Cape Town – To answer the question on the lips of Alfisti everywhere: Yes, the Stelvio, Alfa Romeo’s first SUV, is a real Alfa. The steering is direct and very precise, the suspension is firm, even a little harsh with the DNA drive mode controller on its dynamic setting, and the two-litre turbopetrol four is revvy and responsive, with an authoritative sound track that goes from authentically gruff and growly at low revs to a proper Alfa wail near the redline at 5500rpm.
At which point you’d better have plenty of open road ahead of you; the Stelvio gets off the line like it has a plane to catch (0-100 in a claimed 5.7 seconds, says Alfa. We say, believe it) but its overtaking acceleration, with the twin-scroll turbo already up and spinning, is even more impressive.
Spot a gap, lean on the loud pedal and the eight-speed automatic transmission will change down two or three gears in one move before launching the car at the horizon. 206kW and 400Nm may not sound all that much by AMG or M standards but, thanks to lots of aluminium panels and a carbon-fibre propshaft the Stelvio, which shares its platform with the Giulia sedan, weighs only 1660kg ready to go.
Nevertheless, the Stelvio really comes into its own in the twisties. Sophisticated double-wishbone suspension all round holds the body flat in corners, with almost no body roll. Braking is firm and progressive right up to the point where the ABS and traction control lights in the instrument cluster start flashing, and the rear biased all-wheel drive does exactly what it says on the tin - distribute torque where it’s needed to keep the Stelvio going precisely where it’s pointed.
Even the automatic transmission gets in on the act. Hooning over the Franschhoek Pass at the South African launch in and around Cape Town, there was no need to use the paddle shifters or gear lever - the ‘box seemed to know exactly what we were doing and always changed down under braking at just the right moment to set the car up for the corner, and for a smooth transition from overrun to power on.
The launch drive also took us over a rather badly rutted gravel road down the Hemel en Aarde valley; with 200mm of ground clearance the Stelvio took the washaways in its stride, and the stiff suspension refused to bump through even when we hit a low-water bridge a little too enthusiastically. Yes, I’ve had more comfortable off-road rides, but in this car that didn’t seem to matter; it never became jittery or loose on the road.
It’s a real Alfa inside as well, with the marque’s signature ‘rhino hide’ finish on the soft-touch dashboard and the deep binnacles over two round dials for speed and revs (real dials with real needles, mark you, not virtual projections), either side of a neat display panel where all the icons stay black until needed, then light up unmissably.
The deeply bolstered, six or optionally eight-way adjustable, leather-upholstered seats hold you gently but firmly in place, but seem to relax with you when cruising on the open road. The Stelvio has the same wheelbase as the Giulia but is marginally wider and considerably taller, with more upright seating that makes it very much more spacious inside – and gives you a 525-litre boot with a power-operated tailgate for when family reality intervenes.
Being a real Alfa, it has to have some quirky features - in this case somewhat oddball controls for the dual-zone climate control, and a flat-bottomed steering wheel with so many buttons, scrollers and rocker switches for the sound system, Bluetooth phone hook-up and cruise control - even the engine stop-start button is on the steering wheel! - that there’s scarcely space for the hooter boss. It’s nowhere near as untidy as the steering wheel on a Ferrari but at first glance it can be intimidating.
By contrast, the rotary infotainment control (including satellite navigation on an easy-to-read 22cm display) is simple and intuitive - rotate left for up, right for down, push down for OK, with a ‘Menu’ button to take you back to where you started, anytime you get lost.
Alfa Romeo’s first SUV is a superb effort; its styling is classy and distinctive, and won’t date soon, it is practical in terms of space and features - but it is, above all, an Alfa, an unashamedly selfish driver’s car.
It goes like a scalded cat and corners like it’s on rails - one can readily understand how the QV model, with almost double the power of the 2.0T, is the fastest ever SUV around the Nurburgring.
The ride is stiff, the steering quick, the feedback intense; you cannot drive this car and ignore its personality.
Alfa Romeo Stelvio 2.0T
|Engine:||2.0-litre, 4-cylinder turbopetrol|
|Power:||206kW @ 5250rpm|
|Torque:||400Nm @ 2550rpm|
|0-100km/h (claimed):||5.7 seconds|
|Top speed (claimed):||230km/h|
|Priced from:||R810 000|
|Maintenance plan:||6-year/100 000km|