(Pocket-lint) - Say hello to Alfa Romeo's very first SUV. Yep, the heritage Italian brand has finally stepped up to the big-boy plate with the Stelvio. Which is, in essence, an Alfa Guilia on stilts. The Stelvio is part of its push into the SUV-car category that, in much of Europe, has proved the most saleable (and profitable) for a number of years now.
What's perhaps most surprising about the latest entrant from Alfa is that, well, you might actually consider buying one. The brand has a huge following, but it also gets quite a drumming from those who question its reliability. Not so the Stelvio. Built on the new Fiat-Chrysler Giorgio platform - which it shares with the excellent Guilia - this undertaking has been considered differently to the competition.
"How?," we hear you ask. In the weight: at 1,660kgs the Stelvio is, in many cases, a few hundred kilos lighter than its BMW X3, Jaguar F-Pace, Volvo XC60 and Audi Q5 competition. That's thanks to a carbon fibre prop shaft, plus lots of aluminium (the rear body, hood, suspension, brake callipers and engine components all included) for better economy, sharper response and speed.
Which is all well and good, but how does the Alfa actually drive, what's its interior like and does the Stelvio stand a genuine chance against its well-established competition?
Classic Alfa design
There's really no mistaking the Stelvio for anything but an Alfa Romeo. The classic trio of grille panels sits pride of place at the front, in an altogether similar fashion to the Guilia. Only the Stelvio's additional ground clearance (it's 190mm up) gives it a strong SUV stance. It looks a bit like the lovechild of Guilia and Maserati Levante, in a sense, but that's no bad thing.
The distinctive design ensures the Stelvio isn't as vanilla as, say, the Audi Q5. But, in the same breath, the Alfa has a slight look of gawky teen about it; like an adolescent pup with a big face whose body hasn't quite kept up in equal proportion throughout. A Guilia on stilts just isn't quite as elegant as a Giulia, even if those hexagonal grille and swooping lights elements add head-turning interest to the design.
Of course this is an SUV though: it's designed with the family, trips skiing and all those golf clubs and whatnot that you need to cart around, right? With a 525-litre boot it doesn't struggle to swallow them up (the clubs, that is, the family can sit in the back, how kind of you), giving this Alfa more shopping kudos than any other on the market. And there's ample space in the back for a couple of youngsters if you did intend to make this your family car.
But when stepping inside the Stelvio, it feels less family car and more drivers' car. It's well dressed, with its hints of wood panelling, comfy leather chairs and all the adjustments you could need to get the perfect view of the road, while melting away and making you forget about any of your passengers (don't worry, they've got enough room in the rear, though, so long as they're not too tall).
As we said of the Guilia, the interior isn't perfect, as the switchgear in the centre of the cabin looks cheap, like it was extracted from a base-line soft-SUV from Hyundai. That seems a bit at odds with the otherwise plusher finish overall, and detracts from the style-focused demeanour that this car is all about.
In terms of functionality, the dash holds an 8.8-inch central screen, which is buried out of sight when the engine is off, but is at glanceable distance just below eye level when out on the road. The size is spot on to avoid being distracting, but the screen's main issue is its brightness and the panel's coating. Even when driving through rainy Northern Ireland, the reflections didn't make it the clearest to see at all times.
Otherwise controls are logical: Alfa is at a point where BMW was a couple of years back, really, offering an easy-to-grab rotary dial down on the centre tunnel to adjust things on the centre screen. And we're just fine with that. As fun as all the latest touch technologies are - look at the top-end Audi A8 to get an idea of where things are heading - they're not always the most usable when out driving. Without needing to lean in and touch everything, it's simple enough to toggle between the navigation, music and other infotainment features.
There are two cup holders and large door bins to keep things practical, plus a USB charger and 12V source to the front. For the back seats there are two further USB sockets, ensuring the kids - or whoever's back there - can charge up their kit while on the go.
Engine options and trim
For its UK launch the Stelvio comes in four trim levels: Stelvio (from £35,090), Super (from £37,290), Speciale (from £41,490) and Milano Edizione (from £43,990).
Each trim level offers a turbo petrol or turbo diesel option, with two different skews per fuel type available (although not all skews of engine are available in all skews of trim). The petrol comes in 2.0-litre 200hp and 280hp forms; the 2.2-litre diesel comes in 180hp and 210bhp derivatives. There will also be a Quadrifoglio Verde (cloverleaf) option available later this year.
Which might all sound like a lot of numbers. To put it in perspective: the top-spec petrol hits 0-62mph in 6.6-seconds, which is almost Porsche Macan S territory. It's pretty nippy thanks to that lightweight chassis.
All models bar the standard Stelvio offer the 8.8-inch infotainment system, so there's no mucking around there (it's £1,700 if added separately). The driver's side 7-inch instrument cluster is standard on Super and above, and is well worth it (plus it comes with the infotainment as standard!). Speciale introduces LED fog lights.
