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2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio: First Drive Review

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ADDITIONAL MODEL INFORMATION

author photo by Russ Heaps July 2017

Why the 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio? Why not? Sure, the argument can be made that a crossover doesn't quite fit in the Italian brand's historic portfolio of up-level, high-performance, beautifully styled cars. It's a heritage of racing, not, gasp, off-roading. But, here's the thing, FIAT is rebuilding the Alfa Romeo brand. To do that, it simply can't ignore crossovers.

A performance brand aspiring to stretch its wings, applying what it knows to an AWD vehicle isn't groundbreaking. Porsche, Jaguar, Maserati and even Tesla have planted a flag in the SUV/crossover arena.

Then there is the dollars-and-cents side of the business that leaves any carmaker without a crossover of some stripe at a serious market disadvantage. Not to mention that before the Stelvio rolls into showrooms this summer, the brand's lineup consists of just two cars: Giulia, a midsize performance sedan and the 4C, a two-seat weekend play toy. Yes, driving fun is at the marketplace periphery, but sales are anchored firmly in its mainstream. Today mainstream equals crossovers.

Combined Alfa sales in May totaled just over 900 units, nearly all of which belonged to the 4-door Giulia. A midsize crossover certainly won't bruise the sales bottom line. In fact, Alfa Romeo's director for North America Pieter Hogeveen told media gathered in Nashville, Tennessee for a first drive of the Stelvio that he expects the new crossover to be responsible for roughly half of Alfa sales in this country going forward. If any vehicle type can double Alfa sales, it's a midsize crossover.

Named for the iconic Italian Alps mountain pass, Stelvio will lock horns with such high-profile competitors as Mercedes-Benz GLC, BMW X3, Jaguar F-PACE and Audi Q5, as well as at least half a dozen more midsize luxury crossovers.

The Bundle

When the Stelvio Quadrifoglio rolls off the Cassino assembly line in Frosinone, Italy (Alfa assures us all of its models will always be built in Italy) around the end of the year, it will bring the total of Stelvio versions available to three. In the meantime, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio and Stelvio Ti will represent the crossover lineup.

Including the factory delivery fee, the Stelvio buy-in is $42,990 for the entry-level model. Upgrading to the Stelvio Ti with its 19-inch wheels, interior wood accents, an upgraded 8.8-in touchscreen, satellite-radio capability, front-park sensors, and heated steering wheel and front seats will raise the ante to $44,990. Alfa will announce pricing for the Stelvio Quadrifoglio closer to its release date.

The DNA

Is it important to a discussion of the Stelvio that we mention that the Giulia Quadrifoglio holds the lap-time record of 7:32 for a 4-door production car at the Nurburgring? Well, yes. Because Stelvio sources so much from Giulia, the sedan's performance chops are more than just a fun aside. They share engines, wheelbase, platform, suspension, steering, AWD system and model nomenclature, to mention just some of the common components.

The Lifeblood

Even just knowing that the 505-horsepower 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6-equipped Quadrifoglio model is on the horizon might cause you to imagine there could actually be more performance than is packed into the Stelvio and Stelvio Ti we drove along a portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Tennessee. That, of course, is an exaggeration; but we were blown away by the quickness and relentless acceleration of the 280-hp 2-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. A nearly flat torque curve kept the power coming as we spooled up the revs. Even at speed, there was plenty left in reserve to blast past slower-moving vehicles.

A ZF 8-speed automatic transmission deals engine output to all the wheels. The DNA mode selector allows choosing among the tranny's three significantly different natures: Advanced Efficiency, Natural and Dynamic. Hurried upshifts to protect fuel reserves characterize the Advance Efficiency mode. Natural mode is just what it sounds like, keeping things on a smooth, even keel. Dynamic mode, however, knocked our socks off. Upshifts come hard and fast. Each rapid change of the cogs was like being tapped in the tail by a school bus. What a rush!

Although the AWD system is capable of tackling moderate, off-road surfaces (such as dirt or gravel), it is really much more of a foul-weather system. In the name of performance, though, 100 percent of the engine's power can be directed at the rear wheels, with up to 60 percent transferred to the front wheels when the system detects wheel slippage.

By Alfa's stop watch, the Stelvio can spring from a standstill to 60 miles per hour in 5.4 seconds on its way to a top speed of 144 mph. The 0-to-60 time is a segment best for entry-level, midsize crossovers. Another segment best is its mileage. The government rates its fuel economy at 22 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway.

The Bones

When your history is as steeped in performance as Alfa's, it must be next to impossible for engineers to design anything other than a performance vehicle. Almost like muscle memory, the engineers have no free will to make it anything other than sleek, agile and balanced. A liberal use of aluminum in the engine, suspension, subframes, doors and fenders helps keep weight down. The drive shaft is carbon fiber. Weight distribution front to rear is a near perfect 50-50. Quickest in the segment, the steering has a terrific feel with just the right amount of load added to increase stiffness as the speedometer climbs.

The Nucleus

The interior of every Stelvio is covered in one of three colors of leather accented by one of five trim choices. Opt for the Stelvio Ti with its available Sport package for an extra $2,500, and you will be treated to one of the best sport seats in the industry. Other highlights include the flat-bottom, 3-spoke steering wheel with the push-button start located beneath the left-hand spoke, and the huge round tach and speedometer beautifully displayed in the gauge cluster immediately behind the steering wheel. Overall, the interior styling is tidy, flowing and gorgeous.

One area where the performance voices in product planning may have had too much sway is in the huge, optional steering, column-mounted paddle shifters that hinder easy access to the other control stalks, such as the turn-signal lever. While fun to use, they are ugly and invasive. Typical steering wheel-mounted paddles would get the job done.

The Skin

Nearly as key to the brand as the powertrain, the Stelvio's wrapper is stunningly ravishing. Stylists truly captured the Giulia's lines in penning the Stelvio exterior. Rather than signaling brawny capability, the Stelvio's styling evokes a sense of beauty and agility. There is no doubt that Giulia and Stelvio are siblings.

The Rest

Every Stelvio features most of the popular goodies we've come to expect on a luxury vehicle, including full-power accessories, touchscreen interface, Bluetooth connectivity, dual-zone automatic climate control, 8-speaker audio system, power liftgate and so on. Stelvio offers a few autonomous safety features, such as collision warning with emergency braking, and lane-departure warning in an options package.

The Finish

No doubt, the new Stelvio will be a big boost to the brand's sales. It effectively translates the Giulia's stunning performance and styling into crossover form. Oozing luxury from every seam, it will establish itself among today's gaggle of midsize luxury crossovers. The question remains, however: Is the public's appetite for stylish performance with Italian flair sufficient to send Stelvio to the head of the class? Probably not, but we'll see.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio: First Drive Review - Autotrader