Alfa’s literature on this car heralds the arrival of its first SUV, and it does so loud and clear. Maybe they forgot to tell the designers at Centro Stile because the Stelvio looks more like a large, jacked-up five-door hatchback than it does a conventional modern SUV in the metal.
The car’s roofline is curvy and fairly short, its rear screen has plenty of rake on it and its belt line is only medium-high. If you had to guess, you’d say those designers were aiming to create an alternative to a Porsche Macan rather than a rival for a BMW X3 or Audi Q5. But, while the car they’ve created is quite pretty in the details, it’s plainly not the visual success that the Giulia was. Its appearance wasn’t helped, in the case of our test car in particular, by quite a lot of uneven ‘orange peel’ paintwork.
You sit only medium-high in the Stelvio’s driver’s seat - though high enough to excuse most drivers from the need to bend at the waist to get in. There’s plenty of headroom up front to allow you to adjust your seat upwards if you do prefer a lofty vantage point. Room in the back is just about class-competitive, although you’ll find yourself sitting lower in the second row than you might expect to, with more bent knees.
Like the Giulia’s, the Stelvio’s cabin quality is passable but certainly isn’t on a level with most of its premium-brand opposition. From its tough, coarse-feeling leathers to its slightly dull-looking decorative trims and its relatively cheap-feeling switchgear, the Stelvio’s interior isn’t likely to sell it to someone considering giving up an Audi Q5 or Mercedes-Benz GLC.
Still, our test car’s sports seats were very comfortable and usefully well-bolstered; its controls were adjustable and well-located; its infotainment system was acceptable for functionality and standard of presentation; and its instruments were readable. Now ask yourself how many low-rent buttons or slightly wobbly fittings you’d be willing to overlook for a rev-counter that says ‘giri’ rather than ‘rpm’? If the answer’s none, you’re probably a bit too impartial to be a serial Alfa owner anyway. And, as they’ll surely point out, you’ve no idea what you’re missing.
Alfa’s four-cylinder diesel engine idles with a faint clatter, but it settles down nicely at cruising revs and overall is certainly refined enough to suit the car’s purposes. It feels torquey, too, working through an automatic gearbox that’s fairly quick to engage and to fully lock up, and chiming in with a gutsy shove of motive force from around 2000rpm. The Stelvio’s relative lightness makes itself apparent in several ways as you drive it, but this is the first of ‘em. And while at the other end of the rev range this engine isn’t the freest-revving four-pot diesel you’ll ever encounter, it still does a decent job – making for an overall performance level that’s notably keener than the average diesel SUV.
The car handles very well by SUV standards, feeling surprisingly agile around bends, gripping tenaciously and keeping a taut hold on its body. In the minutae of its driving experience, though, it doesn’t show the polish of some of its SUV opponents. A steering rack as quick as the Giulia’s helps create that sense of handling dynamism, but it requires more power assistance to work on this taller, heavier car and it therefore lacks almost any contact patch feel, being notably short for on-centre stability too.
Combine that with the Stelvio’s slightly excitable, occasionally brusque ride and you have a car that feels a touch too reactive over bumps than really befits an SUV, and that’s also a little too trying to place precisely on the road over a less than perfect surface. When the tarmac is smooth, the Alfa handles with an energetic zeal that really sets it apart, hanging onto your chosen course and attitude easily as you’re powering out of corners and showing off an encouraging balance of grip. Among SUVs like this, few handle better. But when the road deteriorates, the Stelvio’s shock absorption and general damping begins to come up short, allowing it oscillate a bit on its suspension springs and to toss its occupants around over bumps and through little compressions.
Like the power steering, the car’s pioneering brake-by-wire system (shared with the Giulia) has only an approximation of feedback which is better at some speeds than others, and so the pedal can be tricky to modulate and the car sometimes tough to slow down smoothly. Both outright stopping power and pedal response are good, though.