We all have that one restaurant. Mine is a seafood place in Queens, New York. The service is only impatient when it's not outright hostile. The tables look like they came from a dozen yard sales. The bathroom door doesn't lock. You place your order by grabbing a whole raw fish from an ice chest and handing it to the grump at the grill. If you brought a first date here, two-to-one odds they'd ditch you before you even reached the door. It's not for everyone.
But there's always a line. Everyone waiting knows that, if you can put up with the idiosyncrasies, the iffy aroma and ghastly decor, you'll bite into a meal so poignantly delicious, you'll crumple.
It's like that with Alfa Romeo. The Italian automaker has released the second new product of its extensive turnaround plan. It's a midsize crossover, the first utility vehicle in Alfa Romeo's history, and one that's aimed directly at the mainstream North American market. But the absolute best version is a prickly thing that most Americans will find entirely off-putting. It's not for everyone.
The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio is saddled with two weighty names. "Stelvio," for the Stelvio Pass, a relentlessly switchbacking drizzle of pavement in the Italian Alps, averaging four hairpin turns per mile and climbing 6000 feet. Top Gear once named it the best driving road in the world. Alfa clearly gave this name to its five-seat crossover to evoke three things: All-weather capability, on-road excitement, and bone-deep Italian charm.
All of that is available in the run-of-the-mill four-cylinder Stelvio. But adding the Quadrifoglio badge makes for an entirely different animal. The four-leaf clover insignia was first applied to an Alfa Romeo by factory racing driver Ugo Sivocci in 1923. He wanted a good-luck charm to end a string of disappointing finishes. Its effect was swift and permanent: after painting the symbol on his car, Sivocci won his very next race. Mere months later, he was killed in a crash, in a car that lacked his four-leaf totem. Every Alfa Romeo race car since has worn the quadrifoglio verde in his honor; beginning in 1963, the badge came to denote the fastest vehicles in the Alfa production car lineup.
The Giulia Quadrifoglio re-introduced America to Alfa Romeo sports sedans in 2016. The Stelvio Quadrifoglio packs the same 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6 as the sedan, and promises the same razor-sharp dynamics.
The family resemblance is striking. "It's amazing to me how much of the Giulia comes through, even in this SUV format," Steven Richards, product manager for the Stelvio, said. "If you went and drove a C-class and then a GLC, a 3-series and then an X3, you'd feel they're quite different. Giulia to Stelvio? Giulia's lower, lighter, nimbler, but all those things that make the Giulia great to drive, you feel in the Stelvio."
He's right. Out on the rural roads of the Texas hill country, the Stelvio Quadrifoglio has the same urgency as the sedan it shares bones with. In a straight line, it's quicker. Thanks to all-wheel drive, the hot-rod Stelvio does 0-60 in a claimed 3.6 seconds, two tenths sooner than the rear-wheel-drive Giulia Quadrifoglio. With the four-mode drive selector in Dynamic, the adaptive dampers firm up, the steering effort increases, and the throttle response gets snappier. The twin-turbo engine, designed with input from Ferrari engineers, rushes out an unrelenting wave of torque from 2000 RPM to near-redline, no turbo lag to speak of. The acceleration is immediate, the engine barking through wide-open active mufflers, announcing each whacking upshift with a thunderclap from the tailpipes.
The Stelvio inherits the Giulia's dramatically responsive steering rack—just 2.3 turns lock-to-lock—allowing you to bend it into sweepers with hardly any input. Crossover transformation adds 477 lbs over a comparable Giulia; the weight doesn't necessarily disappear, but it hasn't done nearly the damage you'd expect from an additional quarter-ton of heft. Like the Giulia, the Stelvio has perfect 50/50 front-rear weight distribution. The brake-by-wire system we first encountered in the Giulia makes a return as well, albeit with slightly less aggressive initial bite. Andrea Zizak, Stelvio chief engineer, told me that the utility vehicle's braking response was adjusted with North American customers in mind—apparently, our region found the stoppers too grabby in the Giulia.
Alfa Romeo arranged for journalists to drive the Stelvio Quadrifoglio at Circuit of the Americas, the sweeping, 3.41-mile Grand Prix circuit outside Austin, Texas with more than 130 feet of elevation change. If it seems unusual to hold an SUV launch event at a Formula 1 race track, consider this: The Stelvio Quadrifoglio recorded a 7:51.7 lap time at the Nurburgring, making it the fastest four-door production SUV ever to lap the circuit—beating the Porsche Cayenne Turbo S by a full eight seconds.
