► An early steer in the Alfa Stelvio SUV
► Shows serious promise, with a few question marks
► We judge the production car in a week’s time
Alfa Romeo is not-so-quietly confident about the dynamic abilities of the Stelvio, its first ever SUV. ‘If you close your eyes in the passenger seat, you’ll ask yourself: “what kind of sports car am I in”?’ says Alfredo Altavilla, Alfa’s COO of Europe, with a twinkle in his eye. Its lack of handling compromise is claimed to be the reason Altavilla and chums cancelled plans for a Giulia sportwagon.
Stelvio as jacked-up, super-sporty five-door is not so far-fetched. For its foundations, the SUV takes the Giulia’s lightweight chassis with its 50:50 weight distribution, and direct steering (its 12.0 ratio is quicker than a Ferrari 458’s). Engineers have mounted the double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension (aluminium-intensive, naturally) just 35mm higher than on the saloon, accommodated larger wheels and tyres, and stretched the tracks for the longer, wider, 190mm taller body.
Alfa promises that advanced engines and leading power-to-weight ratios are a given. The Stelvio runs the same aluminium powerplants as the Giulia: 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol with 200 or 280bhp, and 2.2-litre diesel packing 180 or 210bhp. Apart from on the lower powered diesel, four-wheel drive is standard. It channels all torque to the rear wheels unless slip is detected, in which case up to 50% is transferred to the front axle, via a transfer case and front differential.
Okay, spec overload! What’s it like to drive?
The high-pressure turbo petrol is a fabulous engine: spinning smoothly and eagerly to its 295lb ft torque peak, unleashing a strong wave of momentum across the rev range, accompanied by a tremulous, bassy exhaust note that builds to a satisfying bellow. This Stelvio feels impressively quick off the line, and Alfa reckons it’s the fastest four-pot in its class, posting 0-62mph in 5.7secs. It’s mated to a smooth eight-speed automatic transmission, which responds pretty keenly to kickdown. Select dynamic mode with the ‘DNA’ selector, and wheel-mounted scimitars give you full control of snappy manual shifts.
Sporty drivetrain: tick. Sporty chassis? The overwhelming sensation is of impressive stability, gripping determinedly in the face of some committed cornering and bucking camber changes on the twisting roads above Alfa’s Cassino plant. You’ll be more nervy about mid-corner corrections under heavy yaw load than the Stelvio is. The steering is certainly quick off the dead ahead, with a light, springy action. It’s direct, but without the febrile sensation or descriptive feel of Ferrari’s racks.
And this Stelvio Super 280’s ride is certainly sporty, to the point of being pretty uncompromising. High-frequency bumps are mainlined into the cockpit for a jarring impact, followed by wave of oscillation that takes a while to settle. On the motorway, the wind roars past the rear window too. That’s a seal issue engineers should dial out for the car’s launch; in fact, this pre-production prototype feels suspiciously like it’s taken too many punches, and the dampers have thrown in the towel.
That’s confirmed by a quick blast in a 210bhp diesel ‘Super’ trim. The ride, though still firm, has a compliancy and composure that was lacking in the petrol. The diesel doesn’t have the thrilling intensity of the high output petrol, but it’s no slouch, with the acceleration benchmark completed in 6.6secs. Like the petrol, it’s smooth and with a very civilised installation, and the steering exhibits the same characteristics.
Can we expect lashings of Italian flair inside?
The cockpit keeps things noticeably simple: two analogue dials housed in Madonna’s cast-off bustier, a BMW iDrive-style rotary selector to select functions on the central screen. No endless banks of unfathomable buttons, nor wanton trim flourishes. Shame the gear selector and wheel-mounted starter button feel hollow and cheap.
The practical approach extends to occupant space. There’s heaps of room in the back, with knees several inches away from a tall driver’s seat position, and more headroom besides. The boot can stow 525 litres of cargo.
This prototype review comes with two caveats: we had a brief drive of two pre-production Stelvios with noticeably divergent refinement levels. As a result we’ll be updating this review next week, once we’ve driven actual production cars on the international launch.
That said, we can draw some clear conclusions about the Stelvio. The smooth and punchy drivetrains are great, as is the eight-speed auto ’box. The steering is fine rather than fantastic. And as you sit to attention in your low-set seat, looking out over the curved bonnet with its sporty, pronounced wings demarcating the edges of the car, and you demolish a series of curves, the overwhelming feeling is of a sorted, grippy, satisfying machine. Whether it’s the sportiest in its class – a Porsche Macan-beater – is a massive ask, and a matter that will need a long comparison drive to resolve. But like Jaguar with its F-Pace, Alfa has come from nowhere to deliver a capable and appealing first SUV. The brand’s rebirth continues.