Alfa Stelvio is the ‘SUV for S-Curves’

John Gilbert

The Stelvio looked right at home amid a bunch of costly sailboats and yachts at Bayfield’s harbor. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The Stelvio looked right at home amid a bunch of costly sailboats and yachts at Bayfield’s harbor. Photo credit: John Gilbert

You may have never seen an Alfa Romeo Giulia sedan in the flesh. And you probably have never even heard of the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, an all-new and surprising crossover SUV built by Alfa Romeo and based on the Giulia.
For more than six months, I’ve been focused on relaying the wonders of the Giulia when I get one for a week-long test drive, but it’s still baseball season, so as the next best thing, we will accept a pinch-hitter and discuss the Stelvio.
As usual, whenever I get something special, I try to spend as much of the week with the captive test-driver as possible visiting various attractions around the Head of the Lakes region. And so it was with the Stelvio, a glistening Trofeo White Tri-Coat vehicle. Stunning to look at and close to seductive in its overall demeanor, the Stelvio offers further evidence that somehow, every time Italians make a car -- or SUV -- we can guarantee it will bristle with emotional highs.

Alfa Romeo Stelvio Ti Lusso has the same distinctive nose as the new corporate Giulia sedan, and shares the pair of Ferrari-built engines. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Alfa Romeo Stelvio Ti Lusso has the same distinctive nose as the new corporate Giulia sedan, and shares the pair of Ferrari-built engines. Photo credit: John Gilbert

My wife, Joan, and I drove it to the Spirit Valley Days car show in West Duluth, where I parked just beyond the lines of classic and restored hot rods, creating an unfair attraction of its own. Also, we drove down to Glensheen Mansion, where the midweek free summer concerts are a highlight. And we capped the week by driving from Duluth to Bayfield, Wis., where we attended the Ricky Skaggs concert at Big Top Chautauqua, one of the classic tent-show venues in the country.

Spacious SUV parked at rest near the Big Top Chautauqua tent at Bayfield, Wis. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Spacious SUV parked at rest near the Big Top Chautauqua tent at Bayfield, Wis. Photo credit: John Gilbert

We knew Ricky Skaggs was an outstanding musician, but we were not prepared for the tremendous showmanship he and his group put on for a couple of hours under the Big Top. With a half-tank of premium still on board, we drove the 100 miles back to Duluth and were pleasantly surprised to find we still had a quarter of a tank remaining. With EPA estimates of 22 city and 28 highway, we obviously exceeded the highway number on the trip.

I had seen the Stelvio at the Chicago Auto Show, and I came away figuring it was a Giulia on steroids -- the same great signature grille and slick lines and contours sweeping back over the passenger compartment. Turns out, the Stelvio is much more than that. It is a very interesting experiment in Alfa building something beyond sporty sedans and sports cars.

 

Black leather and feel-the-grain light walnut are everywhere in the sporty luxury interior of the Stelvio. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Black leather and feel-the-grain light walnut are everywhere in the sporty luxury interior of the Stelvio. Photo credit: John Gilbert

It is filled with features, all of which are jammed into the Stelvio’s sleek outer shell, and none of which interrupt the constant emphasis on emotion and passion, assets that always have been part of every vehicle to wear the Alfa Romeo name.
 The name “Stelvio” comes from the Stelvio Pass, a legendary drive route over the Italian Alps. I’ve driven over the Italian Alps a couple of times, and while I don’t recall the Stelvio Pass. I do vividly recall the wonderfully intricate turns and curves up and down the high-altitude regions. All of them were designed as though the contractors knew that everybody who would drive on those roads would either be driving a sporty car. Or should be.

   If they’d had a Stelvio in those days they could have saved a lot of investment on roadways and just sent folks hurtling down the Sound-of-Music-like meadows of an Alp or two. The Stelvio I got to drive for a week was, undoubtedly, the first one in the state of Minnesota, just coming out as a 2018 model, and passers-by gawked at the vehicle everywhere we went. And it took a weird chain of events for me to get an early crack at the car.

