Named for one of the most famous and torturous ribbons of tarmac on the planet, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio has a lot to live up to
Collecting A new Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio from the brand’s headquarters in Milan and taking it directly to the performance SUV’s namesake location of the Stelvio Pass and back. About as unimaginative a drive adventure story as there is. But the Stelvio Pass is as much a pilgrimage as is driving the Nürburgring or Mount Panorama.
Yet the opportunity to take Alfa Romeo’s latest for a quick spin didn’t quite work out that way. Figuring I had a week or so up my sleeve between commitments, I hatched a plan to combine work with play. Over the past three years, Italy has become a second home in the European summer, so a quick day trip to the Stelvio Pass and back (the Pass is surprisingly close to Milan) turned into borrowing the Stelvio for a week and taking it to the Tuscan roads that I know well.
So, what are my first thoughts? Well it’s hard to not be taken aback by the locals’ own reaction to Alfa Romeo’s first SUV. The universal language of a thumbs up is a pretty good indicator, but for most it’s noise, not the sight, that is their first experience of the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q.
As highlighted in previous pages, you can blame what lies beneath the Stelvio Q’s aluminium bonnet for announcing its arrival. As with the Giulia Quadrifoglio, with which it shares the twin-turbocharged 2.9-litre Ferrari-designed V6, the hottest Stelvio produces 375kW and 600Nm. The eight-speed ZF torque converter auto is also common, but here it’s been recalibrated to suit both the increase in kerb weight over the sedan and the all-wheel-drive system. Even though the Stelvio Q weighs 245kg more than the Giulia, the all-wheel-drive SUV is actually 0.1sec faster than its sedan sibling, and will reach 100km/h in 3.8 seconds. And there’s little let up in its fury as it storms to a 283km/h vmax. That’s supercar quick and not far off a supercar top speed.
I begin my drive by exiting Alfa Romeo’s HQ directly into one of Milan’s legendary traffic jams. For some reason I’m okay with that, and I use the traffic jam to plan my course towards the Tuscan hills of Cortona. As soon as the roads open up, the Stelvio rapidly builds and maintains speed, and it feels every bit as eager to leap forward as its sedan brother. It also helps being a little higher than the rest of the traffic on the autostrada and, for the first time, I start to get the whole SUV thing.
Heading towards Tuscany, I find myself with an Italian police motorcycle escort – instead of slowing down to the official (but rarely obeyed) speed limit of 130km/h they encourage me to keep up. At first, I feel like I’m falling for an expensive trap and gaol time, however, I then realise that the police are enjoying the noise of the Stelvio Q as it cracks through the gears. One of them even gestures for me to run up and down through the gears.
For a good 10 minutes we travel at some seriously high speeds in brilliant sunlight until, as we exit a tunnel, we run into the heaviest downpour I’ve ever encountered. The Stelvio keeps its cool, its all-wheel-drive traction coming in handy. But eventually, the downpour becomes so heavy that it feels like I’m driving in a car wash and all cars, in beautiful synchronicity, come to a complete halt in the middle of the autostrada. It is a display of unified common sense that I’ve never seen before.
Suddenly, people start bashing heavily on my windows! Without thinking I unlock the doors and simultaneously three men leap into the car. It’s the motorcycle policemen escaping the weather.
For the next 15 minutes we wait out the downpour, while they poke and prod every part of the Stelvio’s interior like they are doing a weapons search. And for the whole time, they keep asking me to floor the accelerator so that they can hear the exhaust crack. Every time I do as they ask (what choice did I have?), they respond with approving nods while patting each other on the back in what I take to be a sign of pride in what their country has produced. They also ask the usual questions about life in Australia, which basically means questions about sharks and disbelief that it takes 24 hours of flights to get there.
Then, just as soon as the clouds arrived, the sky clears and we are baking in sunlight and mid-30-degree temperatures again. A great opportunity to open the windows and listen to the Stelvio’s exhaust note but also to dry out the 100 litres of water my police friends imported into the Stelvio’s cabin.
