So, you want an Alfa Romeo. Were you a biker, you’d know the Stelvio Pass is the most famous road in the world. Straddling the Italian and Swiss borders, it’s the highest paved pass in the eastern Alps — the second highest in the world — and boasts more than 75 brake-burning, tire-scrubbing tornantes (really, really tight turns in our lingo), joining Gomagoi to the north with Bormio on its southern extreme. It’s considered Mecca to bikers — its northern face is plastered on countless motorcycle adverts — the combination of smooth asphalt, banked hairpins, and the local constabulary’s generous interpretation of policing an irresistible combination for the superbike crowd. I’ve made the pilgrimage every year for the last two decades — save for 2020, of course — the melding of man, machine, and Italian con brio simply too much to resist.
The point of this reminisce — other than I really hate the COVID-19 travel ban — is that any vehicle, two-wheeled or four, that dares wear the Stelvio moniker as nameplate better have some seriously sporting bona fides. Doubly so if it’s a bloody SUV flying Alfa Romeo’s Visconti serpent on its hood. Thankfully, the Stelvio — at least the TI Nero Edizione I recently drove — does have the chops to back up its pretention.
For one thing, even the base engine has some moxie, the 280 horsepower and 306 pound-feet of torque on top of the field. We’re also talking zero to 100 km/h in less six seconds, not too shabby for a 1,818-kilogram sport-ute with four lowly pistons. And like so many Alfas, it makes delicious noises, its exhaust perhaps a little on the loud side of legal but delightful nonetheless. It’s a responsive little beast, all that power not coming at the expense of turbo lag and low-rpm sluggishness.
As long as the Stelvio’s DNA selector is in D (as in Dynamic) mode. In ‘Natural’ or ‘All-weather,’ the eight-speed automatic doesn’t seem happy, the Italians seemingly mistaking sluggish shifting for what consumers want when they demand smooth gear changes. I just left the DNA selector in D mode all the time and let ‘er scream.
The Stelvio, at least with its optional sport package, could probably also slash through those aforementioned hairpins with a little more elan than its Teutonic equivalents. Again in Dynamic mode, the steering is tight, roll very well contained (for a sport-ute) and the grip from its low-profile 255/45ZR20 Pirelli all-seasons prodigious.
Inside, the Stelvio’s cabin is pleasant but doesn’t quite have the hedonistic opulence that we’ve come to expect from the Italians. To be sure, the Alfa has to be built to a price — the TI’s base price of $56,545 is competitive with equivalent Audi Q5s and BMW X3s — but there’s the centre console seems a little Spartan for the price point. Seriously, just one USB port? And Alfa Romeo, making its suite of active safety features a $2,395 option, when many of the same systems are standard on the lowliest of Toyotas, is not something a brand only recently returned to Canada should propogate.
That said, Alfa has upped the ante for 2020 and upgraded its UConnect-based infotainment to a 8.8-inch touchscreen. The interface is tile based and can be a little confusing — the “connect now” button for Bluetooth is really tiny — but once familiar, it’s an excellent system. And, if the standard accommodations are a little austere, there’s a $4,500 “Customer Preference Package 22S” that will take care of that with sport leather seats, black headliner and window surrounds not to mention a leather-wrapped flat bottom steering wheel and sport-tuned suspension (though quite why the firmer dampers are in one package and the bigger wheels in another is a question only an Italian product manager can answer.
And, finally there’s the intangible — style. To be honest, Alfa has not revolutionized the segment as, say, the Range Rover Evoque did back in 2011. But there’s more flair here than you’ll get from its other competitors. The rear appears Porsche Macan-like, but with a little more drama. The front sports bulges and scoops in all the right places, and my oh my, is Alfa’s traditional front grille — blacked-out in this Nero edition — not a thing of beauty.
