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2017 Alfa Romeo Stelvio review: First drive

4

The Good

  • Visually exciting
  • Handles well
  • Decent price

The Bad

  • Bit wallowly sometimes
  • Plastic fantastic in places

We drove from Ireland to Northern Ireland and back to see if the Italian marque's first off-roader in 60-odd years can compete with the likes of the Audi Q5, BMW X3, Mercedes GLC and Jaguar F-Pace, in our Alfa Romeo Stelvio review.

Did you know the Stelvio is actually Alfa Romeo's second off-roader? Perhaps not, because the Matta was built for the military as a light reconnaissance vehicle between 1951 and 1954. It was basically the Italian answer to the American Willy's Jeep.

Like the Stelvio, the Matta had four-wheel drive and reasonable enough ground clearance to tackle off-roading. It was initially offered as a military vehicle, known as the AR51, before the civilian-friendly AR52 came along, which was served up in various forms including a fire truck.

Its 1.9-litre DOHC generated just 65hp and a top speed of 65mph, which was achieved with the help of a four-speed gearbox ─ a far cry from even the lowliest Stelvio diesel in terms of performance, power and efficiency.

The Matta ─ Italian for 'mad' ─ was a flash in the pan and it has taken around 63 years for Alfa to have another go, but then the SUV market is growing faster than all of them and Alfa needs a slice of the pie to remain competitive. Has it got a chance in hell, though?

To find out the answer, we jumped into the larger capacity diesel and drove that from Belfast to Ireland on day one, racking up a good few hours of driving, before heading back along another route in the Quadrifoglio's lesser powerful sibling.

2017 Alfa Romeo Stelvio review: What is it?

Alfa Romeo had a plan for the Stelvio and that was to make it drive like the Giulia saloon, which is a tall order for a car that is, well, noticeably taller and heavier. But both cars have the same underlying platform and the same suspension, which helps.

All launch versions of the Alfa Romeo Stelvio come with Q4 all-wheel drive, which means you are less likely to get stuck in the mud, while a 190mm higher seating position than the Giulia provides a loftier, more commanding view of the road.

Like the Giulia, which was put on a diet to compete with the Germans, the Stelvio is light. The top of the range Q4 petrol weighs just 1kg more than the 1,659kg top of the range diesel ─ 185kg and 145kg less than an equivalent Porsche Macan and BMW X3, respectively.

Go for the forthcoming rear-wheel drive Stelvio and the weight drops to just 1,604kg ─ meaning the Q4 system is just 56kg. Not a million miles away from the Giulia, then.

A 2.2-litre diesel with 207bhp and Q4 can be had, as well as the same engine but with 178bhp and the option of rear-wheel drive. In petrol land, both models use the Giulia Veloce's 2.0-litre four-cylinder and feature Q4 so you only need to worry about whether you want 207bhp or 276bhp.

Whichever you go for, it is up to a ZF eight-speed automatic transmission to change the gears and Alfa Romeo's AlfaLink suspension system is on pot hole duty.

It is possible to pay extra for a 'Performance Pack', which adds a limited-slip differential and Adaptive dampers, and the latter could be a worthwhile upgrade. But sadly none of the press cars on our trip had it fitted.

As for the Stelvio Quadrifoglio, that will be arriving at a later date – as will our test drive. So we are, sadly, unable to tell you what a Ferrari-engined SUV is like.

2017 Alfa Romeo Stelvio review: Handling & performance?

Really rather well actually, although it is immediately apparent the Stelvio is more ungainly and less involving than the Giulia, even with a 50:50 weight distribution and relatively low weight. It manages to avoid being too much like an SUV, but it can only defy physics so much.

The steering could be sharper and more communicative. Fortunately the Q4 system, modest levels of body roll and that wonderfully balanced chassis make the Stelvio half-decent at inspiring confidence and grip is generous.

It takes a lot to phase the Stelvio, mainly because it can transfer as much as 100 per cent of power to the rear axle. At the edge of grip, 50 per cent of torque is sent to the front axle so any funny business is usually counteracted fast, letting you exit a corner with decent enthusiasm and facing the right way.

Some of the test roads were fast, swoopy and with plenty of pleasingly smooth elevation changes, which gave us time to appreciate the Stelvio's handling competence. It is a little more rough around the edges than a Jaguar F-Pace and less precise than an X3, but it does well.

