From £69,5008

Alfa’s latest Quadrifoglio performance model meets the Autocar timing gear. Can a high-riding SUV possibly entertain like the sensational Giulia QV?

Were you to speculate on the identity of this week’s road test subject from its specification sheet alone, your efforts would be at risk of going widely awry. Carbonfibre-shell seats and a claimed 3.8sec 0-62mph time? Must be some sort of supercar, a notion reinforced by carbon-ceramic brake discs and a Race driving mode.

Somehow, the truth is more extreme – and unpredictable – than that. When Alfa Romeo presented its very first sports utility vehicle back in 2016 at the Los Angeles motor show, it wanted to leave an indelible mark. While lesser petrol models and their diesel counterparts were due to follow, on the stand sat the Stelvio in range-topping 503bhp Quadrifoglio form. The flamboyant styling was recognisable from the Giulia. We also knew that the engine, the same characterful twin-turbo V6 designed by former Ferrari engineer Gianluca Pivetti, would ensure bite matched bark. And it was the fabulous Giulia that gave us hope.

The ‘Quadrifoglio Verde’ four-leaf clover motif that sits above the front wheel arches first appeared on Ugo Sivocci’s Alfa Romeo RL Targa Florio, with which he won the race of the same name in 1923

Alfa Romeo leaned heavily on Ferrari expertise – including the acquisition of Philippe Krief, the chassis engineer responsible for the 458 Speciale – to deliver the best-handling saloon in its century-long history. Now it was applying that experience to the on-trend world of raised ride heights. Porsche and BMW have ensured the Stelvio Quadrifoglio won’t be the first SUV with truly polished handling, but could this be the first SUV to get its owner out of bed on a Sunday morning?

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Maybe. But it’s not that simple. As an SUV, this unprecedented Alfa must also be comfortable and safe on a rainy Tuesday night, and spacious enough to collect the children from school and do a weekly shop on the way home.

In this class, extraordinary handling and a stonking powertrain will get you only so far, so just how far does the Stelvio Quadrifoglio really go?

Price £69,500 | Power 503bhp | Torque 443lb ft | 0-60mph 4.0sec | 30-70mph in fourth 4.5sec | Fuel economy 22.0mpg | CO2 emissions 227g/km | 70-0mph 55.1m

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Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio 2019 road test review - hero side

At 4.7m long, 1.68m tall and 1.95m wide, the Stelvio Quadrifoglio isn’t the largest performance SUV out there. Nevertheless, the firepower required to shift its claimed 1830kg mass at a rate that’s fast enough to lap the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 7min 51.8sec – a record that has now been broken by the Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S – is still going to have to be considerable.

As with the Giulia Quadrifoglio saloon (with which the Stelvio Quadrifoglio shares its Giorgio architecture), that firepower is provided by an all-aluminium 2.9-litre twin-turbocharged V6. It’s a powerplant that can trace its lineage to Ferrari’s F154 family of modular V8s, engines that have been put to use in everything from the 488 Pista to the Maserati Quattroporte GTS. Liberated of two cylinders and reconfigured for use under the Stelvio’s island bonnet, it develops a heady 503bhp at 6500rpm, and its 443lb ft slug of torque is available at 2500rpm.

No Alfa would be complete without a prominent shield-shaped grille. As it does on the Giulia saloon, this dominates a large amount of front-end real estate.

Under regular conditions, the sum total of this puissance is deployed to the Stelvio’s 285/40-section rear tyres, courtesy of an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission. Unlike the Giulia saloon, though, the presence of Alfa’s Q4 four-wheel drive means that as much as 50% of the engine’s torque can be shuffled forwards when the car senses that the rear tyres are beginning to exceed the limits of their grip. A pair of clutch packs housed within the rear differential also allows for torque to be distributed actively and laterally across the rear axle.

Suspension is by way of a double-wishbone arrangement up front, with a multi-link set-up at the rear. Adaptive dampers are standard fare here and are tightened up or slackened off via the Alfa DNA Pro drive mode selector. This also works in alliance with Alfa’s Chassis Domain Control system to alter and manage throttle response, shift severity and calibration of the traction and stability software.

Lightweight carbon-ceramic brakes are offered as an option and our car had them. Further weight-saving measures come in the form of a carbonfibre driveshaft, while aluminium is used for the suspension componentry and body panels such as the doors, bonnet and wheel arches. On our test scales, and with a full tank of fuel, the Stelvio came in at 1931kg, with weight being split 54:46 front to rear.

Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio 2019 road test review - cabin

The Stelvio Quadrifoglio’s dark but purposeful cockpit sets the tone rather effectively for the exciting driving experience to come. The car’s fittings aren’t universally or even very widely of high enough perceived quality to match what you’ll find in an Audi SQ5, GLC 63 or Porsche Macan Turbo but, just as with the Giulia, Turin is gambling that won’t be a turn-off for Stelvio owners.

