ALFA Romeo's new Stelvio is the anti-Volvo. It might be a mid-size SUV, but the Stelvio thinks it's a sporty car. Sweden's competitor in the same market segment, the XC60, is at heart a sedate and sensible family wagon.
Federico Landini, chief engineer of the Stelvio, wouldn't have it any other way.
An Alfa Romeo should look great, he says, but it should drive even better than it looks. And the man has a track record of creating SUVs that feel, from behind the wheel, eager and agile. His previous project was the Levante, Maserati's surprisingly fun-to-drive luxury SUV. Both Italian brands are part of the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles empire.
Landini can talk at length about the engineering details that make the Stelvio special; its lightness, perfect 50:50 weight distribution, the stiffness of its body, the design of its suspension, its low centre of gravity and more. But the real test is driving it.
The first thing that makes a big impression is the directness of the Stelvio's steering. This is a vehicle that goes exactly where it's pointed, exactly when it's pointed. No other SUV in the class steers so well. And the handling is truly outstanding. The Stelvio corners like a slot-car. There's little body roll, and the Alfa grips the road firmly.
Alfa Romeo plans to bring only versions equipped with the company's Q4 all-wheel-drive system to Australia. According to Landini, who should know, it's exactly the same technology used in the Maserati Levante.
The vehicle's Australian launch is scheduled for March next year. The engine line up will certainly include 149kW 2.0-litre turbo petrol and 156kW 2.2-litre turbocharged diesel fours. Also count on a hot 206kW version of the petrol four, the same as in Alfa's Giulia sedan, to be offered. All engines will be teamed with an eight-speed auto made by German company ZF.
While it has a gruff sound, the 206kW four is a really lively performer, partly because the auto transmission reacts quickly when the accelerator is pushed, shifting back the right number of gears. The turbo diesel is fine, too. It's refined and delivers really strong shove from just above idle speed.
Sometime later in 2018 a top-of-the-range Stelvio Quadrifoglio Verde, equipped with the same 375kW Ferrari-manufactured 2.9-litre V6 as the Giulia QV, will arrive.
In Australia, Alfa plans to offer Stelvio in two basic flavours. The Super Lusso package will emphasise looks and luxury, while the Veloce package will be about sportiness and speed. Expect prices to start from around the $70,000 mark.
However it's fitted out, the interior of the Stelvio is spacious. The driving position is pretty much perfect, there's ample room for full-size adults in the three-place rear seat, and the luggage compartment capacity is 525 litres.
The Stelvio recently earned a five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP. It also comes with autonomous emergency braking as standard, plus a list of safety technologies and driver aids to rival other premium mid-size SUVs.
The Alfa doesn't match the best Germans - think Audi Q5 or Mercedes-Benz GLC - for interior presentation. The Stelvio's looks cheaper and less exciting. The dash's 8.8-inch central display, for example, lacks the crispness and clarity expected from a premium brand.
But there are also some lovely touches. Stelvio's column-mounted paddle-shifters are made from metal. They feel cool and precise when you touch them - lovely.
There's a price to be paid for that great handling. The ride is firm but it's going to disappoint some comfort lovers. Wind noise levels are also higher than they should be, and there's too much road noise on coarse-chip surfaces.
While it's not flawless, the new Alfa Romeo Stelvio will offer a distinctive new flavour in the mid-size SUV market. It delivers the core attributes customers want - space and practicality - combined with a level of driving drama that Volvo drivers can only dream of.
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