The Alfa Romeo brand is steeped in passion and motorsport history and is one of the oldest automotive brands, having begun the motoring careers of iconic names such as that of Enzo Ferrari, the founder of Scuderia Ferrari, who early on was Alfa’s works racing driver.
For many, it remains a brand that has designed some of the most beautiful and evocative cars on the planet and, for the most part, the sportiest too.
Earlier in 2017, we drove Alfa Romeo’s answer to the Audi A4 2.0 TFSI, BMW 320i and Mercedes-Benz C200 — the Giulia 2.0 — in Base specification and, for me, it felt the more focused, the more enjoyable to drive of the lot. Granted, it never quite imparts a feeling of tactile quality the Germans inherently possess, but it is the vehicle that tugged at my heartstrings.
Enter the Stelvio, essentially the Italian marque’s rendition of the compact premium SUV segment where the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Mercedes-Benz GLC jostle for position.
Named after Italy’s iconic mountain pass, the Stelvio is built on the Giulia’s platform and shares a similar wheelbase to its sedan sibling at 2,818mm, but boasts slightly longer overhangs both front and rear to aesthetically achieve those SUV proportions and, more importantly, the utility space in the boot.
The latter measures 525l in standard guise and can be increased to 1,600l with the rear seats folded. It also has a 200mm ground clearance, which is sufficient for a vehicle in this class.
Styling is one of the model’s fortes, distinct and something to behold from any angle. The rear has been given a decidedly bold take with a skid plate on the valance and chrome exhaust housing on each corner.
Our test unit was the R810,000 Super although there is also the First Edition model at R946,000, which has a higher level of specification, including 20-inch alloy wheels, leather pews and paddle shifts for the gearbox, which are not available on the Super variant. Not only are they great to use when driving enthusiastically, but also elevate the overall cabin ambiance of the model.
Speaking of the cabin, it is similarly laid out to the Giulia’s, with a three-spoke leather-bound steering wheel, deep, fluted instrument clusters and an 8.8-inch infotainment screen, replete with Bluetooth and navigation.
Yes, tactile quality is not quite up to that offered by the German triumvirate, but everything is well laid out, legible and intuitive. The front seats, although comfortable for the most part, did not offer quite the supportive feel afforded by the Giulia. Also, at the price, I was expecting at the very least partially electrically operated seats.
Powering the Stelvio is a 2.0l turbo, four-cylinder, petrol engine, similar to that of the Giulia, although the wick has been tuned up to 206kW and 400Nm driving through an eight-speed automatic gearbox to all four-wheels.
When driving the vehicle at its launch in the Western Cape, the first thing that grabbed us was how driver-focused it is. The engine offers a great deal of get up and go, particularly from about 2,500r/min, where the full quota of 400Nm pulls you along with gusto.
Its handling is superb, which was evident while snaking down the Franschhoek Pass, although the lack of paddle shifters slightly detracted from the involvement they would add to the driving cocktail, which was mostly superb.
We nosed the vehicle on to a rutted gravel road to see how it copes and to ascertain any build quality issues, but there were none to mention, with everything feeling particularly well screwed together.
Its surefooted, precise handling inspired the confidence to push even harder.
The steering feel was incisively sharp, communicating clearly to your palms what the front tyres were doing.
Overall, the Stelvio seems to have covered all the aspects of what a compact sporty SUV ought to achieve and offers a unique product to the market.
However, the bone of contention is the pricing — not so much the Super variant at R810,000, but rather the First Edition which, in my view, is snapping too close at the pricing heels of the superb BMW X3 M40i (R991,900), which we drove in Portugal in October and launches in SA this week.
It is in this contrast that I feel the Stelvio does not offer enough performance to justify its lofty price tag.
Also, Alfa Romeo would do well to offer diesel options to bridge the gap to the German offerings at the very least, but even then it seems that the exchange rate scuppers somewhat the Stelvio’s potential competitive edge.
For those with a high adrenalin threshold and who want more power from their Stelvio, the high-performance QV (Quadrifoglio Verde), which shares most of the performance DNA with the Giulia QV, will arrive in SA in the third quarter of 2018 when pricing will be announced, but don’t expect to pay anything below R1.5m at the current exchange rate.
Much like the Giulia, the Stelvio will appeal to the Alfisti and remain niche for the most part. However, one thing is for sure: it is the best-looking SUV in its segment and one of the sportiest, too.