New Alfa Romeo Stelvio 2017 review – is Alfa’s new SUV as good as we hoped?

VERDICT: Alfa Romeo’s first SUV is a strong effort, if not quite up there with a Porsche Macan

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The level of hyperbole surrounding Alfa’s new Stelvio SUV is hard to listen to sometimes, but easy enough to understand – because the bosses at Alfa Romeo are really rather excited about what this car could do, no, will do to their bottom line.

Over the next five years, they say, the Stelvio will more than double Alfa’s sales worldwide. In the process it will transform the 105-year-old Italian car company into a ‘major world player’ in the increasingly lucrative premium segment. In the UK it could even account for as much as two thirds of Alfa’s sales once all versions become available during the next couple of years.

So it’s a big deal, the Stelvio, even though to begin with it won’t be available in the specification that will be of most interest to us evo readers and writers. Because to begin with, the really naughty version, (the one with the same 375kW (503bhp), 2.9-litre V6 twin-turbo that powers the excellent Giulia Quadrifoglio) won’t be available. This version, says Alfa, won’t become available until 2018 at the earliest (boooo…) during what the marketing team describes as “Phase Two” of the Stelvio’s launch schedule.

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Engine, transmission and 0-60mph time 

So for the time being we must make do with the two lesser versions, both of which we’ve driven here. The first is powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged, four cylinder petrol engine that boasts 205 km/h at 5250rpm and 400Nm at 2250rpm; the second is a turbocharged four cylinder 2.2-litre turbo-diesel and has 154km/h at 3750rpm and a more fulsome 470Nm at just 1750rpm up its sleeve.

For the 2.0-litre petrol model think 0-99km/h in 5.7sec, around 15sec to 160km/h and 230km/h flat out; for the diesel make that 6.6sec to 99km/h and 215km/h. So in all forms the Stelvio is quick with at least a lower case q. But we’ll need to wait for the 375kW Quadrifoglio to appear next year before the real sparks start to fly.

Alfa’s official claim for the top dog model is 3.9sec to 99km/h, which, for an SUV, will be reasonably chaotic. As will this car’s not-at-all-important Nurburgring lap time; again Alfa reckons the mega-Stelvio will be the quickest SUV ever around the Green Hell with a promised sub eight-minute lap time. Rear seat passengers will, I’m sure, be highly amused to find out.

Technical highlights

Based heavily on the underpinnings of the Giulia, all versions of the Stelvio come with an eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox as standard, with manual not even offered as an option. Not yet, and not in the UK at any rate. Inevitably all are four-wheel-drive, featuring the same clever electronic Q4 system pioneered on the Giulia that can vary torque by up to 50 per in either direction.

Front suspension is by conventional double wishbones while at the rear there’s a four-and-a-half multilink system, both ends being near identical in design to those of the Giulia. But the ride height is around 140mm higher than in the Giulia, which means the centre of gravity is also much higher, and as a result the dampers of the Stelvio are ‘quite a bit more expensive’ than those of the Giulia.

Why? Because Alfa’s intention is to make the Stelvio feel subjectively identical to the Giulia to drive. Which means the dampers, the entire suspension indeed, must work harder for its supper if a) the same roll and yaw control is to be achieved while b) some kind of ride quality is maintained.

Alfa’s engineers are quietly confident that they have succeeded, and they’re are also rather pleased about the weight of the Stelvio, or lack of it. And at 1660kg for the 2.0-litre petrol model, including fluids but not the regulated 75kg Euro-spec driver, you can see why. That’s a fair bit less than a Porsche Macan/Audi Q5/Jaguar F-Pace, and helps explain why the performance claims are as strong as they are.

Those same engineers – led by none other than Roberto Fedeli by the way, the man who made Ferraris as good as they were for 20-odd years before being poached by BMW in 2014, and then poached back by Sergio Marchionne in 2015 to mastermind the technical rebirths not just of Alfa but Maserati as well – are equally proud of the Stelvio’s chassis refinement. And, perhaps more intriguingly, its cabin quality.

Says Fedeli; ‘Getting the chassis just right and the consistency of response to the steering and brakes and throttle and so on was a key factor with the Giorgio Project, for sure’ he admits, the Giorgio Project being the internal code name for the entire Giulia/Stelvio program.

