Road test: 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio
Could this be the year that Alfa Romeo genuinely turns it all around, and sales take off in the way they should have done for the past 20 years? Never has a brand had such public goodwill, but utterly lacked the sales to back it up. If only I had a dirham for every time I hear the words: “I’d love to buy an Alfa but…” The “but” refers to the poor build quality and lack of after-sales care and customer support that this Italian performance brand has foundered on in recent times.
But here we are, with Alfa’s parent company, Fiat, now in a group with Chrysler, engineering brilliant chassis, introducing great engines and reawakening a sense of pride in dealerships, who find themselves with decent products to sell.
The revolution started with the well-received Giulia, a BMW 3-Series competitor, and now, here is the Stelvio, Alfa’s late plunge into the most crowded automotive sector: mid-sized SUVs.
The competition is fierce: Volvo XC60, BMW X3, Audi Q5, Mercedes GLC, Jaguar F-Pace, Porsche Macan. It’s a tough market, but if Alfa wants to make decent money, it needs to get stuck in.
First signs are excellent. This is possibly the best-looking mid-sized SUV out there. It has the trademark Alfa V-shaped grille, the flared haunches and coupe-like silhouette at the rear, all of which signal dynamic intent. Of course, it being an Alfa, you’ll want it in bright red.
There is one engine on offer: a 2.0-litre petrol unit in 280hp form, with all-wheel drive, denoted by Alfa’s Q4 badge at the rear. There is – batsqueak of excitement – a Ferrari-derived V6 petrol engine coming in the Quadrifoglio version, but that is not here yet. If you aren't bothered about fuel consumption or price, that will be the one to get. Meanwhile….
Both the petrol unit on offer and diesel variants available in Europe are mated to the familiar ZF eight-speed automatic transmission. The engines are incredibly impressive pieces of kit: Alfa has squeezed the aluminium units power, which is delivered to the wheels with no perceptible turbo lag – just a silky Italian verve. Power goes to the rear wheels, with torque sent forwards when loss of grip is detected.
It is the way this SUV handles, however, that really takes the breath away. Despite the raised ride height, there is barely any body roll. The steering is pin-sharp through the corners and feels incredibly accurate.
Much of the credit for the way this car handles however, is down to its weight. As well as perfect 50:50 weight distribution, the Stelvio has been on a diet, with an unusual carbon-fibre driveshaft. It is a highly potent recipe for a truly sporting SUV.
Inside, the Stelvio echoes the finest Italian tailoring traditions, with a smart mixture of dark surfaces and open-grain wood inserts. I test the limited-edition Milano Edizione, with its mixture of black leather and pale wood (Alfa is keen to stress that all materials are authentic; no nasty plastics parading as veneers or carbon-fibre). Such embellishments send the car’s price rocketing towards Dh215,000, but when it is as stylish as an Ermenegildo Zegna suit, you might consider it. One downside is the satnav, which Fiat Group cars still can’t get right – although stylish in its flat-screen surround, you can’t zoom out unless you go to a different setting. Crazy.
There is plenty of space fore and aft for adults, plus a boot fit for family luggage. But really, who cares about the family when you are let loose behind the wheel of a car this good? No wonder they named it after the Stelvio Pass, one of the most spirited driving routes in Europe. If there is a performance SUV set to vanquish Italy’s hairpin passes, it is this one. A truly great SUV, and a bit of a game-changer.