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The Alfa Romeo Stelvio has a big boot. It has rear seats that conveniently split-fold in 40/20/40 portions. It has sensible black plastic wheel arch lips. It has multiple cupholders, a power tailgate, several shopping hooks and this one has 280bhp. Which is quite a lot for a high-riding five-seat family car.

This certainly isn’t the first time that Alfa Romeo has set about building a more practical vehicle – it made a rugged, Jeep-like 4x4 called the Matta in the early 1950s - but what its Canadian boss Reid Bigland underlines is that ‘the Stelvio is an Alfa Romeo first, and an SUV second.’

And, as any car enthusiast knows, that should mean a recipe to include excellent handling, feelsome steering and a tunefully characterful soundtrack. To this end, chief engineer Roberto Fedeli points out that Alfa Romeo consulted a couple of musicians (of rock, blues and pop leanings rather than orchestral, rap or trance, apparently) to create a backing track in harmony with the rest of the car in the interests of bestowing it with a ‘coherent character’.

That character is built on the so-called Giorgio platform that also underpins the Giulia saloon, with Fedeli pointing out that the Stelvio was developed at much the same time in a ‘cluster’ of models that will grow from this architecture.

Peeling away the Stelvio’s SUV body

Bigland reminds us that Giorgio was developed as a premium architecture, and that by making its debut on the 503bhp Giulia Quadrifoglio it was possible to develop high-cost items such as a lightweight carbonfibre propshaft that also appears below the floors of all the mainstream Giulias, and the Stelvio besides. Had the less potent versions been developed first, he explains, the finance department would have vetoed such functional indulgences.

The Stelvio is rich in lightweight aluminium, too. The doors, bonnet and tailgate are all alloy, as is the suspension and its sub-frames. The result is a mid-sized, four-wheel-drive SUV that weighs in at 1659kg with fluids: impressively competitive heft even against the equivalent predominantly aluminium 1775kg Jaguar F-Pace.

The Stelvio's body is also exceptionally rigid, a vital requirement both of a keen-handling car, and an SUV with off-road capabilities. It’s presumably no Land Rover – there are no terrain settings to choose from – but there is a hill-descent facility.

Mostly, though, the Stelvio’s innards have been arranged to provide an entertainingly diverting drive, to which end Fedeli and his colleagues established an unusual dynamic goal: to reproduce the handling of the Giulia in a car whose driving position – or H-point, in industry-speak – is 190mm higher. And that includes replicating the Giulia’s low-roll cornering habits. No trick roll-resisting devices are employed, with Fedeli confirming that this goal has been achieved with stiffer springs and anti-roll bars. To which the obvious next question is: ‘what about the ride?’ Specially developed dampers are the apparent solution of the non-electronic variety. 

There’s little chance of finding out how effectively Alfa's ambitious approach to the Stelvio's chassis tuning works at its Balocco test track, most of which is as smooth as a fresh-shaved cheek, but there’s some reassurance to be drawn from the fact that the Stelvio has been tested on roads in Wales, Scotland and England. But for this car more than most, it’ll take a UK drive to determine what the ride is really like.

There is, however, plenty of scope for testing the Stelvio’s thrust. Its 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine not only delivers an enticingly generous 276bhp, but also 295lb ft of torque, and you can feel the full strength of this from 2250rpm if you floor the throttle from idle in a low gear. The four-cylinder Multiair motor is smooth, although what you notice most is the mild rort issued across most of the rev range.

It’s certainly not loud – that would get irritating within miles – and it’s not as sweet as you’ll hear from an old Alfa Romeo 75 Twin Spark, for example, but it’s assertive enough to give the engine a characterful voice. It also encourages you to drive the Stelvio with zest, especially as its chassis is at least as eager. The rest of the Stelvio range will be made up of a 197bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol, two tunes of the all-alloy 2.2-litre turbodiesel - 178bhp and 208bhp respectively - and topped with the Quadrifoglio, which uses the same 2.9-litre V6 Ferrari-developed engine found in the Giulia Cloverleaf producing the same mammoth 503bhp as it does in the performance saloon.

