Alfa Romeo Stelvio

First Drive: Alfa Romeo Stelvio

Has Alfa Romeo finally put the Sport into SUV?

Alfa Romeo has done something very un-Alfa. The iconic brand that brought us countless driver’s gems and icons like the 2000 Sportiva, Montreal and T33/2 Stradale has built the sports car equivalent of the Antichrist.

The Stelvio is its first proper SUV; an unashamedly big ‘n’ tall beast built on the chassis of the Giulia. There’s more than a bit of ambition in its name, though, slapping down a marker by referencing the famous hairpin-heavy Stelvio Pass in the Italian Alps, close to the Swiss border. The whole Stelvio National Park is littered with the kind of corners that make Darwin’s law true for cars: out here, it’s survival of the fittest.

It’s a strange-looking car, this Alfa, not least because trying to equate the V-grille and the latest family face into a car bigger than some London bedsits is no easy task. But one thing is for sure; it looks much, much better in person than it does on film. Stepping outdoors to take in its curves under the cool Alpine sun, the curvaceous bonnet and doors glow like they’re lit from within.

With a big boot and loads of rear legroom sprinkling a dash of suspiciously un-Italian practicality into the mix, it’s obvious why Alfa has built this car. It’s going to appeal to a lot of people for very Alfa-atypical reasons.

There are two engines in a single state of tune each, to begin with, but at least one lower-powered version of both is on the way – plus, of course, a turbocharged V6 Cloverleaf version, these days just known by the Italian Quadrifoglio Verde. For now, orders are confined to a 276bhp petrol and a 206bhp diesel.

Picking a petrol and stepping in, there’s the sudden realisation that Alfa might have been taking notes from the Germans when it comes to interior layout and design. It’s brilliant in here. The dials are clear and stylish white-on-black, the sharp displays are controlled by intuitive rotary dials and the driving position is bang-on, instead of having the pedals pushed way out of line like Italian cars of old. At the same time as all this unfamiliar logic there’s an overriding sense of style. It’s functional but it’s definitely not boring. It’s a pity that one or two of the dials feel like they’ve emerged from Christmas crackers, but on the whole it’s a fine job.

The Stelvio is automatic-only, with a familiar and wonderful eight-speed ZF torque converter doing the honours. It picks up smoothly and plays it cool as the car passes out of St Moritz, past a couple of Audi RS 6s and a G-Wagen. Low-speed shifts are so delicate with the DNA drive mode dial in N-for-normal.

Although it looks like it deserves a bigger engine the Stelvio makes do with four cylinders and a slightly disappointing two litres. Surely it deserves something more exotic? Either way, the petrol has been given an artificial grumble that whispers through the dashboard. It’s deliberately audible but not intrusive. Even on Pirelli winter tyres, at 30mph the car is as quiet as the church mouse AGM. The suspension is majestic, too, with a sublime ride quality that makes a mockery of a lot of SUVs you could name.

With style, interior design and refinement all ticked off, we reach the bad news. Although the exceptionally fast steering ratio does a lot to lighten the car’s feet, giving it agile dynamics on turn-in, there’s really not a lot going on to thrill anyone behind the wheel. The steering is pretty numb, at least on such smooth Tarmac, and the engine drones at higher revs, getting breathless beyond 5,000rpm. It doesn’t feel particularly quick, either, despite quick engine responses above 2,500rpm and gear shifts that, in D-for-dynamic mode, give you a satisfying whump as the next cog slides home.

Normally this 276bhp petrol is rear-wheel drive, but under power it sends up to half of its Italian sass to the front. It neutralises the balance on corner exits and gives impeccable stability even when you’re pushing like you’re going to be late for the delivery of your first child, but it does rather sap the fun. When the chassis and suspension are as well sorted as they are, the engine and dynamics both let the side down.

It’s a nearly, but not quite; the same story that’s always told with SUVs that claim to be sports cars. The Stelvio will be a completely wonderful everyday luxury car, with space for holiday luggage, enough legroom for the kids to stretch out and more style than the neighbour’s Q5 could dream of. But does it have the right stuff to thrill like an Alfa Romeo called Stelvio? I’m afraid not.

Model Tested: Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q4 2.0 280
Price: £35,000 est
Engine: 2.0-litre turbo petrol
Top speed: 143 mph
0-62 mph: 5.7 seconds
Power: 280 PS (276 bhp)
Torque: 400 Nm (295 ft lb)
Official fuel economy: 40.3 mpg
Road Test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: 161 g/km
VED Band: £500 Yr1 / £140
Car insurance group: TBA
Kerb weight: 1,735kg
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Matt Kimberley

Frequent photographer. Occasional journalist. Always for hire.

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