In 1995, after years of declining sales, Alfa Romeo stopped selling its 164 sedan and said goodbye to the US market. Fans of Italian football—and I count myself among them—were crushed. I’ve owned a pair of Spiders—a 1973 and a 1982—and I’m a card-carrying member of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club. American Alfa fans are watching from afar as the company continues to launch new cars in Europe, hoping the brand will cross the Atlantic once more.
Those hopes came to fruition a few years ago when Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which owns Alfa Romeo, began selling the 8C Competizione and a new 4C Spider. But if you want to crack the American market, you’re going to need more than a pair of pricey roadsters. Earlier this year, we reviewed the Giulia Quadrifoglio, Alfa’s performance sedan, which my colleague Jonathan Gitlin rated as one of the best cars he’s driven this year. Convinced people who shop at Audi, BMW, and Lexus dealerships to take Alfa Romeo seriously need more than a sports sedan, however. That’s where the Stelvio comes in.
Named after the Italian mountain record, the Stelvio marks Alfa Romeo’s first foray into the crossover/mini-SUV market in the US. I am the closest thing Ars has to a crossover fan, as I have owned a Chrysler Pacifica (crossover model manufactured from 2004 to 2008) for ten years. I even had experience with what was a controversial first crossover, the AMC Eagle, after inheriting one that my grandmother could no longer drive. (The less said about that car, the better.)
We look under the hood
Alfa has equipped the Stelvio with an aluminum 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Those four cylinders put out 280 horsepower, 306ft-lb of torque, and a top speed of 144mph. More impressively, Alfa claims the Stelvio can go from zero to 60mph in just 5.4 seconds. After several days behind the wheel, I have zero reason to doubt that number.
If that’s not enough for you, there’s a Stelvio Quadrifoglio coming in the next couple of months. Alfa has not officially confirmed the prices, but the more-expensive Quadrifoglio will rock a 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6-in relation to the V8s now used by Ferrari (puppies have something out 505hp with a top speed of 177mph). The Quadrifoglio will be the fastest SUV on the market, Alfa says.
But we’re not here to talk about $75,000 crossovers. The Stelvio comes with an MSRP of just under $44,000. The model I drove—the Stelvio Ti Sport AWD—includes a sport package, a cold weather package, and a driver assistance package. All that brings the sticker price to $53,640, which compares favorably with the BMW X3, Audi Q5, Lexus RX 450, and others of its kind.
The Stelvio has all-wheel drive but is effectively rear-wheel drive most of the time, with 90 percent of the power going to the rear axle under normal conditions. (Amendment: 100 percent of the power can go to the rear wheels, according to Alfa). When needed, up to 60 percent of that power is directed to the front axle for a true AWD experience. The Sport comes with optional 20-inch aluminum wheels, and a bright red brake caliper with Alfa Romeo logo visible between the spokes.
At first glance, the Stelvio is eye-catching. The front end borrows heavily from the Giulia, with the logo and heart-shaped grill. It has sleek lines with nice curves, and I noticed the occasional head turn in parking lots and on the road. Ground clearance is slightly less than other, comparable crossovers, but I had a hard time intending to take a serious route in the Stelvio. This is a car that you will drive across the dirt road to the river camp, instead of going straight to the lodge at the top of the hill. And you will enjoy every minute of the drive.
An interior inconsistency
The Stelvio is a truly irresistible blend of luxury and luxury once you leave yourself in the driver’s seat. The dashboard sports some carbon-fiber trim, but the dashboard material itself is a rubbery material that would feel more at home in a $20,000 econobox than a $50,000 luxury crossover. Manual seats, racing style seats are easy on the eyes, but they feel a little less important. If you are on the brawny side and are not used to the style, you may find them uncomfortable at first. My wife, who weighs about 125lbs, also finds them a little too interesting. But I’m used to the seats as the miles are marked by. There is plenty of headroom, unless you are 6’6″ like my videographer.
The bench style rear seats are really basic and cannot be adjusted at all. There is a middle seat, but I don’t think anyone over the age of eight would enjoy sitting there. If there are only two passengers in the back seat, the middle section folds down, offering two cup holders and an armrest. Legroom is adequate, helped by the curvature of the front seats.
The cargo area is a decent volume, and with the rear seats folded down as far as they go—not fully flat, mind you—you can haul a bunch of luggage, suitcases, or whatever you want back there. Rural parents who need to chauffeur two kids and all their gear will have no complaints.