Where it struggles is the ride quality because it never really settles down on really bumpy roads and, with enough pace, there is a constant fear it will bottom out. Perhaps with people in the back and enough shopping it could.

Wallowly is the best description. The Stelvio is never unpleasant, mind you, but you end up wishing it would either be more plush, like the Volvo XC60, or more sporty ─ although that is where the Quadrifoglio version will come in.

The drive-by-wire brake system seems to have upset other journalists and, admittedly, there was little reason for Alfa to reinvent the wheel. But we found it easy to control our braking providing we were gentle. Our main concern is that what if it goes wrong, Alfa style?

Three driving modes can be used in the Stelvio. 'A' is for relaxed fuel-efficient cruising and the less responsive accelerator pedal sure helps keep the fuel economy up. 'N', meanwhile, is for more responsiveness and the steering remains light.

'D' is where the Stelvio feels best, although the heavier steering is really only noticeable at low speeds. We found this was the best driving mode, but the difference is modest at best.

As for the engines, the petrol is our pick of the bunch – and not just because of the Government's recent stance on diesel. The 276bhp 2.0-litre provides 296lb/ft of torque and 0-62mph in 5.7 seconds, which means overtaking is never an issue.

The reality is actually rather unexciting though, because the red line is a rather early 6,800rpm and the ZF eight-speed, which is a real pleasure 99 per cent of the time, likes to change gear noticeably earlier than that if you let it do its thing as opposed to using the paddles.

Not that you miss out on much because the engine note is dull. The top-end is harsh and the low-end is flat. In fact, Alfa tries to compensate for the former with some artificial help through the speakers, which does nothing to help the situation.

As for the diesel, we enjoyed the 207bhp offering. Torque is a generous 243lb/ft from just 1,750rpm, making it a punchy engine that can hit 0-62mph in 6.6 seconds. It does lose a lot of grunt towards the legal limit though and could be a little less noisy when you accelerate hard.

All in all, we had hoped the Stelvio would be more involving. This is, after all, Alfa Romeo's trump card. It is why you take the risk on reliability and, even in SUV form, we hoped for more. But it hides its weight better than most SUVs and has more personality than an equivalent Audi.

The standard Stelvio certainly bodes well for the Quadrifoglio, although the Giulia Quadrifoglio is one of the best cars we have ever driven so we doubt its SUV sibling will ever get close, no matter how hard Alfa tries.

What works?

Decent performance and competent handling.

What doesn't?

Never quite settles on some roads.

2017 Alfa Romeo Stelvio review: The design

Alfa Romeo knows how to make a pretty car and the Stelvio is no different. It manages to avoid having a grille you measure in acres, but there is a meatiness to it provided by aggressive air intakes and the almost comically large headlights.

The back of the Stelvio is rather elegant, particularly with the twin-exit exhaust in place. SUVs will never get the heart racing but Alfa's classy, somewhat reserved approach is a nice change from some of the angular monstrosities it competes with.

As for the cabin, there are a lot of similarities with the Giulia, including the plasticy but Ferrari-esque air vents and the 8.8-inch infotainment system (available on all but the entry-level 'Stelvio' trim). Chuck in a tasteful strip of wood and you can just about ignore some of the cheap textured plastics.

But it is also noticeably different, too, because Alfa designed to Giulia to compliment the driver whereas the Stelvio cares more about the passenger. This is partly why the dashboard is much flatter and wider, a change that helps make it feel more spacious.

There are much nicer SUVs out there in terms of cabin design and quality, such as the Volvo XC60 and Audi Q5, but we appreciate the Stelvio's attempt at being a little sporty ─ having the engine start button on the steering wheel the most obvious example.

We think Alfa has managed to rival the Jaguar F-Pace for quality and eclipsed it when it comes to looks, which is impressive given that the Alfa is £3,040 cheaper, faster and more powerful than the equivalent Ingenium diesel.

What works?

Stylish interior that feels spacious and uncluttered.

What doesn't?

The infotainment system appears more dated than its rivals.

2017 Alfa Romeo Stelvio review: Practicality & safety?

The safety-minded people at Euro NCAP have given the Stelvio a full five-star Euro NCAP rating, with a 97 per cent rating given to the adult occupant category, which makes it a rather save vehicle to crash in.