"The fact that we even go and test an SUV at the Nurburgring is a little bit bonkers," Richards admits. "When the 996 Porsche 911 GT3 came out [in 1999], they had Walter Röhrl out there setting a time at the Nurburgring. Not too many product cycles later, we've got a five-seat SUV that's going around even faster than one of the best drivers of all time in an unbelievable car." That's right: The Stelvio Quadrifoglio shaves nearly six seconds off Röhrl's time in the most aggressive 911 of the 1990s.
And it's true—the Stelvio Quadrifoglio makes quick work of a racetrack, whether it's the ancient Nurburgring or the nearly-new COTA. Clicked into Race mode, the Alfa dances around the circuit, dampers stiff beyond public-road usefulness and engine at full snorting boil. The all-wheel drive system is rear-biased until it detects slip, able to route up to 60 percent of torque to the front axle; the electromechanical torque-vectoring rear differential from the Giulia Quadrifoglio shifts power across the rear axle. You can feel it working: a big dose of throttle on corner exit can briefly overwhelm the inside rear tire, pitching you into a tidy little slide before the front tires claw you back into line. It's clean, predictable fun, lap after lap.
Problem is, who takes their SUV to the track? Even this 505-horsepower Italian fire-breather will spend most of its life doing crossover stuff: kid-shuttling, grocery shopping, commuting. And Alfa's focus on ten-tenths performance makes for a befuddling daily-driver. The steering is almost histrionic. Wiggle the wheel even the tiniest bit at highway speed, and you'll ricochet—fun for a country road, but nauseating on the freeway. And while Zizak says the brakes have been relaxed compared to the Giulia Quadrifoglio, they're still touchy and unpredictable. Alfa's brake-by-wire system saves weight and improves the responsiveness of stability control and ABS. It builds maximum braking pressure far more quickly than a hydraulic setup can, which improves stopping distances, and it allows for unique brake pedal mapping with a simple software update. But so far, it's been maddeningly inconsistent. No two brake-by-wire Alfas I've driven have had similar braking feel; trying to adjust to one car's quirks is like aiming at a moving target. The technology still feels foreign to anyone who's used to conventional hydraulic brakes. And right now, that's nearly everybody.
I'll tell you something else: If you're looking for a midsize SUV that prioritizes performance above and beyond everything else, nothing touches the Stelvio Quadrifoglio. Alfa brought along a Porsche Macan Turbo, the closest German rival, to the launch event. Compared to the Alfa, every one of the Porsche's controls feels like it's filtered through 50 gallons of pudding. Even in its most aggressive drivetrain and chassis settings, the Macan Turbo was quieter, softer-sprung, and slower to accelerate than the Quadrifoglio. Its paddle shifters hide behind the steering wheel spokes like they're bashful; you can hurtle down the highway zig-zagging the wheel like a 1950s TV actor without changing the car's direction.
That Porsche rides on a platform which, in varied forms, has appeared under VW Group models from the Audi A4 to the Lamborghini Urus. For the Macan Turbo, engineers folded in the kind of hardware needed to give serious performance chops to such widely-applied underpinnings. The result is a sure-footed midsize crossover with up to 440 horsepower and responsiveness worthy of the storied German crest.
Alfa worked in the other direction. On both the Giulia and Stelvio, engineers first developed the hottest Quadrifoglio model, then watered down the package for lesser versions. As a result, these 505-horsepower screamers are the most contextually cohesive versions of Alfa's four- and five-door offerings. You hop in a four-cylinder base-model Stelvio, with its 280-horse engine emitting an unevocative moan, and the darty steering and banana-sized paddle shifters feel goofy, misplaced.
The VW Group's system of shared underpinnings is called MLB, the German acronym for "Modular Longitudinal Matrix." The Alfa platform? They named it Giorgio. Of course it has personality.
Who buys a challenging, sometimes maddening ultra-performance SUV? Alfa representatives say roughly 10 percent of Giulia buyers go Quadrifoglio; they expect the same for Stelvio. Premium crossovers outsold luxury sedans in the midsize segment in the US for the first time in 2017. If Alfa wants to survive its second crack at the US market, it needs Stelvio to succeed.
The Quadrifoglio is a little too raw for the average crossover buyer. For a base price of $80,000, the top-flight Stelvio's interior is a little too chintzy, its reliability record a little too unproven. My hunch is that the buyer who just wants the most expensive, fanciest model will go elsewhere. So be it. There are plenty of options in this space, most of them pleasant and unchallenging.
Me? I'll wait in line to grab a fish.