ITS THE THOUGHT THAT counts. Launch a car named Stelvio, allow the press to drive it on the Stelvio pass, and watch the column inches pile up. If you’re Alfa Romeo though, it’s not quite that simple, particularly when the Stelvio tourist board’s own website confirms that the pass is closed from November to May. Happily, other alpine routes are kept open, ensuring throngs of people in brightly coloured Gore-Tex can pile into the region each winter in their Q5s, X3s and GLCs. So launching a striking new SUV here is a shrewd move. The attention seems positive, too. Without the Quadrifoglio’s bodykit, the Stelvio’s shape and compact proportions are actually quite easy on the eye.
Alfa claims best-in-class interior space, and both ergonomics and quality are a step up for the brand, as they are with the Giulia. There’s ample adjustment for seats and wheel, and the pedals are well spaced. The transmission-selection lever does look rather like a Chinese copy of the one you’d find in a BMW, but the steering wheel, with its Ferrari-style column-mounted aluminium paddles, lends the cabin a special feel.
Engines at launch include a 207bhp 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel and a 276bhp 2-litre twin-scroll turbocharged petrol, while a ZF eight-speed auto is the only gearbox. The diesel will inevitably be the big-seller and does suit the SUV element of the Stelvio’s character, offering brisk acceleration (0-62mph in 6.6 seconds) and official combined economy of 58.9mpg. The petrol, however, is the more entertaining. It’s also the choice of the head of Alfa Romeo in Europe. Fabrizio Curci, who tells us that his personal Stelvio is the petrol ‘and it’s the one I have recommended my family and friends buy, too’.
The Stelvio feels more urgent – more Alfa-like – with petrol power, and, while neither engine is particularly refined, the petrol at least compensates with a rorty engine note. The Stelvio is at its most entertaining in manual mode and with Alfa’s DNA switch clicked around to Dynamic. Those Ferrari-style paddles are a joy to interact with and, while there’s an unnecessary thump with each up- and downchange in Dynamic, shifts are quick – as fast as 20 milliseconds. Braking is less joyful, with a spongy feel to the pedal. The stopping power is there but, despite Alfa’s fine efforts to reduce weight (at 1660k, the petrol is 185kg lighter than a 2-litre Macan), the stoppers feel the strain on alpine descents.
Dynamic mode also gets the best from the steering. The weighting remains light, but assistance is reduced to the benefit of that all-important off-centre response and the Stelvio’s nose responds keenly to inputs. It’s an easy car to place into and through a given bend, and with Q4 all-wheel drive and a locking rear diff, there’s strong traction and minimal understeer on the exit, while the low weight and light steering give a feeling of fleetness and lack of inertia that some German rivals can’t quite match. Unfortunately, winter tyres make it difficult to tell how much outright grip there is and harder to appreciate what feels like a well-balanced chassis.
Ultimately, the Stelvio isn’t quite the equal of the Macan to drive, but arguably it doesn’t need to be. with an entry point around £12.000 below the Porsche. It’s an engaging drive and a welcome new face in the segment. It may even displace some of those Q5s, X3s and GLCs in Europe’s top ski resorts.