Part of the high safety rating stems from the fact the Stelvio features autonomous emergency braking as standard where some of its rivals charge for it. The cheapskates.

It also has a Forward Collision Warning system (which is rather sensitive but least you know it works), Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot Monitoring, Rear Cross-Path Detection and Active Cruise Control, all of which help keep you and your family safe.

As for practicality, the rear seats provide ample leg room and boot space is a solid 525 litres, which is only slightly behind that of the Mercedes GLC or Q5, but the F-Pace offers 125 litres extra.

Head room is another strong area unless you are over 6ft and there are enough storage spaces and cubby holes to hide away a packet or two of Werther's Originals from prying eyes. Four adults should be happy in a Stelvio although rivals are roomier.

One last neat touch is the automatic tailgate, which makes it even easier to load heavy items into the boot. The loading area is nice and wide, while the compartment is flat. Sadly though you cannot wave your foot under the rear bumper to open it without any hands.

What works?

Excellent levels of safety, decent boot and spacious enough for four adults.

What doesn't?

Its rivals are more spacious, except for the Macan.

2017 Alfa Romeo Stelvio review: Running costs & UK price?

Four trim levels will be available, starting with Stelvio. Then there is Super, Speciale and, for early adopters, the Milano Edizione limited production edition.

£33,390 gets you a 2.2 diesel 180hp RWD Stelvio. Standard equipment includes 17-inch alloys, 3.5-inch TFT instrument cluster, cruise control, electric parking brake, dual-zone climate control, automatic wipers and headlights, eight-speaker system and six-way manually adjustable front seats.

An extra £2,200 gets the 180hp diesel in Super trim. For that you get 18-inch alloys, seven-inch TFT instrument cluster, Alfa Connect 8.8-inch infotainment system, navigation, front parking sensors, leather and cloth seats and a two-tone dashboard and door panels.

Speciale, which starts from £41,490, adds 19-inch alloys, Bi-Xenon headlights, aluminium trim, heated leather seats with six-way electric adjustment, heated sports steering wheel, electric folding door mirrors and red brake calipers.

Priced from £45,390 if you want the 280hp petrol, the Stelvio Milano Edizione adds 20-inch V-spoke alloys, 10-speaker system with subwoofer, ambient lighting, keyless entry, rear back-up camera, privacy glass, full-leather sports seats and some gloss black detailing.

We managed 45mpg in the 210hp diesel, which is pretty solid although noticeably shy of the official combined figure of 58.9mpg but we were pushing hard to make the return flight. The 280hp petrol, meanwhile, offers 40.9mpg although it is easy to dent that with a heavy foot.

CO2 emissions for the 180 RWD diesel, at 124g/km, rising to 161g/km for the petrol regardless of power output. The Q4 diesel with 180hp clocks in at 116g/km so no Stelvio is too expensive to tax in the first year.

What works?

The lack of weight makes it rather good on fuel and it undercuts most of its rivals.

What doesn't?

It looks less appealing if performance is of little interest to you.

2017 Alfa Romeo Stelvio review: Should I buy one, then?

The Stelvio is worse at being an SUV than the Giulia is at being a saloon, but it certainly ticks a lot of boxes. It is practical and comfortable enough for families and, though it is less exciting to drive than we had hoped, it looks like an Alfa should and can go rather fast when it wants to.

The fact it is well-equipped, all engine options are up to the job and it works out cheaper than its rivals helps the cause, but that is compensated for by the fact we have no idea how reliable it will be. The Giulia in Quadrifoglio form has, after all, been known to struggle in this area to put it mildly.

Going for the Stelvio could be a bit of a gamble, then, but if the established German competition bores you and are of a somewhat brave disposition you would be 'Matta' not to give it a test drive.

Key Specs

  • 2.0-litre petrol / 2.2-litre diesel
  • 280hp @ 5,250rpm / 210hp @ 3,750rpm
  • 295lb/ft (400Nm) @ 2,250rpm / 243lb/ft (330Nm) @ 1,750rpm
  • 0-62mph in 5.7 seconds / 6.6 seconds
  • 205g/km of CO2 / 145g/km of CO2
  • 40.4mpg / 58.9mpg (combined)
  • From £33,990

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