2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio: First Drive

The Stelvio is arguably Alfa Romeo's most important car. How does it stack up?

Chris Perkins

We've paid a lot of attention to the frustrating, brilliant Giulia Quadrifoglio over the last year, but the future of Alfa doesn't rely on a $73,500 sports sedan. The Stelvio is much more important for the success of the brand. If this crossover doesn't sell well here in the US and China, Alfa Romeo's renaissance is almost assuredly doomed.

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It faces an uphill battle too—Alfa Romeo doesn't have the most stellar reputation in the US, and its rivals are all incredibly strong. Does the Stelvio do its job?

First impressions are rather good. I won't go so far as to say it's better looking than the Giulia sedan on which it's based, but within the compact crossover segment, the Stelvio is seriously pretty, up there with the Jaguar F-Pace and Volvo XC60. This shade of Vulcano Black is also lovely. The rise of Uber and Lyft has filled New York City with black cars, yet the Stelvio still stands out.

The Stelvio is the sort of car you look back at and smile every time you walk away, which is exactly what you want from an Alfa. These are cars that should make you feel special, like you've gone against the grain. On looks alone, the Stelvio does that. Impressive, especially considering that Alfa is ultimately just following a trend by making a luxury crossover.

Chris Perkins

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Chris Perkins

The interior gives a good first impression too. The driving position is spot-on, and as in the Giulia, the interior design is handsome. My Stelvio Sport tester also had the same column-mounted aluminum shift paddles you get in the Giulia Quadrifoglio, which are so much nicer than the cheap plastic units everyone else uses. The steering wheel is nice too, with a lovely thin rim that feels just the right amount of delicate.

That's unfortunately let down by elements of cheapness. The joystick gear selector is sharp and plasticky while many of the other knobs and switches feel similarly low rent. That's a big problem when you're up against cars like the Audi Q5, Mercedes GLC, and Volvo XC60, all of which are beautifully built. Alfa's infotainment system, which was developed in-house, is surprisingly decent. But it's not on the level of those from the Germans or Volvo.

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Chris Perkins

This is an Alfa, though. The driving experience is really what matters here, and the Stelvio doesn't disappoint. Mostly.

To get around its 4000--pound curb weight, Alfa's been pretty clever in tuning the Stelvio. This is a crossover that uses the ultra-quick steering rack you get in the Giulia with just a little over two turns lock-to-lock. The steering is light and precise, giving the Stelvio a sharpness that something that two tons arguably doesn't deserve. There may not be the same incredible front-end bite you get with the Giulia, but that's not surprising since my tester was wearing all-season tires, and, well, it's an SUV.

Aiding the Stelvio's handling is somewhat stiff suspension tuning. That helps deal with the body roll inherent to a larger, taller vehicle like this, though you sacrifice the lovely supple ride you get with the Giulia. It's not a problem unique to Alfa Romeo, of course. Any SUV with sporting pretense needs to have either stiff suspension, or some sort of active anti-roll system to match sport sedan handling. It's just the nature of the beast, and the Alfa still rides better than most of its competition anyway.

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Where the Alfa falls far behind its competition is in brake-pedal feel, which is unfortunately nothing new for the brand. Both the Giulia and the Stelvio use a by-wire brake system that constantly leaves you guessing whether or not you've applied enough brake pressure. It's mildly infuriating in stop-and-go traffic.

Chris Perkins
Chris Perkins
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You'll also find that the Stelvio's transmission calibration is a little wonky in traffic. Alfa uses the same ZF eight-speed that's found in almost all its competitors, and it's mostly an excellent gearbox. Upshifts and downshifts are quick and smooth at speed, but it tends to lurch at low speeds. R&T.com Deputy Editor Bob Sorokanich was actually convinced it was a dual-clutch at first, and that's not meant to be a compliment in this case.

The Stelvio's 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is the same unit that's in the Giulia (and largely similar to the new Jeep Wrangler's optional four). It's fine. Its 280 hp and 306 lb-ft of torque give the Stelvio lots of usable real-world performance, just without much personality. Many of today's modern 2.0-liter four-cylinders start to blend together at a certain point, and there's not much that feels different about Alfa's.

You'd hope Alfa Romeo—a company whose reputation was partially built on brilliant engines designed by evocatively named engineers like Vittorio Jano and Giuseppe Busso—would've figured out how to separate its four-cylinder from the pack, but sadly, it didn't. This is a philosophical complaint. The engine offers tons of torque and way more horsepower than any non-racing version of Alfa's legendary twin-cam four-cylinder.

If you really want a Stelvio with a more characterful engine, wait for the Quadrifoglio. That car's manic 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6 is a riot in the Giulia Quadrifoglio, and we'd imagine that it'd be just as great in the Stelvio. It'll also have the added grip of all-wheel-drive.

Chris Perkins
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It's easy to overlook the Stelvio's shortcomings. It's an SUV that's genuinely fun to drive, often feeling more like a big hot hatch than a typical crossover. Its more energetic personality might not appeal to every luxury SUV buyer, but I could see those who want a family car that's genuine fun might love it.

The Stelvio never transcended its status as being a crossover for me. It looks good...for a crossover. It drives well...for a crossover. You get the idea. The Giulia, for all of its shortcomings, is a great car. With the Stelvio, there's always that crossover caveat.

That's not fair to Alfa though. Customers want crossovers—not wagons, coupes, convertibles, and hardly even sedans—and Alfa would be silly not to sell one. We should just be thankful we have good Alfas in any form.

Chris Perkins
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