It’s quite a lot more likely to be a turn-off for a Stelvio owner spending £75,000 on a car than someone spending £40,000, we’d point out; especially since the efforts made to enrich this car’s cabin (leather on top of the dashboard and on the doors and lacquered carbonfibre deployed liberally) don’t distract you for long from the places where the interior looks and feels cheap (ventilation controls, gearlever, steering column plastics, steering wheel button consoles).

Optional Sparco carbonfibre-shelled bucket seats have manual adjustment and pretty wide bolstering – which may not be your SUV-relevant cup of tea.

But there are certainly some notable material highlights to cherish. The large aluminium column-mounted shift paddles look and feel great. The optional Sparco Carbonshell lightweight seats look great, too, holding your backside in place very well, although we can imagine the standard electric heated sports seats would be comfier.

Alfa’s small-diameter flat-bottomed steering wheel, featuring leather, Alcantara and carbonfibre, feels superb although it could do with more reach adjustment. But between one thing and the next, your appetite is whetted rather skilfully.

Alfa’s hot Stelvio has arrived just as the Italian firm has got around to making its 8.8in Alfa Connect infotainment system compliant with smartphone mirroring. It will connect with both Apple and Android handsets and delivers quite a lot more connected services, through your phone’s data connection, as a result.

An infotainment system in a £70,000 car probably shouldn’t rely on your smartphone’s data connection as squarely as that, mind you. And in other respects, the Alfa’s Magneti Marelli-developed set-up doesn’t distinguish itself too well.

It’s controlled through an iDrive-style wheel of the sort we would generally prefer to a touchscreen system anyway, but it still seems a bit more cumbersome to use than the best premium-grade systems. The navigation system is considerably less adaptable and detailed than it ought to be, and it’ll be a while yet before Stelvio owners will be treated to things like a fully digital instrument screen or a head-up display – both of which you’ve got a right to expect, at least as an option, on this kind of car.

Those drawn to this car at least partly for its space and usability ought to be reasonably pleased that it offers a good deal more on both scores than the Giulia Quadrifoglio. The altitude at which the cabin seats you isn’t quite as high as SUVs of this size typically do, so the driving position is pretty recumbent, and you’ll find enough room in the back seats for full-sized adult passengers, although you sit in a lower and more bent-legged pose than some might expect to.

The boot is a good size, although not huge (just above 500 litres assuming you avoid a spacesaver spare wheel) and has load-lashing points as standard, with both a cargo net and a more flexible load area rail system on the options list.

Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio 2019 road test review - engine

Alfa Romeo stole some limelight for the Giulia Quadrifoglio in 2016 by claiming sub-4.0sec 0-62mph potential for it. When we road tested it in 2017, it proved to be a 4.5sec real-world prospect with no formal launch control function. We didn’t expect a closely related performance SUV with the same engine and carrying an extra 231kg (as weighed) to improve on that. How wrong we were.

The Stelvio Quadrifoglio doesn’t have a formal launch control, either – but even on a damp and chilly day at the test track, it didn’t much need one. Engaging Race mode on the Alfa DNA Pro drive mode selector switches out the traction control.

I was amazed at how harshly the governing electronics let you treat its driveline during standing starts. No safeties here, it seems: this is a 503bhp 4WD car with an unintended burnout mode.

Using manual mode on the gearbox prevents the car from shifting up preemptively when off and running. And building a full accelerator pedal’s worth of torque against a flattened brake pedal for just long enough that engine speed rises above 2000rpm forces just enough strain through the driveline to set the car rocketing away when you sidestep the brake. With a bit of initial wheelspin at the rear axle only, lift-off is achieved.

With well-timed paddle shifts, the hot Stelvio can crack 60mph in less than four seconds. Our fastest oneway timed run, with two occupants on board, was a 3.9sec. The last Macan Turbo we tested (2014) wasn’t close to that mark but the Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 S Coupé we tested last year was quicker still (by 0.3sec to 60mph, 0.5sec to 100mph and 0.2sec over a standing quarter mile). So there’s no champagne and glory for Alfa Romeo on this occasion – but a hearty round of congratulations is due all the same.

This is a cracking engine in a genuinely fast performance car. It sounds soulful, tuneful and savage as only a big-hitting V6 can. It creates enough useful mid-range torque to make the Stelvio feel brisk even at middling revs and in higher gears. And it explodes over the last 2000rpm of its range, from 5000rpm to 7000rpm, with a ferocity and freedom you only expect of a turbocharged engine developed, however vicariously, by Ferrari.

The eight-speed automatic gearbox is fast-shifting in manual mode, occasionally guilty of hunting for the perfect ratio in ‘D’ but, by and large, able to recognise the difference between a squeezed accelerator pedal input and a quickly stabbed one, and therefore easy to use.

But for Alfa’s changeable by-wire brake pedal, the Stelvio Quadrifoglio would get a perfect five-star score in this section. Just as we found with the hot Giulia, though, its brakes lack natural pedal feel, being grabby and over-sensitive at times but strangely dead at others. Our test car’s optional carbon-ceramic brakes might have contributed to the problem – and, on a slightly damp surface, they appeared to do little to boost outright stopping power, which seemed pretty underwhelming (70-0mph in 55m).

Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio 2019 road test review - cornering front

Firm-riding, uncompromising in its damping, super-keen to change direction and having more daring throttle-on cornering balance than almost any other car of its kind, the Stelvio Quadrifoglio is an SUV that handles like a sports car – and a feisty sports car at that.

We wrote exactly that five years ago about the Macan Turbo, of course. And we’ve marvelled several times since at how the latest four-wheel-drive systems might even be making for better driver’s cars than their ‘purer’ rear-drive counterparts, at least in some parts of the performance car market.

Strange that a 503bhp performance SUV that’ll hit 60mph in four seconds flat has hill-descent control as standard. Can’t imagine many people will plan on taking this car off road.

But emerging, even, into that context, this Alfa Romeo is truly remarkable for the immediacy, agility and precision of its handling; for the closeness of its body control; for its vivid sense of mid-corner poise; and for the skilful way it conceals its mass and its high centre of gravity through a series of bends.

The drive modes (Advanced Efficiency, Natural, Dynamic and Race) probably have a bigger influence on its handling, via the calibration of its power steering, adaptive damping, torque vectoring and stability control systems, than they do on its engine and gearbox. The ride is sufficiently firm as to feel moderately coarse and a little aggressive in any of those modes, but particularly so in the suspension’s firmer settings and over rougher urban surfaces.

But only in the more hardcore modes can you bring together the best elements of the Stelvio’s driving experience: the engine at its most potent, the steering best balanced for weight and feel, and the stability control active but dialled back far enough so as not to intrude. It’s quite a combination. For fast road driving, our testers preferred Dynamic mode, with the adaptive dampers wound back independently into ‘soft’.

For the track, Race mode works best but, even here, it can be a mistake not to switch the suspension back into ‘mid’ mode. In full-fat ‘hard’ damping mode, the car’s body can feel clamped by its dampers as if in a gigantic invisible vice, which doesn’t spur you on to greater enthusiasm and new heights of enjoyment.

The four-wheel drive combines with a torque-vectoring rear differential to make the car handle uncannily like its saloon sibling, the Giulia – at least through the early phases of a corner.

It’s very quick to turn in, hardly rolling until lots of lateral load builds into the car, while the chassis’s brain is ready, as you feed power, to let the rear axle spin up well beyond the limits of grip. Quickly but progressively, it then shifts torque to the front wheels before the outward arc of that rear progresses too far.

The effect of that rear diff, combined with a suspension that’s inclined towards a highly strung temperament anyway, is to make the car move into and out of oversteer quickly. The drivetrain works fast enough that you seldom need more than a few degrees of corrective lock when the car does slide, though. If you prefer, the stability control system can keep a tight check on engine torque and keep your line and attitude neat and tidy.

Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio 2019 road test review - hero front

A Stelvio Quadrifoglio will be expensive to run. At £69,500 before the temptation-laden options list, it exists in a financial realm far beyond that of its range-mates. An overall test economy of 22.0mpg – dropping down to single figures during the performance testing – further necessitates deep pockets if you’re to use this as a multi-faceted family car in traditional SUV fashion.

But much the same can be said for rivals. In fact, the Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 S costs £10,000 more to buy and has weaker residuals. The Macan Turbo Performance Pack is only marginally more expensive and better equipped and it has proven freakishly resistant to depreciation thus far, of course. In fact, then, the Stelvio Quadrifoglio is actually priced quite aggressively, and not so badly equipped itself.

Alfa undercuts the big-engined AMG GLC63 on price and suffers less depreciation. Neither can match the Porsche Macan Turbo, mind.

Alfa is still in the process of altering perceptions about reliability, and if what you hear about the slightly flaky temperament of Alfa Romeo Giulias and Stelvios that are depended on for daily transport is true, it’ll be engaged in that process for a while yet. In this respect, a two-year factory warranty with an additional retailer warranty looks merely adequate.

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Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio 2019 road test review - hero static

The Stelvio Quadrifoglio is a first-order performance creation of breathtaking pace and uncompromising temperament, as absorbing to drive as almost anything Turin has made in decades.

You’ll probably have assumed that, because it’s an SUV, it might be something of a half-measure in most of those respects. Well, guess again. This car has speed, soul, poise and verve to burn. But was it a mistake to have its credentials as an everyday-use family car hamstrung by such a hardcore ride, and by handling that can, at times, feel like too much to stomach? Not least given that the Stelvio’s dynamic temperament seems even more uncompromising, at times, than the Giulia Quadrifoglio’s does.

A real driver’s car, but it stretches SUV-related bounds of acceptability

But while we fear plenty of owners might ultimately conclude the same, others will embrace a really absorbing, fast, vivacious and wonderfully unlikely driver’s car here; one that might not have the dynamic versatility you expect of an SUV, but so often succeeds and seduces anyway with an arrogant, genial shrug of Latin supercar attitude.

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Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio First drives