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2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Test Drive Review
Alfa Romeo has built an SUV that drives like a sports sedan, but it has a long way to go to improve user experience.
After a decades-long hiatus, Alfa Romeo is back in America. It’s been back for a little over three years, and has been slowly rolling out models, starting with the 8C supercar, the 4C hardcore performance coupe, and eventually more practical models like the Giulia sedan and now, the Stelvio SUV.
For many decades Alfa Romeo’s focus has been on coupes, sports cars, sedans, and generally sporty cars. But in 2017, if you’re not building an SUV, you’re not keeping up. All of Alfa’s competitors build SUVs, so the Italian brand had to follow suit. The result is the Stelvio, a sharp-looking midsize SUV that delivers performance, but also has some serious quirks that live up to Alfa Romeo’s heritage.
Given current market trends, the 2018 Stelvio was inevitable, even for a purist performance brand like Alfa Romeo. But it offers hope, as Porsche has proven with the Cayenne and Macan that an automaker can offer a practical SUV and still retain a level of performance that will live up to its company name and heritage.
Look and Feel
The Stelvio sure looks the part of a performance car that simultaneously evokes versatility and completely leans into Alfa’s styling heritage. First off, it has the big Alfa Romeo family grille, which has been a hallmark for more than seven decades.
But one of the Stelvio's best styling elements is its wheels, which have the “revolver” look similar to the wheels on the 2011 BMW Z4 or 2010 Volkswagen GTI. Massive dual exhaust ports round out the sporty-but-upscale look of the Stelvio.
That upscale look gets carried into the Stelvio’s cabin. It has a clean modern look, and the fit-and-finish really is top-notch. Some performance-oriented SUVs have a laid-back driving position, which negatively impacts visibility for the driver. The driving position of the Stelvio is more upright, and the seats are firm, but plenty comfortable over long drives. In addition to their comfort, the seats look fantastic. The Alfa emblem is imprinted on the headrests, and the cushions have that “piping” look that you might find in an Alfa Romeo sports car or even a Ferrari. You’ll want to look at them for an extra second before you sit in them.
Moving to the second row, the rear seats are just as comfortable and provide decent legroom for rear passengers. If you have a tall adult in the front seat, sliding the power seat back will negatively impact backseat space, but this is quite common in this segment.
There are two trim levels available for the Stelvio—Base and Ti. The Base comes standard with 18-inch wheels, LED daytime running lights, super-helpful rain-sensing wipers, and aluminum roof rails. Those roof rails look great and visually bring the Stelvio together but offer next to nothing in terms of added usability. For exterior features, moving up to the Ti trim provides the buyer more color choices and upgraded 19-inch aluminum wheels.
Moving to the cabin, standard features on the Stelvio include leather seating, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, USB ports, Bluetooth connectivity, and an infotainment system that is quite frustrating (more on that in a bit). Enhanced connectivity like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will be standard eventually, but are not available on early models.
The uprated Ti trim comes with satin aluminum doorsill panels, a year of complimentary satellite radio, and a larger 8.8-inch infotainment screen. It also adds dark wood interior accents, which are very attractive and make for one of the more visually pleasing cabins on the market. Some rivals’ cabins manage to be visually fetching, but few manage to be comfortable and usable as well. Alfa manages to pull off both with the cabin of the Stelvio.
Alfa Romeo’s heritage is all about performance, so all the creature comforts are nice additions, but in order to live up to its name, it has to drive well. In those terms, the Stelvio really delivers.
A turbocharged 2-liter inline 4-cylinder is found under the hood, making 280 horsepower and 306 pound-feet of torque. Power gets sent to standard all-wheel drive (AWD) via an 8-speed automatic transmission. The shifter is one of those frustrating “joystick” types, which lacks a logical layout. This is similar to BMW's shifters and completely frustrating to use. On the plus side, it has a tap shift function and is available with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
Later in 2017 or early in 2018, the Quadrifoglio variant of the Stelvio will arrive. It's name is Italian for “four leaf clover” and has long been attached to Alfa's performance division. It packs a twin-turbocharged V6 making 505 horsepower. Alfa claims this model will do 0-60 in 3.9 seconds and reach a top speed of 177 miles per hour.
Alfa Romeo provides a certain level of customization to the driving experience, via the DNA Drive Mode dial, located down by the shifter in the center console. The letters D-N-A stand for Dynamic, Natural, and Advanced Efficiency. Dynamic provides more aggressive throttle response, shift timing, steering assist, and braking response. Natural is a more balanced approach, blending performance and efficiency. As you might imagine, Advanced Efficiency is geared to getting the most out of a gallon of fuel.
Given Alfa’s performance heritage, we were expecting the steering would be firmer, but even in Dynamic it seems too light. This is not the case in the Giulia, and so it feels a bit disappointing to see the lack of commitment to the brand’s persona in the Stelvio’s steering.
With that one exception, the Stelvio has a fantastic driving feel. It provides strong acceleration in any mode and stays level through corners. Altogether, the Stelvio displays a true ability to be a hard-driving SUV. If you care about driving, that’s where this SUV truly shines.
Fuel economy for the Stelvio is 22 mpg city, 28 highway, 24 combined. In our time with mixed city and highway driving, we found fuel economy of just 17.8 miles per gallon—well below those posted EPA numbers.