‘But harder still was achieving the right quality inside the car, and I’m very happy with where we ended up in this respect’ says Fedeli, who also admits to having hired several new German engineers to help him achieve the desired result ‘because this kind of thing is simply more in the culture of German engineers’ he explains. ‘We did whatever we needed to do…’ he says wistfully.

What’s it like to drive?

I tried the petrol version first and the first thing that struck me, long before moving away in it, was how well made it felt from behind the wheel – how high the quality levels were. Mr Fedeli and his team are right to be proud of their achievements in this respect because, compared with Alfas of even quite recent past, the overall quality really is in another orbit.

And it looks and even smells good inside, too. The basic dash architecture is pretty much a carbon copy of the Giulia’s, with a central 8.8in infotainment screen to the side of the two distinctive-to-Alfa main instruments, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

There’s more than a whiff of junior Maserati to the design inside the Stelvio, and although the driving position is some 190mm higher than in the Giulia, you don’t feel to be perched up too high in the car. The balance between increased SUV visibility and snuggled down sportiness is about right, in fact, much like it is in the Porsche Macan.

Space in the rear seats is also good but far from class leading, with room for a six-foot rear passenger to sit behind a six-foot driver but with no real luxuriant sense of space. The boot however is as big and usable as it gets at this level, featuring split seats and impressive height, width and breadth.

On the move the Stelvio displays a lightness of touch that’s initially quite surprising for an SUV, even a small sporting one such as this. The electric power steering is ultra-light in its weighting but also extremely direct, the ride more than decent as far as I could tell albeit on a fairly smooth surface while body roll is, as claimed, very well controlled indeed – to the point of virtual non-existence in most corners. The Stelvio rides and handles properly, in other words, and that’s another reason to be cheerful about it generally.

Switching between the “DNA” modes within the dynamic drive program alters the parameters for the gearbox, engine map, four wheel-drive system, ESP and so on – in order to sharpen up or smooth out the car’s key responses, claims Alfa. And it does, slightly, although I’d say make the differences between the various modes more dramatic if anything.

Performance from the 2.0-litre turbo engine is strong but not mind-boggling to be honest, despite Alfa’s claim of just 5.7sec for .99 km/h. But even if it never feels sub-six seconds to 60mph quick, there is little lag and a healthy shove of acceleration in the mid-range.

The sound from the engine, on the other hand, is a touch disappointing – despite the car’s dreaded noise amplification system, designed to enhance engine and exhaust noise through the speakers (ugh). As is the way it won’t rev much beyond 6000rpm before the limiter intrudes. Both aspects are a result of having to adhere to increasingly strict emissions regulations, admits Fedeli with a ‘can’t do much about it I’m afraid’ shrug.

What does work very well indeed, though, is the eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox. In auto mode it’s as smooth and seamless as you could want, and in manual it provides a welcome extra hit of driver control and appeal, with smooth but quick changes occurring at the flick of a paddle, up or down.

If anything, the diesel Stelvio I drove later on is the one to go for, because although it has less power than the petrol there’s a decent chunk more torque on tap, which lends it a deeper subjective level of performance where it counts. And because there’s little trade off to be shouldered beside the petrol in terms of engine or exhaust noise – both sound OK but nothing more, despite Alfa having apparently employed professional musicians to help perfect the car’s soundtrack – the diesel’s extra torque mated to its superior economy mean it probably has the edge overall.

As already intimated, though, we’ll need to wait for the Quadrifoglio to appear before the main firework display goes off on planet Stelvio.

Price and rivals

Competition for the Stelvio is a) fierce, b) comes in many different forms, and c) is already well established. But this is where the money’s at nowadays, admits Alfa’s new Canadian boss, Reid Bigland. So although it will be tough for Alfa to compete against the likes of the Audi Q5, Porsche Macan, BMW X3/X5, Mercedes GLC-Class and Jaguar’s F-Pace, compete with them they must – because the potential spoils in this market are already huge and, predicts Bigland, they will continue to rise like the proverbial salmon over the next 10 years.

For the time being, though, the Stelvio actually looks like one of the better value premium, medium size SUVs.

On this first evidence Alfa might well have a hit on its hands with the Stelvio. But we’ll need to spend more time with it back in the UK to underline such initial good feelings, even if the Quadrifoglio is as close to a shoe-in result as it is possible to get – on paper.

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