The steering's swift-acting ratio is exactly the same as the Giulia’s, and at low-to-brisk speeds on Balocco’s dampened tracks, the Stelvio changes direction with a crisp immediacy that’s heightened by the promised lack of roll. What you feel at the rim is more resistance than topography, but at least it’s accurate and consistent. It’s not long before you forget your distance from the road below, and begin to drive the Stelvio with the verve of its lower-riding Giulia sister.

The Stelvio is fundamentally rear-wheel drive, like the Giulia, with 100 percent of the engine’s effort channelled to the rear axle – for which a mechanical limited-slip differential is optionally available – unless traction issues require a contribution from the clutch-controlled front axle.

How much time does this take? ‘Nothing,’ is the unbelievable answer from a smiling Fedeli, and he doesn’t follow up with the millisecond interval in question. But, on the track, the Q4 system responds briskly enough to avoid feeling clunky. Up to 50 percent of the torque can be redirected to the front wheels, matching the Stelvio’s ideal 50:50 weight distribution. There’s plenty of urge to direct, too, with the 276bhp engine launching the Alfa to 62mph in 5.7sec – usefully faster than the Golf GTI. The diesel Stelvio is capable of the same sprint in 6.6sec.

Balocco’s slightly slithery Tarmac provides a decent chance for exploration of the effectiveness of this hardware, with tight low-speed corners soon revealing the amusing discovering that the Stelvio’s quite substantial rear-end can be poked decisively sideways. That’s if you’re in the dynamic setting of Alfa Romeo’s familiar DNA driving modes, which allows some slippage but not enough to spike your heart rate. The electronic stability program (ESP) can’t be completely killed, which is probably a good thing, given that it’s also quite easy to make the Stelvio’s front tyres slide towards understeer. The realisation that this is good comes during a long, 75mph sweeper that starts edging the Alfa unnervingly wide, a situation you’d be highly unlikely to encounter on the road. As we know, tracks can often be highly deceptive, so it will take a twisting, bump-scattered road – or indeed, the Stelvio Pass – to discover what this Alfa’s really like. So far, though, it’s more than promising.

Kitting out the Alfa Romeo Stelvio

And so to seat folding, boot space and the mundane necessities of family car life. The Stelvio manages two fair wins with decent rear room and a long, uniformly shaped boot, although it might have been wider had its sides not been packed with components-unknown behind carpeted trim panels. The rear seats can be semi-released from the tailgate end, but only semi, because the backrests don’t drop once their catches are released, making this facility rather pointless. The backrests do fall fairly flat however, and the tailgate is powered as standard on all models.

There are three trims to choose from – Stelvio, Super and Speciale, with entry-level cars coming with 17in alloy wheels, parking sensors, automatic headlights and wipers, numerous safety technologies and Alfa Romeo’s Connect 8.8in infotainment system as standard.

Upgrade to Super and the Stelvio comes equipped with 18in alloy wheels, European sat nav and a half leather upholstery, while Alfa believes that many customers will add the Luxury or Sport packs. The former includes a full leather upholstery and electrically adjustable and heated front seats, while the Sport pack gives a heated steering wheel, racing leather clad seats and steel pedals.

Completing the range is the Speciale trim, which adds bi-xenon headlights, electric folding mirrors, electrically adjustable lumbar support, aluminium paddle shifters and heated front seats to the comprehensive package. While, as seems the vogue these days, Alfa Romeo will launch a first edition version of the Stelvio known as the Milano Edizione, which includes all the kit found on the Speciale trimmed model plus 20in alloys, sports seats, keyless entry, a 10-speaker audio system, tinted rear windows, a reversing camera and electrically adjustable front seats.

Our early-build test had one or two frustrating bugs, among them wind noise that roared too obviously and a driver’s seat with no tilt adjustment. But, on the flip side, further positives included the Stelvio’s robust aura, the high quality of much of the interior trim, a particularly tactile steering wheel - with a perfectly positioned starter button - and the enjoyment of driving an SUV with a bit of verve.

The Stelvio faces stiff competition from a renewed Audi Q5, the Porsche Macan and Jaguar F-Pace, but it certainly deserves short-listing if it turns out to be as impressive on the road as it is on the track. Although if you are after the full Alfa Romeo experience the petrol versions seem better at exuding this purposeful passion.

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