Alfa Stelvio on the Stelvio (again)

Naming a car after something gives its manufacturer a certain obligation to make sure that the connotation is an appropriate one. Or alternatively to give us all a laugh if it isn't - the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Maserati Mexico and Triumph Dolomite standing out as good examples of less-obvious associations.

But, to stick with the Italian mountain theme that British Leyland started, Alfa's decision to name its first SUV the Stelvio raised the obvious question of how well the car would cope with the challenge of its eponymous Alpine pass.

Obvious enough that Alfa was planning to hold the original press launch on a route including the famous 2,757-metre summit, only to find that unseasonably late snow had kept the road closed for longer than expected. Hence a second attempt in the summer, and a change for us to experience the fuller Stelvio range over what remains one of Italy's famous roads.

Making a pass
Let's not get bogged down with the question of just how important the Stelvio's success is to Alfa's future and concentrate on how good it is. While you might not reckon that a mid-sized SUV is the most natural fit with the Alfa brand, you'd be hard pressed to argue that it's the right call given the current state of the market.

The first problem with the Passo dello Stelvio is getting to it. As befits its edge-of-the-world status on the border with Austria and Switzerland it's a long way from anywhere that registers in big letters on the map. Alfa flies us into Milan to pick up cars, meaning a three hour schlep along the Autostrada and then traffic-clogged single carriageway road that leads to Bormio, the town that guards the southern end of the pass.

It's a chance to experience the basic 180hp 2.2-litre diesel version that Alfa has offered us first. It's an accomplished cruiser, quiet at speed apart from some slight wind-whistle from the tops of the doors. There are lots of toys too; although Italian spec for the base diesel seems to be more generous than in the UK. The sat-nav, which will be optional on the cheapest Stelvio, is properly dreadful though - blocky fonts, dull witted and refusing to zoom out beyond a five-mile radius to check its routing logic. This might be one of the few times it's not worth ticking the option box.

Moving on up
Don't come to the Stelvio looking for the sort of Alpine driving paradise the car adverts promise you. Certainly not in the height of summer and on a fine day. The road attracts visitors from around the world, in cars, coaches, motorbikes and cycles and passing is almost impossible on the narrower stretches. Any fantasies of finding a private rally stage are unlikely to last further than the first hairpin - and there are 38 on the way up.

But even at a scenery-watching pace the pass wakes up the Stelvio's chassis. Like the Giulia it sits on Alfa's very expensively engineered Giorgio platform, with extensive use of aluminium making it extremely strong, and also lighter than its obvious rivals. It certainly feels stiff; taut and agile when asked to change direction and yet with a well-damped ride that copes admirably with the sometimes lumpy tarmac as we climb higher. Suspension is firm, but not uncomfortably so, and body control is excellent.

Dynamically the Stelvio is pretty much a Giulia on stilts, especially in basic rear-drive diesel form. Steering is fast and direct, the front end responding impressively keenly and with a minimum of body roll. There's little feedback beyond the artificial weight of the electric steering, but it stays impressively accurate when you up the pace. But while Alfa is proud of the way the Stelvio resists understeer, much of this is down to the forceful way the stability control winds back the engine when grip starts to run out. The lack of an off switch, or even a sport mode, also prevents any significant throttle influence over the rear end, a situation not changed by twisting the 'DNA' controller to its punchiest Dynamic mode. (A chat with Alfa's engineering boss Roberto Fideli later suggests the company is seriously considering making the stability control defeatable.)

Getting out of the darkness
The engine is the weak link. It's fine, in a four-cylinder diesel way, but completely devoid of any excitement beyond mild surprise at the often impressive economy numbers on the trip computer. It's a low-rev slugger, with the peak 332lb ft of torque on deck and saluting by 1,750rpm, and the standard eight-speed automatic works hard to keep the engine in its relatively narrow powerband; faster progress gets some surprisingly agrarian noises coming through the bulkhead and the engine is out of puff by 4,000rpm. No great surprises; it's a diesel SUV after all. But it is also an Alfa Romeo and the engine doesn't feel quite worthy of how good the rest of the car is, with the gearbox due for particular praise thanks to the speed of its shifts when directed by the paddles. I doubt many will get too excised by the lack of a manual gearbox.

Time for a change, and a switch to petrol. In this case the 200hp 2.0-litre turbo that plays understudy to the brawnier 280hp we experienced when we first drove the car. The test car was loaded with options on its options, but in the UK this engine will be available in the basiest standard trim as well as the mid-level Super spec.

While the base petrol isn't the most exciting engine, it's got much more character than the diesel. Like its spark-free sister it's tuned for torque, the peak 243lb ft available from an identical 1,750rpm; but unlike the oiler it's happy to rev when called upon to do so, beyond the lowly 4,500rpm at which peak torque arrives and onto the 6,000rpm limiter if the mood takes. The soundtrack is busy rather than inspired, so don't expect any of the zing that Alfa used to give its four-cylinder engines, but it's much nicer sounding than the gravelly diesel. The all-wheel drive system also extracts considerably more traction from the slower corners.

The petrol is impressively quick, too - feeling at least as fast as Alfa's claimed 7.2-second 0-62mph time makes it sound. That's heading uphill - on the long descent another problem manifests itself, with a gap in traffic allowing progress spirited enough to pretty much set the front brakes on fire, something masked by the way the electrically assisted servo compensates to eliminate the softening sensation that signals retardation is running short.

Surprisingly sensible
As morals to PistonHeads stories go, "petrol better than diesel" lacks much in the way of surprise or bite, but if you can afford the higher day-to-day costs the petrol turbo feels like the Stelvio to go for; this side of the turbo V6-powered Quadrifoglio, of course.

It also looks like conspicuously good value compared to obvious rivals. If you're looking to pick nits then the Stevlio's cabin lacks the quality feel of most of the premium alternatives, but it certainly drives well enough to be worth serious consideration. And although the entry-level car lacks standard sat-nav it's not exactly a monk's cell: standard kit includes active cruise, DAB, parking sensors and a raft of active safety systems. It's also £7,000 cheaper than the least expensive petrol F-Pace and £4,500 less than the Audi Q5 2.0 TFSI. Splashing two grand more on the Super gets part-leather trim, sat-nav, 18-inch wheels and a digital display in the instrument cluster. If you're looking to buy in this segment then it deserves serious consideration.

Now the next exciting question: how will a 45-year-old Triumph manage a trip up the Dolomites?

: 1,995cc 4-cyl petrol, turbo
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 200@4,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 243@1,750rpm
0-62mph: 7.2 seconds
Top speed: 133mph
Weight: 1,660kg (DIN, excluding driver)
MPG: 40.4 (NEDC combined)
CO2: 161g/km
Price: £36,890

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (39) Join the discussion on the forum

  • HardMiles 07 Aug 2017

    Do the Triumph trip someone please! Way more entertaining than the plastic fantastic gash of the modern era! :-)

  • generationx 07 Aug 2017

    This article reads very Troy Queef. I was half-expecting it to end "A dab of oppo and I was away".

  • astrsxi77 07 Aug 2017

    Utter desolation.

  • nickfrog 07 Aug 2017

    Seems like a brilliant car for family transport.

  • thegreenhell 07 Aug 2017

    article said:
    ...Triumph Dolomite standing out as good examples of less-obvious associations.

    But, to stick with the Italian mountain theme that British Leyland started...
    The original Triumph Dolomite model was built in the early 1930's as a near-exact copy of the Alfa Romeo 8C Monza, and entered a couple of times in the Monte-Carlo rally, long before British Leyland regurgitated the name onto some dreary saloon.

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