Pardon some cynicism if you will, but the Stelvio Quadrifoglio must be the first Alfa in a while to arrive in the UK feeling a genuine weight of expectation on its P Zeros. Because even allowing for apparently innate petrolhead enthusiasm, there hasn't been much to be enthused by in the past 20 years or so - probably more. Yes, you've heard it all before, but the significance of this car is hard to over hype: this 510hp SUV should be good. Really good. In fact, given the sector's apparently inexorable rise in importance, the Stelvio Q can't actually afford to be anything less than, well, really, really good.
The 4C was a revelation in Italy and a crushing disappointment in the UK. The Giulia Quadrifoglio was superb in Alfa's back yard and perhaps even more impressive here - a pleasant surprise verging on the revelatory. With the Stelvio impressing on debut, there's enough in this rich vein of recent form to suggest the saloon was not a mere blip. Particularly with so much shared between the two.
A quick recap, given the international launch was nearly a year ago: Giorgio underpinnings carried over, identical 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 with eight-speed auto, same double wishbone up front, multi link rear suspension set up, even - says Alfa at least - an unchanged 50:50 weight distribution. There's the small matter of that distributed weight being a 200kg increase from the saloon, but we'll return to the point.
Much else you may also know, but it seems worth setting the scene: Q4 all-wheel drive that never sends more than 50 per cent forwards, an interior that sits as comfortably with the £70k price tag as a footballer does in a George suit, fastest SUV around the Nurburgring with a 7:51.7. Remember, there was the special edition and everything, bringing to everyone's attention the 20 second gap between it and the saloon. And who wants to be the chubby sibling?
We won't settle that now - if there were really any doubt on the matter - thanks to our limited experience of the saloon (because the latter, er, broke, while on its most recent test with us.) At any rate, the more relevant comparison remains with its schporty SUV contemporaries, those from Porsche, Mercedes and the like - cars for which the buying public's hunger cannot seemingly be sated.
Things begin well for the Stelvio, chiefly thanks to that engine and gearbox combination. Alfa remains coy about the Ferrari link - but, like a friend who's getting "some help" in the gym, the proof is manifest. The influence, character and results are undeniable, and wholly positive. The Q not only matches or surpasses rivals for performance, but does so in characteristic fashion, favouring a vivid, voracious, vocal top end over a torque splurge at idle. With a 442lb ft peak on offer in a rev band wider than the Humber, on demand power is never an issue, yet the Stelvio's unquenchable thirst for revs is addictive and fantastically rewarding. Combine that sort of zeal with a soundtrack that fizzes, barks and parps in a most amusing fashion and you have an engine that feels very, well... Ferrari. Which is jolly nice.
Furthermore, while the ZF eight-speed auto can't match the synaptic zap of the Ferrari dual-clutch, it's calibrated very nicely here. The shifts are brisk, the slender paddles a tactile joy to use and the mapping smart enough in automatic mode. It makes a great noise on upshifts, too, with the more aggressive drive settings, like the angriest paintball gun you've ever heard. Praise should also be heaped on Alfa for using short, punchy ratios, making more than two (we're looking at you, Porsche) usable in the UK. Not that 510hp ever needs much geeing-on, even with 1,800kg or so, but the ratios add further impetus, engagement and excitement to proceedings.
Alfa, of course, considers the terms 'engagement and excitement' a foregone conclusion - and previously it might have been the jazz hand flourish behind which it hid a multitude of other sins. But not this time. Or not for the most part, anyway. Because the Stelvio's showing on undulating Scottish tarmac - even with the 'for an SUV' disclaimer - is an additional reason to laud its maker with praise.
There's a pliancy and composure to the ride that's deeply impressive. Roll is accommodated, though not in a way that calls the dampers' authority into question very often. Tellingly, Race mode seems to deliver additional brittleness to the chassis response without a discernible increase in control, so is probably best left alone; which, of course, can be done with Alfa's own 'Bumpy Road' button - again, like a Ferrari. For a car hustling along so much weight on such a vast wheel and tyre combo - that qualifier again - the Stelvio is more than decent.
Alfa makes a point of highlighting the car's extremely direct steering ratio - 12.1:1, said to be the quickest in the class - and you don't need to be an engineer to know how that bears out on the road, the Stevlio being super agile and direct on turn in. Well, sort of. The car feels mostly in tune with that steering input, but apparently there's no disguising the greater distance between what you're thinking on high and what's actually happening in the running gear. It just dulls the sense of immediacy for anyone sat on the Stelvio's perch - if only there were a version where you sat, oh I don't know, say half a foot lower...
Beyond that, further revelations about the Stelvio's performance will mostly have to wait. The car did not find Scotland at her best on this occasion, what with all the single track roads on Alfa's test route. Still, at modest levels of commitment on damp roads, the impression is of considerable turn in grip (thank the 255-section fronts for that) and huge traction on the way out (which the 285-section rears will be largely responsible for). Better still, by finding it imbued with the sort of excitement and energy your Italian car cliche book talks about - the kind which is for the most part sorely lacking in its rivals - it manages to be immensely entertaining to drive. From the noises it makes to the way it responds to the throttle to the eagerness of the controls, the Quadrifoglio is always a car that feels alive beneath you, yet not in a wearing or unnecessary fashion. And that's for any car, not just for an SUV.
Shame the same cannot be said for the brakes, which, whether in standard iron or optional ceramic, render a numb, inconsistent and sometimes snatchy middle pedal. As with the Giulia, the problem feels like its in the brake-by-wire setup rather the strength of the rotors. We'd recommend trying both setups (especially given the expense of ticking the wrong box) to see which you prefer, although the short answer is that neither is the equivalent of the brakes that come as standard on a Macan. Which does make you wonder what the problem was with a physical connection between pedal and pad in the first place.
Still, concerns about some less than perfect brakes and a not-as-spangly-as-an-Audi interior aside (also an Achilles heel for the saloon), the Stelvio Quadrifoglio is a deeply talented and highly accomplished car. If that sounds like excuses are being made for it then that's because they are to some extent, the Alfa carrying off the same trick of as the Range Rover Sport SVR of being immensely charismatic (still have that cliche book to hand?) and tremendously likeable even to purists, while also being capable enough to substantiate the subjective charm.
Granted, it's a struggle to see what the Stelvio offers over a Giulia in terms of driving appeal, though that's largely a redundant concern for buyers who wouldn't countenance a four-door saloon. Those after a hot SUV of this ilk will find a great deal to enjoy in the Alfa, and it earns a hearty recommendation from us - although one final thing to bear in mind before taking the plunge - an F-Pace SVR, new Porsche Macan and the BMW X3 M are not far off at all. This isn't over, basically. Not by a long chalk...
SPECIFICATION - ALFA ROMEO STELVIO QUADRIFOGLIO
Engine: 2,891cc, twin turbocharged V6
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 510@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 443@2,500rpm
Top speed: 176mph
MPG: 31.4 (NEDC combined)