Sexy curves do justice to a marque that’s built its reputation on making onlookers go ‘wow’. Pictures: Denis Droppa

Johannesburg - So it turns out the Stelvio isn’t just a pretty face. Alfa Romeo’s first-ever SUV might be late to the party in a market already over-cluttered with ‘weekend warrior’ vehicles, but under that sexy Italian metal lies some solid engineering.

Being based on the Alfa Giulia sedan, it leans more to the sporty than the utility side with its slick and un-SUV-like handling and sharp steering. Those sexy curves equally do justice to a marque that’s built its reputation on making onlookers go ‘wow’.

All this sticks to the time-honoured Alfa Romeo blueprint, but what we didn’t necessarily expect was for this SUV to feel as relaxed as it did on bumpy roads.

Rather than just raise the ride height and fit uncomfortably stiff suspension to prevent wallowing, the Stelvio’s engineers have done sterling work in the ride quality department. This is a vehicle that has to be driven on gravel to properly appreciate its gentle, judder-free ride over the rough stuff - all the more surprising given the low-profile 20 inch tyres fitted.

Gravel roads also didn’t elicit any rattles or squeaks from a body that feels granite-solid, and overall some great engineering has gone into building this mid-sized SUV which competes against the likes of the BMW X4 and Mercedes-Benz GLC.

It’s surprising how good the ride quality is given Alfa’s sporty focus with this Giulia-based vehicle, which saw the powerful Stelvio QV model recently becoming the fastest-ever SUV to lap the Nurburgring.

South Africans shall have to wait for the 375kW QV until later this year; for now the Stelvio is available locally only with a two-litre turbopetrol four with outputs of 206kW and 400Nm - but that’s not exactly shabby. This is a fairly lively performer, and apart from some minor turbo lag right at the start the two-litre has plenty of pep across the rev range, with slick and smooth gearshifts from the eight-speed auto gearbox.

Alfa claims a very swift 0-100km/h time of 5.7 seconds and a 230km/h top speed, the type of pace that will make hot hatches work hard to stay ahead. It’s a refined car with minimal noise intrusion, except for a mildly sporty thrum from the four-cylinder engine. Our test car averaged 11 litres per 100km, which is reasonable economy for the performance on offer.

Drive goes to both axles via a full-time all-wheel drive system which is rear-biased to prevent excessive understeer. Under normal driving just the rear wheels are powered, and drive is fired to the front only when extra traction’s needed.

Together with a sophisticated double wishbone suspension system, it makes for an SUV that slices neatly through corners with minimal body roll. The steering’s also very sharp (Alfa says it’s the most direct in the segment) and contributes to the Stelvio feeling more car-like than the typical SUV. 

A three-mode DNA drive controller allows the driver to set the throttle and steering responses from restful to normal to full-attack, and there’s a very noticeable difference.

The Stelvio has some high end safety features, and I liked the radar cruise control which maintains a safe following distance. But the anti collision system was a little over-sensitive and sometimes applied emergency braking when I was about to overtake a car that was in a different lane. Also, the parking sensor is super-sensitive and starts loudly bleeping before you’re really close to objects (and then continues for a while even after you’ve stopped and engaged Park).

Alfa’s doing great work with its current interiors.

The cabin reflects the great work Alfa’s doing in car interiors today. It’s a classy environment that mixes high quality soft touch surfaces with sharp design. It’s a great place to spend time in. 

The infotainment system smartly rolls up all the various functions into one interface with a 22cm display, controlled by a mouse-style interface (like iDrive). It’s all fairly simple to learn, except for storing your favourite radio stations which seems more complicated than it needs to be.

Rear seating space is good, if not exceptional; sitting ‘behind myself’ my knees still touched the backrest. The 525 litre boot’s large (with a space-saver spare wheel) and has an electronically folding tailgate. 

The rear seats fold down in a two-way split, opening up a maw into which a mountain bike fitted easily.

The Stelvio sells in two versions: the 2.0T Super Q4 at R810 000 and the First Edition Q4 (the one on test here) at R946 000. The First Edition gets a fully-stocked spec sheet that includes full-grain leather seats (with heating and electrically-adjustment for the front ones), a ten-speaker audio system, the abovementioned active cruise control, keyless operation, electric panoramic sunroof, blind spot monitoring, and those 20 inch wheels.

But if the price is too high the R810 000 version still comes well endowed: leather seats, electric tailgate, reverse camera, auto headlights and wipers, lane departure warning, 18” mags, navigation, hill-descent control, tyre pressure monitoring, and climate control with separate air vents for the rear passengers, to name a few.

Each model comes with a three-year or 100 000km warranty and six-year or 100 000km maintenance plan.

VERDICT

Named after the famously twisty Stelvio mountain pass in northern Italy, with its 48 hairpin bends, Alfa Romeo’s first SUV very clearly exploits the Italian brand’s sporting heart. But it turns out to be a very accomplished gravel road vehicle too, for those few owners who might ever venture there.

FACTS

Alfa Romeo Stelvio First Edition Q4

Engine:2.0-litre, 4-cylinder turbopetrol
Gearbox:8-speed automatic
Power:206kW @ 5250rpm
Torque:400Nm @ 2550rpm
0-100km/h (claimed):5.7 seconds
Top speed (claimed):230km/h
Fuel consumption (tested, Gauteng):11 litres per 100km
Price:R946 000
Warranty:3-year/100 000km
Maintenance plan:6-year/100 000km

ALTERNATIVES

BMW X4 xDrive 35i225kW / 400NmR954 222
Jaguar F-Pace 30t AWD R-Sport221kW / 400Nm R957 856
Mercedes-Benz GLC300 Coupe 4Matic180kW / 365Nm R870 598
Range Rover Evoque HSE Dynamic Si4177kW / 340Nm R938 958
Range Rover Velar P250 2.0T184kW / 365Nm R953 742

Follow Denis Droppa on Twitter @DenisDroppa

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