Stelvio Pass in the Italian Alps is considered to be the most-epic drive on earth, much beloved by sports car drivers and motorcyclists. The highest mountain pass in Italy, reaching an altitude of more than 9,000 feet, it twists through 48 challenging curves and switchbacks in 12 miles of unbridled elation.
So Alfa Romeo put a lot of pressure on its new SUV by naming it Stelvio. Lofty expectations were placed on the crossover wagon, that not only would it uphold the sporting heritage of the revived Italian brand, but deliver the goods with enough elan to inspire exploits on great driving roads.
Stelvio does drive with lightness and agility, with sharp steering response, exceptional handling (for an SUV) and a feeling of connectedness not generally found in this most-practical sort of vehicle. Based on the same underpinnings as the Giulia sedan – a new platform that has generated wide acclaim – Stelvio does indeed perform the way one might expect for a premium SUV built by the legendary sports car company.
Alfa already has impressed drivers with its latest generation of sports cars and GTs, and while it might still seem strange that such a motorsports legend would produce a crossover SUV, everybody knows that’s what it takes to ensure success these days. And midsize luxury crossovers are the hottest part of the market.
Porsche showed how a sports-car brand could find happiness with a pair of SUVs to carry much of the company’s financial burden, so why not Alfa Romeo? Still, the new Alfa crossover is tasked with competing with such midsize luxury stalwarts as BMW X3, Lexus RX and Audi Q5
Alfa is betting the farm that Stelvio’s sporty driving dynamics will attract those who need a crossover but want a sports sedan. The automaker has taken its high-performance model, the Stelvio Quadrofoglio powered by a 505-horsepower twin-turbocharged V6, and challenged the Nurburgring, where it ran the 12.9-mile Nordschleife circuit in just under eight minutes, faster than any other production SUV and a respectable time for any production vehicle.
Quadrofoglio, by the way, is Italian for four-leaf clover, an Alfa Romeo emblem that goes back to its early racing days and which has been used consistently throughout its existence.
Our test Stelvio was a less-muscular Ti Sport model with a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 that also has been engineered to provide impressive output: 280 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 306 pound-feet of torque starting at 2,000 rpm. Zero to 60 comes in just 5.4 seconds and top speed is 144 miles per hour, according to the manufacturer.
Coupled with a quick-shifting 8-speed automatic, the 4,000-pound SUV flaunts its sparkling acceleration as well as delivering decent fuel mileage. The upgraded Ti Sport comes equipped with large aluminum shifter paddles that react with lightning speed and are much fun to play with.
The Brembo brakes, with four pistons up front and two in the back, are terrific, encouraging driver engagement on winding roads. Stelvio features an electromechanical integrated braking system that improves responsiveness.
All Stelvios come with all-wheel drive that is continuously adjusted by what’s called a Chassis Domain Controller, with the power going primarily to the rear wheels in regular driving with up to 60 percent transferred up front if the system senses the need. The Alfa could then do some mild off-roading, although the 20-inch wheels and low-profile Continental performance tires would hardly be appropriate. The AWD in this case is mainly for heightened control on pavement.
The crossover also was equipped with three dial-selected driving modes, artfully named DNA: D for Dynamic, N for normal and A for Advanced efficiency, which delivers the best fuel mileage. The DNA settings adjust the throttle response and the turbo-boost pressure, and on the Ti Sport and Quadrifoglio, the suspension response as well.
I mostly enjoyed the Stelvio in N, which provided plenty of driving edge, finding the D setting too aggressive for regular driving, although it does make the crossover spring to life on a fun back road. The Quadrofoglio has an additional setting, R for Race, which is self-explanatory.
Yes, I loved driving this dramatically different crossover, an Italian twist on a familiar theme.
The suspension is fairly taut, which sharpens the handling but might be too buffeting for those accustomed to the soft rides of most SUVs. There’s also a base Stelvio model and a Ti Lusso version that could be a bit more compliant.
The steering is highly responsive to even the smallest driver inputs, which requires some restraint since this is still an SUV that stands tall with a high center of gravity and not a low-slung sports car.
On the outside, Stelvio’s lineage is immediately apparent from the hero-size Alfa shield grille, as well as the script Alfa Romeo lettering on the tailgate. The roofline slopes in a sporty way, which looks attractive but narrows the loading space, making it less functional as a cargo carrier. Bright-red brake calipers gleam between the spokes of the alloy wheels.
The luxury interior is very Italian and very nice, well-designed and rendered in materials with a quality feel. The dashboard and door panels are covered with attractive textures, and the leather seats are supportive, with plenty of legroom for an extra-tall driver.
Some of the electronic gear had issues: I never could get the bright lights to work consistently, nor did I ever find peace with the audio-system controls. Warning chimes were extremely loud, as was the “wump!” sound for the lane-departure warning; there is a volume adjustment in settings, but it was already turned to its lowest point, so I just had to live with the occasional racket.
The Stelvio came equipped with a stop-start engine function, which turns off the engine when you come to a stop and restarts it when you remove your foot from the brake. A good feature that saves gas in city traffic, but the restart often seemed jerky and abrupt. I’ve experienced much more seamless systems.
The base price for the Stelvio Sport Ti is $43,995, with the myriad options added to the tester bringing it to $54,090, including shipping. The base Ti Sport comes very well-equipped, with the added options including a sport package with a number of cosmetic and performance features; a driver-assist package, with electronic features for safety and convenience; a dual-pane sunroof; and the superb Harman Kardon premium audio system.
There’s a good case to be made for choosing a Stelvio over other midsize premium SUVs, particularly if you are a driving enthusiast or a major fan of Italian vehicles, and there are many of you out there. It is distinctive and performs very well, which should take much of the onus away from driving a crossover instead of a sports car.
2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Ti Sport AWD
Vehicle type: five-passenger, five-door crossover, all-wheel drive
Base price: $43,995 Price as tested: $54,090
Engine: 2.0-liter inline-4, 280 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, 306 pound-feet of torque starting at 2,000 rpm Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 111 inches Overall length/width: 184.6 inches / 74.9 inches
Curb weight: 4,044 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 22 city / 28 highway / 24 combined
Assembled in: Cassino, Italy