The Alps are the largest and most expansive mountain range in Europe. From Slovenia to France, they span 1,200km and eight Alpine regions. They include around 100 peaks that rise to at least 4,000 metres, and lay claim to both the Matterhorn and the 4,800-metre Mont Blanc that straddles the French-Italian border. Around 250km (as the crow flies) to the northeast, and set in the Ortler Alps, lies the Passo Dello Stelvio, a breathtaking, aggressively-climbing mountain road with 75 hairpin turns and where the Alfa Romeo Stelvio gets its name.
Possibly, like me, you may be a little confused right now. I mean naming an SUV after one of the worlds greatest, twisting ribbons of a road does seem rather odd. After all, SUVs are by nature rather ungainly people-movers, aren’t they? But rest assured, Alfa Romeo knew what they were doing.
I have to admit to being a tad excited about picking up the Stelvio from Alfa Romeo Auckland. I had ardently followed its international release and had mentally paced around the room waiting for the invite for a local drive. Finally, the day arrived. When I arrived at the showroom, the medium-sized Stelvio was waiting patiently for me in the client’s presentation room (the area where vehicles are formally introduced to their new owners). I slowly walked around the room, taking in every angle of the premium Italian SUV.
Even under the showroom lights, the Competizione Red that my Stelvio came in was striking. There’s a richness and depth to the paintwork that makes you want to dive right in and a subtleness to the lines and curves that form the makeup of the exterior. The modern take on the recessed ‘shield’ grille and logo are still unmistakably Alfa Romeo, while bi-xenon headlights, dominant DRLs and large lower air scoops enhance the SUV’s sportiness. Curvaceous speed bumps above both wheel arches, bright alloys and a slanting roof bring added style to the Stelvio’s profile, while the rear tailgate has symmetrical contours and two large-mouth exhaust pipes that offer an extra sense of balance.
While on the subject of balance. The Stelvio sits on the impressive ‘Giorgio’ platform (as seen in the Giulia) and gives a nigh-on 50/50 weight distribution and at 1,660kg, this Alfa SUV is lightest in its class.
Enough of the specs, it was time to get better acquainted with my new Italian friend. Ignition of the two-liter, 148kW/330Nm turbo petrol engine comes by way of a discrete push button on the steering wheel. Very cool, but also a little embarrassing as the Alfa representative waited for me to find it, then leave – doh. With this first hurdle overcome, I headed out of the showroom and north out of the city.
Initial impressions are of instant involvement. At 4.6 metres long and a shade under two metres wide, the Stelvio doesn’t feel oppressive to drive and the driving position isn’t overly raised: you’re in it not on it. Steering is responsive even in ‘N’ (Natural driving mode) and it merges well in the traffic, although it does garner covetous looks from other drivers.
New Zealand is full of so many great roads but there is one area that I’m rather partial to at the moment, it has plenty of curves, nice long straights and is quite isolated, so that’s, of course, where I headed. Dynamic engaged, I let the Stelvio draw all of its Alfa-ness and pushed down on the aluminium accelerator pedal.
The Stelvio features a Q4 all-wheel-drive system that inspires confidence, Alfa says “it continuously monitors numerous parameters to optimise torque distribution across the two axles according to driver input and how much grip there is beneath the wheels”. In short, much of the time it has the feel and play of a rear-wheel drive vehicle but it thankfully sticks hard to the tarmac when needed. The chassis feels rigid and steering is wonderfully precise and the eight-speed auto box moves well through each gear. Off the mark, the Stelvio will get to 100km/h in seven-ish seconds and the engine has an excellent note when the revs go high.
The Stelvio also embraces family life with vigour. It’s compact enough to undertake the regular demands of everyday life but prestigious enough to make you feel special while doing them. It’s loaded with driver and safety aids too. Needless to say, I was reluctant to take it back.
Alfa Romeos have a sports car history and heritage that seems at complete odds to an SUV philosophy, however, somehow they have managed to pull it off. The Stelvio offers all the space and versatility that comes with an SUV yet has maintained Italian flair and excitement. In size terms, this SUV lords over their range like the Alps do in Europe, but, true to its name, it will happily weave and twist like the Stelvio Pass itself. And above all else, the Stelvio is fun to drive, as all Alfa Romeo’s should be.