When Infiniti came out with its groundbreaking FX45 back in 2003, soon followed by the Porsche Cayenne, high-perfomance SUVs seemed like a lark. Nowadays, though, these models are as earthbound and familiar as any family sedan, at least for people who can afford them. And yet, Alfa Romeo has some work to do to get customers into the Stelvio—indeed, the carmaker has to climb as steep a path as the Alpine Italian pass for which it’s named.
That’s especially true for the Stelvio Quadrifoglio, the barnstorming version with a twin-turbo V6. The uphill climb begins with a Porsche-like price and lingering worries over Alfa Romeo's reliability. Even to people well-versed with the Italian carmaker's name—hell, especially to people versed in the name—the brand can seem foreign, unknowable, and unproven. The Stelvio has already suffered four recalls in as many months; those include two for water leaks that can cause corrosion and associated glitches with the turn signals, windshield wipers, tailgate and other electricals. Sure, plenty of all-new vehicles have teething problems and undergo recalls, but considering its notoriety for shaky reliability, Alfa Romeo has less room for error than, say, Lexus.
Fortunately, the Stelvio Quadrifoglio makes a bold impression, like an Italian gigolo who woos the ladies while bowling bocce like an expert and winning a gelato-eating contest. This compact SUV may not do it all; I wouldn’t be caught dead in the backcountry trying to four-wheel this thing. But this Quadrifoglio drives like a—um, what’s that Italian word for someone who’s too close to his mother? If insane speed, steering, and style (in that order) are your top SUV priorities, you may find yourself leering at a Stelvio Quadrifoglio. But if your order goes steering, style, then speed, please shift your gaze to a standard Stelvio—whose turbocharged four brings a healthy 280 horsepower and 306 pound-feet of torque— starting from a far-more-reasonable $42,990, versus $81,390 for the Quad.
The Quadrifoglio version cranks that up to 505 horses and 443 pound-feet, via the 2.9-liter, twin-turbocharged V6 from the Giulia Quadrifoglio sedan. But while the Stelvio weighs an Alfa-claimed 4,360 pounds—about 550 more than the Quad sedan—it’s actually faster from 0-60 mph and through a quarter-mile, because it’s sending power to all four wheels. Alfa has lowered its 0-60 mile-per-hour estimate to 3.6 seconds (down from the original 3.9); that said Motor Trend reports the Stelvio actually flambéed the 0-60 run in 3.3 seconds, and did the quarter-mile in 11.8 seconds. And the Stelvio’s target audience is doubtless aware of its record-setting Nurburgring time for SUVs, a lap time that topped supercars such as the Ferrari F430 and Lamborghini Gallardo.
That record shouldn’t stand for long, thanks to the Lamborghini Urus. But that 650-horsepower Lambo also starts from $200,000, or 2.5 times the Alfa’s price. The Lambo also takes the SUV top-speed title at 189 mph, but owners won't quibble with the Alfa's 176-mph peak.
But set aside those ‘Ring numbers, however boast-worthy: What’s special about the Stelvio is that you actually feel all that speed, every granular nugget and nuance of handling, instead of being swaddled in the luxurious isolation common to most performance SUVs. The Stelvio just feels angry and alive, bursting with Italian brio that separates it from any direct rival, including the silkier Porsche Macan Turbo or larger BMW X6 M.
On twisty roads near New York’s Harriman State Park, the Alfa’s attack mode recalled top sport sedans like a BMW M5 or Mercedes-AMG E63, not an SUV at all. The 12.0:1 steering ratio, faster than a Porsche 911’s, might seem too fast, but it’s not; the Alfa dives into corners then blasts back out, its torque-vectoring rear axle helping to quell AWD understeer (though it’s still there) and even allowing power oversteer. That latter bit is best attempted with the rotary “DNA” switch in its Race setting, which stiffens the three-stage adaptive dampers and dials back stability and traction control. Alfa claims a 50/50 weight distribution, aided by a stiff carbon-fiber driveshaft.
My Stelvio was girded with $8,000 worth of Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes, including six-piston calipers up front and four-piston ones in the rear; 15.4-inch front rotors compare with 14.2 inchers on the standard drilled-steel brakes. As on the Stelvio sedan, Alfa’s brake-by-wire system is less impressive in around-town driving. These are some of the grabbiest, hard-to-modulate brakes around, with almost zero pedal travel between “no braking” and “all the braking.” And until they warm up, the Alfa’s carbon-ceramic stoppers groan and squeak like I do when I fold my creaky self out of bed in the morning. (One other issue: The brakes on my test car revealed a concerning pulse under hard braking that didn’t feel like typical ABS feedback. This particular Stelvio had nearly 5,000 miles on the odometer. Sure enough, Alfa tells me this press car picked up a slight pulse before coming to New York, after a few track events where some journalists tend to abuse brakes, including by skipping critical cool-down laps. Alfa changed out the brake pads, but deemed the pulse as "nearly undetectable," and something that could wait until it obtained new brake rotors.