Instrument clusters and multimedia systems are a mix of bad and not-so-bad. The instrument panel has a screen between the speedometer and tachometer that can display speed, trip information, current mileage, and the like. It’s good. The multimedia interface is not.
Stelvio’s multimedia display features a standard 6.5-inch screen; the one I drove had an upgraded 8.8-inch screen. It’s a brilliant visual display, but navigation is clunky. Entering an address into a GPS is an ordeal of turning and clicking a big wheel. There is no Uconnect touchscreen as in Fiat and Chrysler models. And you can’t yet bypass Alfa’s infotainment system in favor of CarPlay or Android Auto—support is coming within the next few months, according to Alfa. Everything is not very intuitive, and the $44,000 car deserves better.
Out on the street
I have never driven a car like the Stelvio. When you see it in a parking lot or on the street, it registers as a crossover in your mind. When you sit behind the steering wheel, you are not sure. Once you get out of the parking lot and hit the road, it doesn’t feel like one at all. If the Audi Q5 insulates you from the road with its quiet comfort, the Stelvio connects you to the road in a very authentic way.
The Stelvio offers three driving modes: Dynamic, Natural, and Advanced. Advanced Drive strives to improve fuel economy, while Natural gives you a smooth, stable fun crossover ride. A high-energy situation, that gets my adrenaline pumping.
In Dynamic mode, the transition points are slightly delayed, and the pressure on the gas is very profitable. The engine sounds glorious, and the cars just fly. The handles are rock solid, too. The more time I spend behind the wheel of the Stelvio, the happier I get.
On the country roads around me, I always feel like I’m clinging to the ground, even when I’m singing around the traffic. The lines are good with the exception of the rear window, but the standard backup camera makes up for the small rear window when reversing. As the Stelvio sits lower than other crossovers – such as the Chrysler Pacifica I’ve had for years or, say, the Audi Q5 or Q7 – I’m not left wondering where, exactly, the front end of the car is.
If you want to go manual, you can use the gigantic metal paddles behind the flat-bottomed, leather steering wheel to shift through the eight-speed transmission. The only time I tend to use them is when going down hills, and the Stelvio has a special downhill cruise-control system. (As I live in the second largest state in the US, I couldn’t find a hill to test the boat on.) The paddles work well if hand shifting is your thing, but I would prefer something that least; the paddles completely reveal the turn signal and windshield wiper levers.
Alfa’s driver assistance kit works as advertised. It includes adaptive cruise control and drift warnings. I enjoy driving 20 or 30 miles on the interstate with my foot not touching the accelerator or brake. The departure warning system can be activated at 37mph. If you go onto the shoulder or into another lane without activating your turn signal, three warning beeps will greet you. An indicator in the instrument cluster shows when the lane departure is active, but if you are on a road with lane markings that have disappeared on a sunny day, the Stelvio may not be able to notice lane markings. And he will do nothing more kill you in your way – it will just warn you when you go. There is also a small, triangular light in the side mirrors that illuminates when a vehicle is in or near your blind spot. Unlike Audi, which requires you to choose the Prestige package we had spend an extra $1,800 to get the full driver assistance package, on the Stelvio it’s a $1,500 option for any model.
The Alfa advertises 22mpg in the city, 28mpg on the highway, and 24mpg combined. That jibes well with what I’ve seen driving it-I’ve been consistently in the 27-28mpg neighborhood on the interstate and around 21-22 tooling around town.
It’s definitely an Alfa-with everything involved
Alfas have a reputation for being fun and crazy cars. In my experience owning two Spiders, I can vouch for that. And the Stelvio has a few quirks of its own. The first time I had it on the road, there was some wind noise that made me check to see if all the windows were rolled up. The parking sensors work well, but they sometimes insist on warning me even after I put the car in park. And one time, after starting the car, it immediately reminded me that the wall I had parked in front of was there. The door lock button on the outside doesn’t always register my keystrokes. To reduce fuel consumption, the engine will be switched off when it has stopped completely at the intersection. At times, the device took a little longer to restart than I would have liked.
Despite all this, I developed a strong fondness for the Stelvio during the week I spent with it. It has its idiosyncracies, there are some odd choices in the interior, and I really like the seats more comfortable. But driving it is amazing. Pulling down the driveway brought back happy memories of getting behind my Spider wheel. The racing is fun, the handling is tough, and there is a lot of fun to be had. At the crossover point, it can be a bit of a useless bird. But if you’re in the market for something that can carry two kids and their gear, and you don’t want to sacrifice a fantastic driving experience to the gods of the home, the Stelvio may well be the car for you.