What's rather noticeable about these trim level jumps is the upping of wheel sizes that goes with them. Alloys start at 17-inch, moving to 18-inch, 19-inch and ending at 20-inch for the Milano Edizione trim. Which, for our money, we'd actually avoid: those big wheels make the ride a bit crashier and the car harder to handle overall.
Dive into the options list and there's plenty more you can add to what comes as standard, depending on what you feel is essential. If you really want those aluminium foot pedals then you'll need to drop £195, or tick the Sport pack — standard on Speciale and Milano Edizione. The Lusso pack, which can be had in a couple of forms depending on what interior wood trim you want, is a hefty £3000 on upper spec models, or £3500 on the lower ones. It throws in the lovely leather, heated seats, wood trim, heated washer jets, 7-inch centre TFT display, and a host of other things. Or you can add it as a sort of pack-within-pack for an extra £3,695 (plus an obligatory Lighting Pack at £495 on top of that), with the (normally) £700 Driver Assistance pack (rear camera, electronic mirrors, auto high-beam assist, blind spot detection) thrown in for free. Other notable options are Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality, which is a £300 extra, and the Harmon Kardon 'sound theatre' system with 14-speakers. Yours for £950. Ultimately, as with any high-end car these days, you could open your wallet and empty your bank account to the tune of five figures on additional luxuries, but it's hard to make recommendations on just what to go for based on one launch drive — so choose your options carefully. At least the "Alfa Red" paint is free (not the £770 extra for the metallic colour sprays).
What's it like to drive?
Whatever spec you end up selecting (remember, try to avoid those massive wheels), the thing that Alfa really has down is the way the Stelvio drives.
This is no middle-of-the-road vanilla SUV. Oh no, the Stelvio drive embodies that Italian style and passion that's so key to the brand, much in the same way as the Guilia. Which can only be a good thing.
The low weight means its peppy whichever engine you opt for. The top-spec diesel was our weapon of choice, which we pushed through it paces around Northern Ireland's roads with gusto. The Stelvio's key trick is never feeling like a larger car when going around those tree-covered near-blind corners.
That's down to the four-wheel-drive "Q4" system, which normally sends power to the rear wheels to ensure traction and precision handling, but can call on the front ones if it detects grip is running out at the back. The sharp steering (it uses the same super-quick rack as the Giulia) makes for an engaging, energetic drive - but not a tiring one. The large paddles to the side of the wheel (which are straight out of a Ferrari) make quick-shifts easy too, with elegant adjustment through those eight gear ratios; or leave things to the 8-speed auto box and it acquits itself well.
The diesel engine isn't the most refined sounding, though, with a bit of excessive chortle making things louder on-board than they ought to be (plus there's some sound pumped into the cabin to exaggerate its semi-sportiness, we're sure). Oh, and the brakes bite rather rapidly at whatever speed you happen to be doing when you hit the pedal, making them overly "stabby" with their impact, and affecting the comfort of those passengers you've forgotten about in the back, because you're having so much fun behind the wheel.
Overall the Stelvio delivers personality, pep and adequate comfort in a well-considered cabin that makes this Alfa a genuine contender in the SUV category. For a first go it's a grand job, like a Guilia on stilts, if you will - which will speak volumes to many.
It's not quite the perfect SUV, though. The interior takes some short-cuts when it comes to quality of finish. The infotainment system is ok, but it's a bit buried in that dash and not the easiest to see; the control system feels like old school BMW, too, rather than the latest and greatest future-pushing solution.
But what Stelvio has that so many others lack - Audi Q5, yawn looks; Volvo XC60, too serious but technologically more advanced; BMW X3, a few grand pricier; Jag F-Pace, better looking and more tech adept too - is a lick of personality. This is an Alfa, it makes that known from the off - not only in its striking (and slightly disproportionate) looks, but in its driving character.
Indeed, the Alfa Stelvio is an SUV that you really could consider buying above and beyond its competition. And doing so might save you a few grand in the process too… well, if the Alfa reliability cliché doesn't play up anyway, eh?
Alternatives to consider
Technically, the Audi Q5 is top drawer, offering an nterior finish and heaps of technology options. But it's pricier than the Stelvio and it's just somehow, well, more boring to look at.
Read the full article: Audi Q5 review
It's not just Alfa that's new to the SUV market, Jaguar is in the same boat with its F-Pace. Like Alfa, Jag's SUV offering is also a success: it's a convincing and natural ride that looks great and is easy to live with. Problem is, it gets pricey quickly.
Read the full article: Jag F-Pace review
Volvo has, for a little while now, been a worthy alternative to an equivalent Mercedes, BMW or Audi. That remains true with the XC60. And then some. Sure, it looks a bit serious and mechanical, like nothing could ever go wrong, but if you want an ultra-safe, refined and very spacious ride with some future-gazing touch-based tech to boot, then, arguably, this Volvo is the class leader.
Read the full article: Volvo XC60 review