Pretty flawed

Alfa Romeo’s first SUV has all the characteristics you would associate with the Italian company – good and bad

The Stelvio Pass is rivalled only the Karussel at the Nürburgring and Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew as candidates for the most over-rated stretches of tarmac on earth. But while the slow and fiddly race track corners merely interrupt what are otherwise fast and flowing laps of their respective circuits, the Stelvio Pass is somewhere to which people journey especially in the hope of finding one of the world’s great roads. It is nothing of the sort: it is instead an endless series of switchback hairpins, covered in snow during the winter, cyclists in the summer and guaranteed to induce nausea in your passengers at any other time you might be lucky enough to get a clear run at it. Let’s hope, therefore, that the Alfa Romeo that takes its name doesn’t also promise something sublime only to deliver something else altogether more noisome.

It has its work cut out. Making your first SUV seems to be a rite of passage among car manufacturers these days but it doesn’t make the job any easier, particularly when yours is a sporting brand carrying a certain level of expectation regarding how any car wearing your badge should drive and perform.

But Alfa Romeo appears to have done better than most at providing itself with the best possible chance: the Stelvio is based on the still new and well received platform that underpins the Giulia saloon and it has done well to keep the weight gain to not much more than 200kg. It sounds a lot, but when you consider how much higher the Stelvio sits and how much heavier still is much of the competition, the engineers involved deserve to be congratulated.

Stelvios come with 2-litre petrol engines with either 197bhp or 276bhp and a 2.2-litre diesel offering either 177bhp or 206bhp and the choice of rear- or four-wheel drive for all. And just like the Giulia, there is a 503bhp Quadrifoglio version sitting at the top of the range. The car I drove was a high-power diesel, with four-wheel drive and the bottom of three trim levels.

And as ever, Alfa’s stylists have worked wonders, somehow doing the impossible and making a high-sided, snub-nosed SUV still look like an Alfa Romeo, and a pretty attractive one at that. People buy cars like this to stand out from the crowd, but when the crowd buys them too – as they increasingly are – it is a powerful weapon for yours to be the best looking of the lot, and I’d say this is.

But even in the traditionally under-achieving SUV categories, a pretty face will only get you so far these days. There are now some really impressive cars in this category, such as the Porsche Macan, new BMW X3, Jaguar F-Pace, Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLC and the Stelvio will have to perform like few Alfas in history to provide a credible presence in the market place alongside rivals like that.

It performs well, up to a point. The diesel motor lacks neither power nor torque and in the relatively light Stelvio has no problem bowling it along the road at a decent rate. Allied to the ubiquitous and highly capable ZF eight-speed automatic transmission it seems always to have enough in reserve to get you briskly up to speed or past anything that may be holding you up. But it’s quite a noisy engine too. I was interested to see that it shares not only its 2143cc capacity but also an identical bore and stroke to the equally rattly four-cylinder diesel motor Mercedes-Benz is rapidly phasing out of smaller-engined diesels. Coincidence? Nobody’s saying.

Either way, as a tool for the job it’s good enough and during a couple of days running in mixed conditions, it also managed a genuine 40mpg, which I thought pretty commendable for this kind of car.

I take greater issue with the way Alfa Romeo has configured the chassis. Here, I admit, its engineers had a problem. How do you make something that’s quite heavy and has a notably high centre of gravity still somehow handle as you’d hope an Alfa Romeo might? Or do you simply accept that that’s a fool’s errand, soften it off and focus on providing superlative ride comfort instead? Alfa’s decision to split the difference, falling if anything on the side of dynamism and response, is entirely understandable, but that does not mean I agree with it.

Yes, it means the Stelvio handles quite capably for such a car, managing its mass under quite severe provocation and delaying the onset of understeer for as long as you could reasonably expect, but only at the price of tying the car down on its springs. The less desirable consequences of this include a generally stiff-legged gait and the occasional unseemly stumble over transverse ridges or into pot-holes. Even so, it should be said that the ride is not terrible nor even particularly poor, just notably compromised: you might well take the view that a little relative discomfort is worth putting up with for the point-to-point poise it undoubtedly brings.

It’s far harder to make the case for the interior which, relative to most rivals is, I am afraid, just plain poor. When not just the Germans but also companies like Volvo are creating cabins for £40,000 cars that would not have looked in the least out of place in something costing twice as much even a few years ago, the Stelvio cockpit appears as if from another age. Yes, it’s quite cleanly presented with an admirable economy of buttons, but the materials used are too variable in both number and quality, what little technology it places at your disposal is very previous generation, but most of all there is little of that sense of design cohesion in here that is essential for creating an ambience of true class in a car such as this. There’s quite limited rear headroom too, and only a tiny rear screen to look out of.

Despite such reservations, I think that Alfa Romeo should be praised for creating what remains a competitive, if flawed, new offering to this super-competitive market. Its first job was to create an SUV that was sufficiently distinct both in ability and appearance not simply to stand out, but to do so as an Alfa Romeo. And I think it has broadly succeeded in this regard.

But that’s a very different thing to saying I think it should be up there on your list with the best the Germans, the Brits and Swedes already have in this category. In its ride comfort, disappointing interior and noisy engine lie flaws that only the most love-blind of Alfisti will find easy to ignore. Its best rivals may be less attractive, they may even be a little less entertaining, but they are far more complete propositions.

So the question is, what matters more in this new class that’s so crucial to Alfa Romeo’s future well-being? And for me I think more people will want one of the quiet, comfortable and genuinely luxurious cars that already populate the class than an outsider with no track record in the field and a reasonable number of significant drawbacks. The Stelvio, then, may be the world’s first Alfa Romeo SUV, but it remains an Alfa Romeo, with all the good and bad that has so often entailed. The hope must be that for enough customers its charms outweigh its shortcomings for Alfa Romeo to gain a toe-hold in this class. For whether we like it or not it is in building cars like this, far more than the more smaller coupés and saloons upon which it built its reputation, that the future of this most enigmatic company now depends.

Alfa Romeo Stelvio 2.2 Turbo Diesel Q4 AWD Milano

Price £43,990 Engine 2.1 litres, 4 cylinders, turbocharged Power 207bhp@3750rpm Torque 346lb ft@1750rpm Weight 1659kg Power to weight 125bhp per tonne Transmission eight-speed auto,four-wheel drive 0-60mph6.6sec Top speed 130mph Economy 58.9mpg CO2 127g/km