Not so long ago, the notion of an Alfa Romeo SUV touting more than 500bhp didn’t just seem unlikely, it was a fantasy of almost Wellsian proportions.
What few of us bet on was an insatiable global appetite for high-riding cars and Alfa’s recent – and so dearly welcome – rejuvenation as a purveyor of proper drivers’ machines.
The madcap result is the Stelvio Quadrifoglio seen here, which faithfully reproduces the blueprint set down by the Giulia Quadrifoglio saloon but adds a driven front axle and substantially more ground clearance to the mix.
It means you get the same rasping Ferrari-derived twin-turbo V6 tuned to 503bhp, and the same curvaceous, pugnacious exterior styling - only now with brutal wheelarch extensions, bonnet vents and a propped-up, puffed-out stance that’s perhaps just a little bit frightening if your existing notion of an SUV is a diesel Qashqai.
What we’ve been waiting to discover is whether you also get the same fluent, indulgent handling as the saloon on British roads. That is traditionally the first sacrifice at the altar of a raised ride-height, and while this car has previously impressed us enormously on the glass-smooth roads of Jebel Jais in the United Arab Emirates, the salt-caked, rutted roads of the Brecon Beacons ask of it rather more challenging questions.
Does the Stelvio Quadrifoglio match exterior looks with interior quality?
The generous levels of carbonfibre in our test car are so glossy you can see your face in it – very Italianate – with shapely fillets along the dashboard and doors. There are reams of leather, too, though Alfa has snuck in quite a lot of plastic beneath your eyeline, which isn’t very becoming of a £70,000 car. There’s also contrasting stitching (pretty, but not always perfectly aligned, it must be said) and as in the other Stelvio models there’s a refreshing lack of switchgear.
Equipment is generous before you start ticking boxes, with an Apple CarPlay and Audroid Auto-ready 8.8in infotainment system, front and rear parking sensors, rear view camera, keyless entry, blind spot detection, ambient lighting and a flat-bottomed sports steering wheel coming as standard.
Extras include an optional electric seats pack, which upgrades driver and passenger with 8-way motorised adjustment and heated seats, plus a heated steering wheel. There's also a 14 speaker Harman kardon sound system, carbon ceramic brakes, an electric sunroof, active cruise control and Sparco carbon shell sports seats should you want to go all out on the options list.
Build quality? Questionable, certainly. Character? Present in abundance. On the whole, it’s comfortable and attractive, though seats that gripped a little firmer and set your hips just a smidgeon lower would make it even better.
Does the Stelvio Quadrifoglio perform like a true sports SUV?
Get stuck in behind the carbon and Alcantara steering wheel and the Stelvio feels genuinely adjustable, which flies in the face of convention for tall, heavy cars of this type. True, it’s a trait that today is usefully amplified by scrabbly winter tyres, but you can’t fail to notice the pervasive rear-driven chassis balance of the Stelvio Quadrifoglio. Has an SUV ever exhibited such delightful poise? We'd say probably not.
It stems from the fact that the car is entirely rear driven until the 285-section rear tyres begin to over-rotate. At this point, up to half the 443lb ft of available torque is sent to the front axle and in doing so unlocks quite freakish real-world pace. That’s what strikes you about this car – the phenomenal rate of cross-country progress that’s possible when four-wheel drive and significant but superbly controlled wheel articulation meet with an engine this explosively potent.
The official claim is 3.8 seconds to 62mph – just a tenth shy of a PDK-equipped Porsche 911 GTS – and the QV feels good for it. And then there’s the noise. Downsized and turbocharged this engine may be, but in the car’s more aggressive Dynamic mode – and even more so in all-systems-off Race – it delivers a truly devilish tune with rip-snorting upshifts. Best of all, it doesn’t sound too contrived.
On tortuous Welsh roads, we’re grateful for a steering setup that is light and quick – a Ferrari-ism to go along with huge gearshift paddles worthy of any supercar – and plays a good part in making this car feel far less substantial than it actually is. There’s also torque vectoring, which in this instance involves tactically metering out torque via a clutch either side of the electronic rear differential. With the suspension providing enough pliancy to work the tyres reassuringly hard, the Stelvio zips between through corners in a manner that’s far less cantankerous than it must look. It’s sensationally effective, truth be told.
Alfa Romeo's advice is to leave the DNA switch in its mid, ‘Natural’ setting for road use, but so benign is this chassis that you’ll soon opt for ‘Race’ (albeit with the adaptive dampers softened into their medium setting).
It’s here that shifts from the eight-speed transmission finally become satisfactorily snappy and the throttle response sharpens up enough for you to fully appreciate how impressively low on turbo-lag this engine is. What you won’t immediately realise is quite how vigorously you’re chasing the throttle – until, that is, you find yourself calmly and smoothly indulging in that quarter-turn of opposite lock. In a 1845kg SUV, this is not what you expect, though perhaps it’s simply what happens when your chassis tuning is overseen by the same man responsible for the Ferrari 458 Speciale.
Where does the Stelvio Quadrifoglio stand against its rivals?
If there’s chink in the Alfa’s armour it’s the standard-fit cast-iron brakes, which exhibit too much dead pedal travel before biting. We’ll put the numbness down to the winter time, this time. The secondary-ride at low speeds is also fairly rough around the edges, though if that’s the trade-off for such composure when speeds inevitably increase, we’ll gladly accept it.
Lastly, there’s the small matter of fuel consumption, which only hovers around 29mpg at motorway speeds. Rather undermines the case for the Stelvio QV as a do-all family car, doesn’t it?
Despite that, you’re unlikely to find an SUV that’s better fun to drive – and just so generally amusing to be around – than this. On the move it has the ability to make a Porsche Macan Turbo seem po-faced and at the kerbside it makes a BMW X5M look like a tragic try-hard.
Were it not so dynamically adept you might see those bonnet vents and mark the Stelvio QV down as some sort of caricature or parody - and yet the Stelvio QV handles with a fizz you would never associate with such a heavy beast. Moreover, in this country its combination of agility and security will hold huge appeal. An upcoming twin-test with the Macan will be a fascinating contest.
The question you really need to ask yourself is how desperately you need the extra ride-height, because however broad your smile becomes at the wheel of this hottest Stelvio, you’re bound to wonder how much broader it might have been in the sensational Giulia.