Driven: Alfa Romeo Stelvio

Carlton Boyce doesn’t like SUVs. But the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q4 makes its case more convincingly than most.

This is the review that nearly didn’t happen: after arranging to borrow a Stelvio from Alfa Romeo’s press office, my confirmation email went unread, which meant that the car didn’t arrive. With a packed road-test schedule, it looked like we wouldn’t be able to rebook it for many months to come, either…

However, when the chaps at Unity Automotive – Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Jeep, Ram, Abarth, Isuzu, Subaru, and MG main dealers and the same folk I bought my Jeep Wrangler Rubicon from – heard what had happened, they stepped in and offered to lend me one for a week, placing me back on schedule.

The rise of the SUV has been as steep as it has been unexpected, and almost every manufacturer now offers one. I’ve debated the merits of the SUV before (the summary is that I’m not a fan…) but the fact remains that we Brits have fallen deeply in love with their lofty driving position, load-carrying capacity and off-road stance.

As an SUV with a diesel engine under the bonnet, you would be forgiven for thinking that my test car wasn’t your archetypal Alfa Romeo, either. Yet you’d be wrong, because Alfa estimates that more than 80% of buyers will choose the oil-burner over the petrol.

It’s a topsy-turvy world out there, for sure.

And yet, largely because it is based on the Guilia – possibly the most exciting car in its class, as well as the most beautiful – the Stelvio is every bit an Alfa Romeo. While it might be more handsome than pretty, that’s par for the class it sits in, and all the usual exterior Alfa design cues – an offset front number plate, a shield-shaped front grille, and an aggressive visage – are there.

A cowled instrument pack, a small, flat-bottomed steering wheel and sports seats lend the interior a typically Alfa-esque feel, too. And, while the design teams at BMW and Audi aren’t going to lose any sleep, it does feel reasonably premium in there. Almost like a sporting saloon, thanks to the low-slung seats and cabin architecture. Almost Guilia-like, in fact.

That Guilia DNA ensures that it drives well for an SUV, as well. While a turbo-diesel engine, even the very good MultiJet II 2.2-litre turbocharged version, might not have been my first choice for a company with Alfa Romeo’s sporting heritage, there’s no denying its power and torque: offering 210bhp and 347lb.ft, it streaks to 62mph in 6.6 seconds and has enough mid-range power to punch its way past slower traffic whenever a gap appears.

As a Q4, its all-wheel-drive adds a sure-footed element to the handling, and eliminates torque steer completely, further helping cross-country times; there’s no need to feather the power in – just check the gap, indicate and power your way past. I found myself passing half-a-dozen cars at a time, when I’d originally budgeted for just a couple. This sort of performance makes living with a car much easier than would be the case with less power on tap.

And, remember the throttle goes both ways; driven fast but sensibly, I averaged more than 40mpg across almost 500 miles of mixed use, which is bang on what Alfa says it should manage. Schlepping along the motorway at the usual speeds showed that the Stelvio is impressively quiet and refined. Wind noise is almost completely absent, as is tyre noise.

The MultiJet II four-cylinder engine is impressively civilised for a diesel, even when it is being exercised at the upper reaches of the rev range. The eight-speed automatic gearbox works so well that the only thing I can really say about it is that I rarely needed to manually intervene. In fact, I barely noticed it at all and praise really doesn’t come much higher for an automatic ‘box.

Engine and gearbox aside, a large part of the Stelvio’s dynamic prowess is due to an unusually stiff bodyshell that is largely made of aluminium, as are many of the suspension components. This also makes it very light, usefully undercutting most of the competition at around 1650kgs. The combination lends the Stelvio a sprightly, agile feel that is rare in a car of this size and in this class.

Alfa’s ‘DNA’ chassis management system, which offers a choice of Dynamic, Normal, and All-Weather settings, is selected via a rotary controller. While Normal felt a bit stodgy – and, unusually for a British summer, I didn’t get the sort of weather with which to test the All-Weather setting – I felt that the sportiest setting worked the best for me, especially in terms of gear selection and handling. That’s becoming pretty standard across all marques these days, as engineers struggle to lower emissions. This means that Normal seems to be the default emissions testing setting, leaving Sport free to map the car as the engineers always intended…

Which brings us to the handling, the feature that lies at the very heart of an Alfa Romeo. Surely, the act of driving an SUV and the concept of driver enjoyment are mutually exclusive, even for an Italian car manufacturer? Er, no. While there is some body roll, I found that it was carefully calibrated, giving just enough to ensure that the driver knows what’s happening when they are pressing on, but never too much. It’s an impressive trick and one that is probably better balanced than anything in its class.

Nor is this at the expense of comfort because it rides fairly well, even on the sort of pock-marked streets and motorways that litter our country.

It’s not perfect, obviously. I couldn’t find out how to turn off the lane-departure warning, which led to a series of deep, discordant notes whenever I changed lanes or crossed the white line without indicating. That was very irritating.

As was my inability to set a destination using only the postcode. While there may have been a way of changing this, I couldn’t uncover it. I drive at least one new car a week, so am pretty proficient at working out how to operate a car’s basic functions and haven’t had to read an owner’s manual for years, largely because there simply shouldn’t be a need.

My test car cost almost £38,000, so the Stelvio isn’t a cheap car. Yet it probably represents good value given the generous equipment levels, peerless dynamic ability, and versatility it offers. And, pricey or not, it is usefully cheaper than either the Porsche Macan and Audi Q5, both of which start at more than £40,000. And, you know what? It’s an SUV I could actually live with…

Thanks again to Unity Automotive for the loan.

 

Carlton Boyce @motoringjourno