Alfa Romeo Stelvio Review: The Alluring SUV We Wish Was Better

Alfa’s first ever entry into the world of SUVs is likeable enough, but after spending a week with one in the UK, we have some reservations…

An Alfa Romeo SUV has seemed inevitable for a long time. We’re already in a world where we have high-riding cars from the likes of Porsche, Maserati, Bentley and soon even Ferrari, and since Alfa Romeo’s grand rebirth kinda hinges on a few people actually buying a few cars, there simply has to be one in the Italian maque’s still rather empty stable. But don’t worry, as what’s been cooked up is rather easy on the eye.

Yes, the Stelvio looks a little fat around the rear, but that’s an endemic styling issue with these kinds of cars. For the most part, it’s just a jacked-up, hatch-ified Giulia, and that’s no bad thing. If you really must own an SUV and if absolutely nothing else we do, this is at least a stylish, refreshingly different way to do it. But should you buy one? we’ve already had an encounter with the Stelvio at the launch earlier this year, but to get a proper grasp of what the car’s all about, we nabbed the keys to the Alfa Red example you see here for a week in the UK.

The 'Milano Edizione' we tested weighs in at £43,990 before options
The 'Milano Edizione' we tested weighs in at £43,990 before options

Let’s start with the good stuff. We’ve already covered the looks, but what floats our boat even more is the way it drives. It’s not as sharp or composed as something like a Porsche Macan, but it’s not that far off. It’s quite happy being chucked around, and there is enough rear bias in the all-wheel drive system for the car to feel rear-led in the right corners. In others it will understeer, but there’s only so much you can do with a relatively porky car that’s riding high. The laws of physics have never really been that compatible with the ‘sports’ bit in ‘sports utility vehicle’.

The steering’s the real hero here, though: it’s super quick, has a nice amount of weight to it, and delivers - shock horror - some actual feedback from the road. Alfa has really sussed how to make the best of an electric-powered setup.

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Until the V6-powered Quadrifoglio arrives in showrooms, the 276bhp petrol - the version we had on test - is the fastest version kicking around. Yes, I was initially disappointed to see that the red-line line is under 6000rpm, and to discover that peak power comes it at just 5250rpm, but the 2.0-litre four-banger damn well won me over.

It’s enormously punchy in the mid-range, makes a satisfying - if fairly muted - din, and is accompanied by some nicely aggressive upshifts that have been engineered into the eight-speed automatic gearbox. And it’s properly quick: 0-62mph takes just 5.7 seconds. Sure, doing the same sprint in 3.9 seconds aboard the shouty Quadrifoglio is an appealing prospect, but you don’t need the extra poke. Not really.

So far, so good - Alfa’s move to start using its own platforms and engines rather than cobbling together cars using a bunch of hand-me-downs is looking like just what the doctor ordered. But when you stop driving like you’re Jason Bourne attempting to allude that sociopathic French assassin bloke, problems start to emerge. And emerge they did, for me, while sitting in a monstrous traffic jam on the M25. That gridlock gave me time to check out the quality of some of the interior plastics. Or lack of.

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Sit an Audi engineer in the Stelvio for any length of time, and I’m almost certain they’d have a panic attack. There’s an incredibly sharp edge at the back of the gear selector. The ‘DNA’ drive select switch feels unforgivably flimsy. The rotary controller doesn’t have the most satisfying action, plus the shiny black plastic stuff on top of it looks naff. Oh and finally, the arm rest doesn’t have a nice latch or button - you simply wrench it open with brute force. In a £44k car, that’s just not good enough.

There are some baffling quirks too - I searched for ages trying to find ‘Trip B’, only to discover it was turned ‘off’. I’m not sure why that’s even an option, nor am I sure why it invites you to select ‘Ok’ when cancelling the sat nav’s current route. That’s not a typo: it really does show a lowercase ‘k’. Shall we chalk that little bit of sloppiness up to ‘character’?

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It might sound like I’m nit-picking, but these are all things you’re going to be using/touching a lot, and you’re not going to get out of a BMW X3, Audi Q5, Mercedes GLC or Porsche Macan with the same kind of complaints. It’s not just the details - it just generally doesn’t feel as plush and expensive as German rivals. Or even the Jaguar F-Pace, itself a car that comes in for criticism over quality issues.

It’s a shame, as I like the overall cabin design - it’s nicely minimalist compared to some of the German button-fests out there, and there are some cool details like those massive metal gear shifters mounted on the steering column. Another shame is that the iffy interior isn’t the only conspicuous flaw. The other big issue here is the ride - it’s far too busy.

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It never settles down when you’re driving normally, and when you’re pressing on, you won’t be inclined to put in the commitment the awesome steering encourages you to, not unless the surface is perfect. Why? Because messy body control steps in and ruins the party like Buzz Killington.

So, while the Stelvio is a sign Alfa Romeo has finally returned to screwing together cars that drive properly (body control issues nearer the limit aside), you still have to accept compromises when buying one. You have to understand that the equivalent Audi, BMW or Mercedes is going to be better rounded, better built and generally a more sensible choice. Fine in something like the Giulia Quadrifoglio, which is deliriously good to drive, but in this mid-weight petrol Stelvio, that’s a potential deal-breaker.

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So in a way it’s a continuation of age-old Alfa ‘tradition’ of making vehicles that are alluring but nowhere near class leading, but with a better - if still flawed - car at the centre. Which is frustrating, but at the same time there’s a warmth of familiarity to it all. So if you see one of these things rolling by, give the owner a nod of respect for accepting the foibles in order to be just a little different. If our roads are to continue filling up with SUVs, a few might as well be interesting ones…