But does it all add up to enough to challenge the might of Audi, BMW, and Mercedes? Technically, absolutely! The Stelvio has enough sprightly moves and comely looks to taker on the best of Germany, if not beat them. But is that enough? I’m not sure if the Stelvio’s advantages — at least on the base version — are enough to conquest those legion brand slaves. Certainly, FCA Canada’s new “Control” digital advertising campaign — “For Alfa Romeo, the driver is always at the centre,” said Tim Kuniskis, FCA’s global head of Alfa Romeo and passenger cars — can’t come soon enough. Alfa Romeo’s biggest problem still the fact that they don’t make enough initial shopping lists.
You want to play it safe. The opposite is true of Audi’s Q5, the default choice in the segment. Stylish without being dramatic and quick without being scintillating, it’s the mainstream choice when you’re shopping $50,000 luxury sport-cutes.
The Q5’s best foot forward is its interior. Top-shelf materials and impeccable build quality are married to an excellent infotainment system and top-notch ergonomics, none of which the Alfa can quite match. It’s also roomier in the back seat as well as the cargo area. As you might expect, the Q5 is the practical, sensible German compared with the flashy Italian.
But, despite fairly legitimizing 2.0-litre turbo-fours as legitimate luxury segment powertrains, Audi’s 2.0L unit can’t hold a candle to the Alfa’s booming four. The Audi’s 248 horsepower is some 32 down on the Alfa, and the Stelvio’s 306 lb-ft of torque is 33 more than the Q5. And that pretty much sums up the comparison of the two: the Stelvio occupying the role of brash interloper, while once underdog Audi is the established, now slightly staid veteran.
You want the ultimate driving machine. Well, that would seem to point you in the direction of BMW’s X3, now wouldn’t it?
BMW’s solution to being competitive in the junior luxury SUV segment is to surround its competitors with not one, not two, but three distinct mid-priced powertrain packages. First up, there’s the base xDrive 30i, it’s 2.0L turbo-four boasting the same 248 horses as the Q5. The next up is the xDrive 30e, which adds a plug-in electric hybrid drivetrain to the aforementioned turbo-four, arriving at 288 horsepower. And then there’s the Mac Daddy of regular X3s, the xDrive M40i with 382 ponies. The hybrid offers excellent off-the-line torque, and of course, the inline-six in the M40i is a model of BMW deliciousness. But both cost significantly more than the base Stelvio, which in a straight line at least, puts the X3 on the trailer.
As for BMW and its famed road-holding, it’s a bit of a toss up between the two. BMW is still the master of delicate steering, the Stelvio’s feedback through the steering wheel not quite as precise as the X3. On the other hand, Alfa Romeo really is the master of suspension tuning, the Stelvio rolling but a smidge during hard cornering yet extracting no penalty in ride compliance. It’s a combination whose origins lie in Alfa’s incredible test track facility which is a combination of road race course and motocross track. In the end, it’s high compliment to both that they’ve elevated the expectations in the sport-ute segment.
You want the ultimate performance SUV. Then march on down to you local Alfa dealer and plunk down $93,700 — and more, if you want all the options — on the rompin’, stompin’ Quadrifoglio model. Imbued with 505 horsepower of twin-turbocharged Ferrari goodness — the QF’s V6 is basically a 488’s V8 with the front two cylinders lopped off — the top-of-the-line Stelvio is the schoolyard bully of the segment. Tires squeal, exhausts roar, and it fairly flings around corners. Hell, Car and Driver recorded a 3.4-second sprint from rest to 60 mph (96 km/h) in the Stelvio Quadrifoglio, enough to worry Porsche 911 Turbo owners and putting everything else in then segment — including the V8-powered Jaguar F-Pace SVR and the Porsche Macan Turbo — on the trailer.
As I said, the base Stelvio’s only issue is it doesn’t quite stand enough above its competitors to give loyal brand slaves reason to leave their Bavarian comfort zones. The Quadrifoglio does, though, and by a significant enough margin that I think you’d be silly to shop Munich instead of Milan when you’re going for the full-zoot sport-ute.
Alfa Romeo Stelvio, Sport utility vehicle
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