- What’s Good: Phenomenal motor, sports-car driving dynamics, head-turning good looks.
- What’s Bad: Lack of features at this price point, optional race seats can get uncomfortable on longer drives, needs custom drive mode.
Think crossovers and SUVs shy away from twisty roads? That they’re better at hunting for parking spaces at Costco? Or dropping the kids off at band camp?
Most do, but not the good folks at Alfa Romeo.
Alfa believes that driving pleasure comes first. No matter what you drive. And since the vast majority of consumers today are choosing crossovers, it’s natural to find one in their lineup too. And they’ve named it after the switchback-riddled Stelvio pass. The highest mountain pass in Italy that was voted the greatest road in the world by UK’s Top Gear (until Romania’s Transfagarasan subsequently took that title).
So they named it after a great road which naturally means they spent a lot of time making it handle well. In fact, they focused so much on driving dynamics that a Stelvio Quadrifoglio (Italian for four-leaf clover) clocked in a Nurburgring lap of just 7:51.7 making it faster around the famous German racetrack than a BMW M4.
Yes, we live in a world where a family-hauling crossover is faster on track than a benchmark sports sedan.
One of the reasons for all that speed? It has an absolute firecracker of an engine. A Ferrari–derived 2.9-L twin-turbocharged V6 masterpiece that spits out 505 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque. It borrows heavily from the V8 in the Ferrari California with two cylinders lopped off. And if you want go-fast motors, Ferrari is probably the right company to talk to.
Indeed, the raucous exhaust-note tingles the senses in a way that no V6 ever has. Lag-free bursts to redline end with whip-crack pops sending pedestrians ducking for cover when you pull one of the gigantic steering column-mounted shift paddles sticking out from behind the wheel like the Grim Reaper’s scythe.
505 hp might not seem a huge amount these days but the frenetic power delivery, no matter where the needle on the tach sits, speaks volumes. The engine in the Stelvio Q and the Giulia Q sedan (on which the Stelvio is based) should be nominated for the greatest 6-cylinder in the world.
Stepping into the cabin of my Stelvio Q tester, the first thing that jumps out are the carbon-fibre-shelled Sparco race seats that hug you in ways your significant other never can. They look fantastic but might be too hardcore when you aren’t doing hot laps on your favourite track. Something most consumers buying Stelvios or other performance SUVs and crossovers are likely to never do. They are definitely try-before-you-buy items, more so when considering that they’re a $4100 option, have to be manually adjusted, and cannot be heated.
The steering wheel cannot be heated either and doesn’t get a power tilt/telescope function. You also cannot get heated rear seats. Disappointing omissions considering the lofty starting price of $95,000.
It was still a nice place to spend time with copious amounts of real carbon-fibre trim and green and white contrast stitching on the seats and leather-covered dash. My tester came with the optional ($600) carbon steering wheel. A wonderfully grippy thin-rimmed Alcantara, leather, and carbon wrapped flat-bottomed job complete with a bright red engine start button just like you get in a Ferrari.
While build quality is good, there are issues. Hard plastic on the lower dash and around the centre console wouldn’t look out of place on an entry-level Kia let alone a thoroughbred Italian automobile with a sticker price well into six-figure territory. There were also a few ergonomic baubles like the frustrating electronic gear selector, and a windshield wiper stalk that was confusing at best. Important controls like these should be second nature and intuitive in their operation.
Those carbon race seats also developed an annoying creak, like an old cottage door, every time I got in or adjusted my position. I also managed to turn on the panic alarm while stopped at an intersection, maybe by sitting on the button while the keyfob was in my pocket. The power windows had minds of their own going down when I wanted them to go up. Probably activating one of the pinch point sensors even though there was nothing in their path.
All that aside, the 8.8-inch infotainment system, although quite basic, worked well; the premium Harman/Kardon stereo system sounded great, and with 525 litres of usable cargo room, the Stelvio proved to be an otherwise practical vehicle. Were it not for those shiny carbon-backed seats you’d mistake it for just about any other sedate luxury crossover.
But the Stelvio Q is anything but sedate and unlike most crossovers, it is best experienced from the driver’s seat. And it all starts with that racy steering wheel. It’s the conduit to truly exceptional handling that will force a grin on the face of even the most pragmatic person in the room. It’s super-direct and ultra-responsive, telegraphing the road surface with a clarity that’s not found on even the best sports cars.
Many go-fast crossovers promise sports car-like handling and while some generate astonishing numbers on paper, they always feel big and heavy when pushed.
At almost 2000 kg the Stelvio is anything but a light-weight, but I’d be damned if it didn’t feel like it loses about 500 of those kilos when commandeering it into your favourite corner at speeds that would make many sports cars blush.
Drive modes have become ubiquitous and the Stelvio Q’s DNA selector (Dynamic, Natural, Advanced Efficiency) gets a Race mode that turns the Italian crossover from a competent driver into a fire-breathing beast with the twist of dial. The exhaust goes from mild to wild and the adaptive dampers firm up to a point where they could loosen old tooth fillings.
If the tarmac is smooth, however, you’ll be greeted to the best handling crossover that money can buy. The rear-biased all-wheel drive system can divert up to 60 percent of drive torque to the front wheels when necessary for blistering corner exit speeds, and sure-footed all-weather traction. It puts to shame many proper sports cars and brings levels of joy I never thought possible in a vehicle that sits this high off the ground.
Peeking out from achingly gorgeous rims with a spindly 5-hole design are giant carbon-ceramic brakes with bright yellow calipers that pop when contrasted with Misano Blue paint job of my tester. An eye-watering $8,250 option, the brakes are quite grabby at parking lot speeds but perfect everywhere else.
Were it not for those exotic wheels and binders the Quadrifoglio would be difficult to distinguish from lesser Stelvios. A true Q car, no pun intended.
Your only clues to the power that lurks within are the four-leaf clovers on the fenders, 4 exhaust tips in the back, rear fender extenders to partially cover the ultra-wide 285-section rear tires, and the subtle louvers in the hood.
There are a few more places where you’ll find the four-leaf clover: on the doorsills, on the speedometer, and under the hood on the engine cover. Rather than announcing its presence with a million badges like some of its competition, the distinctive Alfa Scudetto grille, canted headlights, and clean sweeping curves command attention and respect from onlookers based purely on the fact that you just don’t see Alfas that often.
Even the ferocious engine is quiet and almost docile when not in Race mode, which partially defeats the stability and traction control systems. Something that should be kept in mind when trying out Race mode on the street. A custom drive mode would be welcome here, so you could at the very least get the exhaust noise without having to disable crucial safety systems that most drivers should not attempt to do unless on a closed circuit.
When tooling around town the Alfa is comfortable, and although it errs on the stiff side I found the ride to be well controlled and perfectly acceptable. But even with an auto stop/start system and the efficient driving mode I struggled to get under 18 L per 100 km on busy city streets. A longer highway drive dropped that number into the mid 11s which was much more acceptable.
This isn’t a cheap crossover and some of the interior materials and lack of features at this level are nearly unforgivable. Nearly. For this Alfa, like many others, it’s the drive that counts and if you want a crossover that actually offers true sports car dynamics you can’t do much better than the Stelvio Quadrifoglio.