Arriving at my destination in the late afternoon and parking up for the night, I find myself looking back at the Stelvio Q with genuine respect. It has just covered a rather long distance, sometimes at supercar speeds, yet I’ve arrived feeling just as fresh as I did when I got to Alfa’s HQ six hours earlier.
The rolling hills above Cortona provide endless winding roads higher into the Tuscan mountains. They are a real-life version of PlayStation tarmac rally stages and the Stelvio Q feels right at home. These roads are almost worth the trip alone, and part of their charm is to park on the shoulder to watch locals in Fiat Pandas pulling impossible angles as they treat it like it’s part of the Targa Florio.
But Cortona is not the Stelvio’s home. That is just over 650km north. Rising early to avoid traffic, I begin the return journey sadly without my police outriders. The Stelvio just powers along the autostrada at speeds that belonged to genuine supercars not so long ago. I have to remind myself that this SUV is packing 375kW. It is also an incredibly comfortable place to be, especially when you encounter dreaded traffic jams as you pass Florence and Bologna.
The last time I crossed the fabled Stelvio Pass was in a Ferrari California at the tail end of spring. At that time snow was still piled two metres high on the side of the road. Besides a couple of crazy bikers, it was otherwise deserted. This time we are in high summer. And with summer comes day-tripping crowds that can turn this dream road into a traffic jam of the likes one experiences driving to Flemington on Melbourne Cup day. The secret? Stay in the seriously beautiful town of Bormio, a stone’s throw from the entrance to the Stelvio National Park, and start making your way up at first light.
The start of the day means that there are cyclists everywhere. Climbing the Stelvio Pass, a regular on the Giro d’Italia calendar, is as much a pilgrimage for them as it is for motoring enthusiasts. Half expecting abuse and arm waving, I’m surprised when, instead, many of the cyclists celebrate the Stelvio.
Heading up the Stelvio Pass, the Alfa is most comfortable being driven on the throttle, the rear being pushed into the tarmac while you subtlely alter its attitude with the ample power. The power and dynamic balance are rather handy traits when you consider that the Stelvio Pass has 75 hairpin turns and it climbs to a height of over 2700 metres. Even with all-wheel-drive surety, the 375kW always allows you a degree of adjustability via the throttle.
The secret is that default mode for the Stelvio Quadrifoglio is rear-wheel drive. It’s only when it detects an angle of slip or a loss of traction that it directs up to 50 per cent of the engine’s torque to the front wheels through a carbonfibre propshaft.
There are a lot of times on the Stelvio Pass where you just need to pull over and take in the scenery for this is a magical place. During one of these times, I hear the barking of something serious.
Between the many tunnels on the Italian side of the Pass, I glimpse a red Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale in the distance. I cannot get into Alfa quick enough, and as the Ferrari flies past, I take off in pursuit. In Race mode and moving up and down the gears, the aural assault the Stelvio produces, while not as dramatic as the Ferrari’s in front, is right up there with the crisp crack of the Mercedes-AMG C63 S and BMW M4 and, of course, Alfa’s own Giulia Q. Performance and dynamics are not far off the C63/M3/Giulia trio as well and, to my surprise, I’m keeping up with the Stradale. Sure, the track-honed Ferrari can pull a gap whenever it wants but the Stelvio is holding its own all the same.
Eventually the Stradale turns around and heads back towards Switzerland and I pull up at the Pass’ peak, which takes on a bit of a party atmosphere during the day. I am greeted by the store owners who, with massive arm movements and hand signals, indicate explosive noises coming their ears while pointing at the Stevlio Quadrifoglio’s exhaust. For a second, I confuse their excitement for anger and I try to apologise. Instead they pat me on the back and begin to clap.
The Stelvio QV is a seriously impressive piece of kit. Steering, brakes, chassis and that engine combine to deliver an experience which makes you forget you are in an SUV. It covers its SUV weight well, has impressive body control and can really be manipulated by the driver. It may well be fast, but it’s not simply a fuss-free point-to-point machine – it’s far more fun than that. by Matthew O’Malley