the First Edition’s shiny paddles to the mix, and you have a wonderfully involving driving experience.
RIDE AND HANDLING
As good as the performance offered by the Stelvio’s engine/gearbox combination is, its ride and handling is even better.
Some might feel that the ride is a tad too stiff, but it suits the character of the Stelvio well. This is an SUV that needs to remain level and stable through corners. The steering is direct and responsive, and the vehicle responds well to input. In fact, few compact SUVs can equal the agility and composure of the Stelvio. It handles like a hot hatch. When behind the wheel, it’s easy to forget that you’re piloting an ostensible SUV. As mentioned, it is light, and has perfect 50/50 weight distribution that allows it to dance around a corner.
There’s an AWD system (Alfa’s Q4 system), but this is not an off-roader. The Stelvio does its best work on twisty tarmac. Even with the AWD system, the SUV is rear-wheel biased, with the system only kicking in when loss of traction is detected. If this happens, up to 50% of power can be sent to the front.
As an SUV creation, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio is an absolute success. It is an Alfa Romeo first, and a compact SUV second. When you’re behind the steering wheel, you easily forget that you’re piloting an SUV. Instead, you feel like you’re in a hot hatch. At the same time, though, Alfa’s engineers and designers haven’t indulged in so much navel gazing that they were left with a vehicle that would only appeal to purists. It is practical and spacious enough to appeal to a wide swathe of SUV buyers. Of course, Alfa has now thrown its hat into a rather crowded ring. There’s a lot of (excellent) competition, but the Stelvio deserves an opportunity. It’s a great vehicle worthy of the Alfa Romeo badge.
ALFA ROMEO STELVIO
Engine 2.0-litre four-cylinder in-line turbocharged petrol
Displacement 1 995cc
Power 206kW @ 5 250r/min
Torque 400Nm @ 2 250r/min
Transmission Eight-speed ZF automatic
4Wd system Alfa Romeo Q4 system
Kerb weight 1 660kg
Luggage space 500–1 600 litres
Price R810 000 (Super) & R946 000 (First Edition)