As far as disappointing moments go, my recent drive in a 276bhp, petrol-powered Alfa Romeo Stelvio was up there with watching Batman Vs Superman for the first time. Well, maybe not quite that bad, but it seems a massive shame that this pretty, stylish, fun-to-drive SUV is blighted by a choppy ride, below-par interior quality, baffling quirks and untidy on-the-limit body control.
Sitting behind the wheel of the hot Quadfifoglio version… it’s that same cabin, just with a whole load of added carbonfibre and - of course - some Alcantara on the steering wheel. But rather than a muted inline-four under the bonnet, this Stelvio is packing something a little more serious: the 503bhp, 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 from the Giulia Quadrifoglio. And this makes the standard car’s areas of iffy quality immediately forgivable.
I did say in our Stelvio 280 review that you don’t really need more power in the real world, but good lord does this SUV feel good with the extra poke and chassis jiggery-pokery. Pressing the right-hand pedal firmly into the carpet for the first time on this Jabal Jais Mountain road - the famous one in the United Arab Emirates that doesn’t go anywhere - I’m reminded of just how good this strong, responsive and excitable V6 is.
It’s easily the best engine in class. AMG’s 4.0-litre V8 may have a couple of cylinders on the Alfa unit, but the former’s muted, oddly synthetic noise can’t hold a candle to the throaty soundtrack the latter belts out of its quad-tailpipes. Audi’s new 2.9-litre V6 feels potent enough but lacks character, and BMW’s ‘S55’ 3.0-litre twin-turbo straight-six has that unsettling low-end torque delivery thing going on. And let’s not get started on the M engine’s horrendous, speaker-delivered noise nonsense.
Speaking of fakery, Alfa has curiously steered clear of having one of those machine gun-spec exhausts that are all the rage right now. You’ll know the sort of systems I mean - they tend to deliberately drop unburnt fuel into the pipework when you lift off, making it sound like World War III has kicked off just behind your rear bumper. Don’t get me wrong, I’m rather childish and therefore like the contrived drama, but it’s nice to be in a performance car that does without such shenanigans. It’s plenty loud enough without an explodey exhaust, and there’s a delicious ppprrrrpppp kinda noise every time the swift eight-speed automatic gearbox swaps up a cog.
It’s fast, too. Despite weighing about 300kg more than its saloon cousin (a porky 1830kg, all in) it’s actually slightly quicker to 62mph, chopping a tenth off the benchmark sprint to result in a seriously swift time of 3.8 seconds. The top speed drops, but the Stelio’s 177mph V-max is plenty fast enough for autobahn heroics.
So good is the engine and gearbox combination, that you’d forgive the Stelvio Q for handling like a truck at the first bend it comes to. But as I’m finding out on this particular part of the Jabal Jais - which has been kindly closed for us - that’s not the case. Not at all.
In fact, it’s remarkable just how much like the Giulia Quadrifoglio this is like to drive. Yes, it is essentially a hot Giulia on stilts so it should be similar-ish, but it doesn’t feel or behave like it’s as high up as it is. The weight gain isn’t something that’s obvious either. The light, super-fast steering doesn’t write cheques the chassis can’t cash: there’s barely any roll even when you throw it around, and a hell of a lot of grip.
The ‘Q4’ four-wheel drive system is intended to bias the rear wheels during particularly boisterous cornering (under normal circumstances the front axle remains uncoupled for the sake of efficiency), but its behaviour right now seems to be more neutral. Push hard enough and it starts to understeer; push further and you do get oversteer, albeit in a fairly snappy dose that requires a very quick application of opposite lock. A drift king this isn’t, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
"Driving on this incredible, delectably twisty bit of tarmac doesn’t feel like a ‘waste’ just because I’m driving an SUV"
Sure, the comparatively loose arse of the rear-wheel drive Giulia Quadrifoglio has entertainment value, but there’s a thrill to the kind of speed I’m able to carry in the set of fast-sweepers I’m currently navigating. Not to mention the commitment this confidence-inspiring chassis encourages.
You can feel what the four-wheel drive system is up to, as well - not only the torque transferring from axle to axle, but also the way it’s shifted to individual wheels. Plus, such is the grip and balance of the thing, that changing from Dynamic mode on the DNA drive select switch (the N stands for ‘Natural’ and the A for ‘Advanced Efficiency’) to Race Mode hasn’t made it any more of a handful to drive. In this shoutiest setting, the exhaust is at its loudest, the gearshifts are at their fastest, the suspension at its firmest, and the ESP system switched off entirely. And it feels deliriously good.
The way this hot Stelvio can be chucked around is hilarious and tremendously exciting all at the same time, and as I near the peak of the mountain - the highest in the UAE - it occurs to me: driving on this incredible, delectably twisty bit of tarmac doesn’t feel like a ‘waste’ just because I’m driving an SUV.
I’ve quite literally reached the end of the road, where construction work is under way to extend this bizarre but brilliant bit of carriageway. Away from the smoothness of this kind of tarmac there’s a nagging feeling that the Stelvio Quadrifoglio is going to be pretty firm-riding, but I reckon that’s going to be liveable-with. We’re talking about a compact SUV that’s better to drive than a Porsche Macan, and praise in this sector doesn’t get much higher than that.