The Alfa’s only other performance bummer is a too-early redline of barely 6,600 rpm. In this fast-revving beast, I kept bumping into the fuel cutoff when I was trying to focus on fast-approaching curves. Oddly, Alfa cites 7,400 rpm as the engine’s maximum speed; even if durability is a concern, it would seem fairly simple to recalibrate the engine and transmission to allow a higher shift point.
As for the Alfa’s supposedly brilliant styling, can we all just take a breath? Yes, it’s a handsome little crossover thingy, but so is a Mazda CX-5, and aside from the Alfa’s triangular grille, the shape isn't all that different.To my eyes, a Jaguar F-Pace is still prettier, a Range Rover Velar more high-design-dramatic. To hear some hyperbolic reviewers tell it, the Stelvio is a Ferrari in platform boots, but I’m not seeing it. Apparently, neither were citizens in New York and its environs, who barely took a second glance. But 20-inch, blacked-out alloy wheels do bring the visual drama, including a remarkably naked view of my tester's yellow brake calipers.
But that steering wheel? Now you’re talking. Its red engine-start button, optional carbon-fiber rim, and TV-antennae-sized aluminum shift paddles tell you this Stelvio means business. Those enormous paddles direct the eight-speed ZF transmission with aplomb; full-throttle upshifts are accompanied by loud, satisfying belches from the exhaust system, as though the Stelvio was burping up the carbonara it had for lunch. This V6, a cousin to the Ferrari V8 that powers the 488 GTB and Portofino convertible, sounds kickass.
That Stelvio interior looks quite alluring, even semi-exotic, when you’re talking the modestly priced four-cylinder version. But as with the Giulia Quadrifoglio sedan, the Stelvio Quadrifoglio's price—which reached $92,290 with options—makes one less forgiving of the downmarket interior bits. The electronic shifter, one of any car’s key touch points, is a Toys-R-Us take on BMW’s wand-shaped shifter. How any Italian designer or executive let this Chinatown-knockoff shifter get into production is beyond me. Throw in a weak audio system that sounds like it’s playing through a sleeping bag, an awkward infotainment system with a postcard-sized screen, and an obtrusively loud climate-control fan, and you may ask where your $90,000 was spent.
On the plus side, the leather-topped dash, paired with optional green stitching on my tester, makes for a racy pairing with carbon-fiber trim. Rear quarters are eminently comfortable for two adults, and there’s surprisingly generous cargo space with the bench folded flat, in an SUV that's a touch longer than an Audi Q5 or BMW X3. Handsome seats are more toned-and-sculpted than in many performance SUVs. And unlike the Italian-tailored shirts I mistakenly try on at times, these slim seats actually fit, with pneumatic bolsters for those times when you’d prefer more squeeze. (For an even tighter performance fit, buyers can choose Sparco buckets up front, with carbon-fiber shells.)
Ultimately, there’s no high-performance challenge that the Stelvio won’t tackle. But again, this SUV faces a tougher challenge: Testing the theory that there’s an unlimited American appetite for high-end SUVs, and that there can be no sales losers in this segment. In disquieting early returns, the Stelvio is being consistently outsold by the Alfa Giulia sedan, with the Alfa SUV averaging about 750 U.S. sales per month. These days, when any sedan is less popular than an SUV, that suggests a problem.
This is only a hunch, but one problem may be that people who really want an Alfa Romeo are people who really do want a more-traditional sedan or sports car. Count me in that group: The Stelvio is a nuclear blast of fun—for an SUV. But for all its power and pace, it’s nowhere near as fun as the Giulia Quadrifoglio, a BMW M3, a Mustang GT, or even a Mazda Miata. There’s just no getting around all that size, height, and mass.
If I’m saying my prayers and leasing (not buying) a new Alfa Romeo, I’m stacking my money on the altar of pure driving fun—meaning I want something smaller and sexier. And if I'm looking for a sporty SUV that I can also count on to perform everyday family chores? In that case, an Alfa Romeo isn’t my first choice, or even my third.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence@thedrive.com.