First Drive: 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio

First Drive: 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio
 

The SUV end of the car market has become the money-spinner for many manufacturers. With almost every player wanting a decent-sized finger in the pie, it was only a matter of time before Alfa Romeo decided to knead and fold its piece of satisfying pastry.

The Italian brand gave the SUV thing a half-baked stab back in the 1950s with the Matta — then specifically developed for the military, which only really gave the boys in camouflage playing rights.

So it’s a bold move for a brand known for performance and its racing heritage to now come to the SUV bake-off with serious intent, in the form of the Stelvio.

It is named after the highest mountain pass in Italy, with 75 hairpin bends, so it was only fitting that Alfa would launch this performance SUV in a setting that would bring out its best personality traits, while also living up to its name. The Western Cape and its stunning mountain passes would be the ideal setting for this.

At a glance this machine is unmistakably an Alfa — even if you the badge is hidden. Which is precisely what the design chefs in Italy were aiming for. It takes on the company’s new design ingredients and language and carries it well, garnering some of its styling cues from the leaner Giulia. In fact, it has inherited a little more than just good looks from its little sibling.

The Stelvio has the same platform as the Giulia, which says a fair amount regarding things such as road manners (we’ll get into that in a bit).

Family genes translate differently, so do not be disheartened by this. The latest member of the Alfa family measures up to 4.7m in length, making the Stelvio the roomiest in its class — at least, this is what the proud parent tells us.

Alfa also claims that its latest offspring is set to be the lightest in this segment, coming in at 1 660kg. It has achieved this by using lightweight materials such as aluminium for the engine, suspension and some of the body panels. Add to that a drive shaft made from carbon fibre and it all starts to add up (or not, in this case).

This carefully managed weight shedding makes for a car which doesn’t feel like it belongs in this segment. A performance SUV is what Alfa was after and this is exactly what came out of the oven

Driving through the scenic Franschhoek Pass, the car feels very confident through the corners. The steering wheel is giving me good feedback on where we’re at. It suddenly hits me that I’m not in the correct driving mode. Immediately I address this rookie error by switching the DNA drive mode select controller from its natural state into dynamic mode.

As if anticipating this command, the vehicle responds immediately. The wheel goes from giving good feedback to giving me real-time, precise updates on the ground. Response from the throttle is dialled up a few notches, and the four-cylinder engine in the front no longer sounds like a four-cylinder.

At this stage I’ve relieved the eight-speed auto transmission of its duties and taken over via the gear selector. The car feels quick and nimble, and with each upward gear selection comes a little burp and a shunt which pushes you back into your seat. Nothing violent; it’s just to keep you alert.

As I rope in the brakes in preparation for the next bend, I flick the gear selector to engage the next available cog in the lower end, and in response I get a satisfying blip from the exhaust system. The Italians know how to hit the right notes.

Powering out through the other end the Stelvio picks up right where it left off with as much enthusiasm on every exit thanks to a twin scroll turbo unit and a healthy 206kW and 400Nm coming from the 2.0-litre motor.

Finally, we arrive at our lunch venue with 10 minutes to spare. This gives me the opportunity to quickly assess the Italians’ interior craftsmanship, although I had stolen a few quick glances between bends to have formulated some sort of opinion.

On closer inspection my judgment is confirmed.

I found the inside very tastefully put together, with premium finishes throughout.

My assigned unit for the day was covered in alluring red leather trim, which flowed seamlessly into the dash area, where a dark, almost black, wood veneer sat nestled between premium leather and a thickly padded dashboard. Also a positive aesthetic gene inherited from the Giulia.

The Stelvio is an impressive piece of work, from its handling and performance on the road down to that 2.0 petrol engine which punches way above its weight. But there’s more: a QV version (which this publication will be reporting on soon) should be making it’s way to South Africa late next year. – Gugu Masuku

For now, only two versions will be available to us:

Stelvio 2.0T Super: R810 000

Stelvio 2.0T First Edition: R946 000

Yes, it is priced slightly above the competition, but it comes with a decent amount of standard kit at each price point.