Form and Function
As controls go, the Stelvio's are a mixed bag. The basic climate controls are simple enough, with tactile fan and temperature controls. The heated seats and steering wheel use push buttons, but many of the other features are packed within Alfa’s infotainment system, and that’s where things start to fall apart. This is as much a tech issue as it is a form-and-function one. It slows down any ability to interact with the car on even a basic level.
Alfa tries to underscore its performance heritage in the Stelvio by putting the push-button start on the steering wheel. That's a neat feature, but it takes some getting used to. Some people may never get used to this placement and will keep mashing a space in the dash where the push-button start should be. Like the shifter, some features on a car should be uniform, no matter the brand—at least from a basic safety standpoint.
Moving to more traditional aspects of form and function, cargo space is lacking due to the sloping roofline, with only 18.5 cubic feet behind the rear seats. That number grows to 56.5 with the rear seats folded, but Alfa could have gotten away with a more upright rear end, and that would have yielded more usable space for luggage. On the plus side, buyers get the option of a remote power liftgate.
We have to unpack this maddening infotainment system. Let’s start with the lack of any touchscreen functionality. The screen is well within reach of the driver and front passenger, and would therefore lend itself to touch use, but it’s not a touchscreen.
Instead, you have a dial in the center console. This is similar to many other luxury brands, but clearly not as well thought through as those from competitors. The menu navigation is brutal, and it takes far more steps than should be required for even the most basic tasks. On the plus side, it keeps the volume knob separate, and you can also use that knob to change radio stations or album tracks. But you can’t use it to cycle through presets.
Another maddening thing the Stelvio does, which other automakers do, too, is let the iPhone take over the stereo automatically. For example, plug in an iPhone via USB, and the stereo automatically goes to your iPhone for music. All automakers should be aware that this is a terrible practice. Most of the time when you are plugging in a smartphone, it is to charge that smartphone. Even if 50% of the time you were plugging it in to play music, just let the driver choose to select connected Media over Radio. This is also frustrating, because it typically defaults to your smartphone’s proprietary music app, when most younger drivers use Spotify or other music apps.
Alfa Romeo adds another layer of frustration, since every task in the infotainment system requires jumping from menu to menu with extra steps. As a result, you can’t simply hit the Source button to get back to the radio from the music app to which you seldom listen. You have to jump out of Media and into Radio.
In its current incarnation, this system is on par with the early versions of BMW’s iDrive, which was certainly forward-thinking, but compared to modern systems, it was a total mess. And even BMW now offers touch capability in its iDrive, so it has pretty much learned its lesson about proprietary controllers. But the Stelvio? Even in Park, it offers no touch functionality. It is seriously in the running for worst infotainment system of 2017. And if you think that doesn’t matter, try changing or saving a preset in your own car and appreciate how easy it is.
It’s not all bad on the tech front, as the 7-inch digital information screen in the instrument panel packs a lot of information and manages to keep it well organized. Another bright spot is the Harman Kardon stereo, which is incredibly crisp and provides plenty of sound without being overpowering.
Front and side impact airbags are standard on the Stelvio, as are a reversing camera, a tire-pressure monitoring system, and traction control. The Stelvio is available with forward-collision warning and collision avoidance as well as adaptive cruise control. Further options include blind-spot monitoring and lane-departure warning systems.
But here’s another funny technical quirk about the Stelvio: The beeps for the safety alerts are very loud. As in distractingly loud. There is a way to turn them down, but that is buried deep within the Stelvio’s nonsensical menus, and few will likely be able to find it.
The lane-departure beep is very loud, and it’s a jarringly strange sound. It seems the sound is meant to replicate the vibrating sensation that other cars provide or the feeling of driving over a rumble strip. Making the steering wheel vibrate is the conventional method, and simply using the speakers seems like a shortcut.
The 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio has a base MSRP of $41,995. The Ti trim starts at $43,995, and with all its options, including navigation and that Harman Kardon stereo, the price can reach $52,000. Which begs the question, “Is the Stelvio actually worth it?” It is… but you have to be the right kind of driver. You have to care about how your car carves up back roads once you’ve escaped traffic.
The price of the Quadrifoglio trim has not been released at the time of this review’s publishing, but consider its rivals. The nearest comparable SUV is the Porsche Macan Turbo, which starts at $76,000. It’s not unrealistic to expect the Quadrifoglio to come in at a similar price point.
If you’re an Alfa Romeo purist, the concept of an SUV might seem like heresy. But those purists are just going to have to put up with it. Not only will this be the brand’s best-selling vehicle in America, but its success will continue to fund development of more niche vehicles, like the 4C.
The folks that will buy a Stelvio are those that need a midsize crossover but want one with a little more excitement than your average grocery-getter. This vehicle certainly has its quirks (I want to rip out the infotainment system). But the truth is that Italian car brands are just weird compared to more homogenized American automakers. In that sense, the Stelvio wouldn’t be an Alfa Romeo without those (sometimes frustrating) quirks.
From open-wheel racecars to specialty off-road vehicles, George Kennedy has driven it all. A career automotive journalist, George has been a contributor, editor, and/or producer at some of the most respected publications and outlets, including Consumer Reports, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Autoblog.com, Hemmings Classic Wheels, BoldRide.com, the Providence Journal, and WheelsTV.
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