 

The Stelvio created a separate attraction at the Spirit Mountain auto show in West Duluth. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The Stelvio created a separate attraction at the Spirit Mountain auto show in West Duluth. Photo credit: John Gilbert

In over four decades of writing about the newest automobiles to hit the market, there has never been a car I have waited for as enthusiastically as  the 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia. My interest in the mainstream luxury-sports sedan that would lead the parade for Alfa Romeo to return to the American market was whetted by the chance to go to Milano, Italy, for the unveiling of the car.

By sheer chance, my first scheduled chance to get a Giulia for a test drive was erased by a technical glitch that caused the “check engine” light to come on after the car had been driven from Chicago to Duluth for me. The car was so new, and dealerships so scarce and unequipped to handle such a problem, that Alfa, through Fiat-Chrysler, ordered it loaded onto a flat-bed truck and returned to Chicago. The car was 10 minutes from my house, and I never got to even see it.

The flat-bottom steering wheel shows off Alfa’s logo and tips off the feeling of control you are about to experience. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The flat-bottom steering wheel shows off Alfa’s logo and tips off the feeling of control you are about to experience. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Because so many journalists were lined up for a turn at the Giulia, my name was tacked onto the end of the list, and I had literally counted the weeks for two or three months until its scheduled date of July 23. But three days before delivery, I learned Fiat-Chrysler had recalled the Giulias from press fleets to take care of a software issue. Fortunately, an outpouring of sympathy from a couple of good people at Fiat-Chrysler made the best possible arrangement.

They had just dispatched the first Stelvio to the press fleet, and they ticketed me into the car before anyone else knew it was even there. The Stelvio comes in three forms, with the top one being the Quadrifoglio, with an extremely potent twin-turbo V6 engine. My test drive was the mid-range Stelvio Ti Lusso, equipped with the excellent 2.0-liter direct-injected and turbocharged 4-cylinder. It has 280 horsepower at 5,200 RPMs and 306 foot-pounds of torque that stays flat from 2,000 to 4,500 RPMs.

The 8-speed ZF automatic transmission shifts smoothly up and down, and can be directed by a knob on the light walnut console to three settings -- “a” for best economy, “n” for firmer suspension and tighter steering, and “d” for dynamic, which heightens steering control, suspension firmness and engine power.

 I will quickly admit that I like high performance cars, but in the Stelvio’s case, it felt most composed and a tight coordination with engine, transmission, suspension and body when it was in d.
Built at Alfa’s Cassino plant in Italy, the Stelvio engines are both right out of the Giulia, so in a way it is a Giulia on steroids. Double-wishbone suspension  up front and rear “Alfa link” with a vertical stabilizing bar make the Stelvio handle superbly on curvy roads and stay flat and stable in all conditions. They call it the “SUV for the S Curves.”

The preponderence for light walnut with raised grain on the console, dash and doors, mixed with black leather seats and trim, makes the inside of the Stelvio an easy place to like. Supportive bucket seats are adjustable every which way via power switches, and room for three more in the back, plus a large cargo area under the hatch make the Stelvio meet all the requirements of an SUV.  

Racy from the front, the Stelvio shows of a stylish sleekness in silhouette. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Racy from the front, the Stelvio shows of a stylish sleekness in silhouette. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Every manufacturer wants to build an SUV and capitalize on what has now become a world-wide craze, but while a luxury car company such as Jaguar has Land Rover as a partner, Alfa Romeo had to go it alone to build its first SUV. Among the curiosities are that from a base price of $46,495, there are stiff prices for options such as hthe paint job, the oversized 8.8-inch display screen, the huge sunroof, the Harmon Kardon audio upgrade to 900 watts through 12 channels to 14 speakers, and so forth, but the exceptional leather and wood interior is standard equipment.

As tested, the Stelvio comes in at $56,000.
Continentdal M+S tires make up the 235/55-19 inch wheel/tire arrangement, which adds to the handling stability.
I did have the opportunity to drive two versions of the Giulia sedan, one with the turbo 4 and the other with the twin-turbo V6. They were brief drives on the roadways down near Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wis., but they proved that the slick sedan will handle even better than I imagined, and the all-wheel drive models track even more superbly.

We aren’t kidding anyone by comparing the new Stelvio with the lower, lighter and sleeker Giulia, but when you compare the Stelvio with any and all luxury-sport SUVs, the inescapable conclusion is that Alfa may be right -- the Stelvio is the SUV for S-Curves.