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2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Review: First Drive

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CARS.COM — Alfa Romeo returned to the U.S. mass market in 2015 promising style and performance, and it has delivered in both respects with the 4C coupe and Giulia sports sedan. When the brand’s first SUV appeared at the 2016 Los Angeles Auto Show, we named it our Best in Show based partly on its design. With the Stelvio now available to order nationwide and expected to hit dealerships in force in July, I put the performance promise to the test at the automaker’s national introduction in Nashville, Tenn. (per our ethics policy, pays for its airfare and lodging).

Related: 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Starts at $42,990

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2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Sport
31,946 mi.
$20,998 $882 price drop
2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Ti
63,042 mi.

Where the Giulia hit our shores first in its most aggressive and expensive form — the Quadrifoglio performance trim level — the SUV starts with the base Stelvio ($42,990; all prices include destination) and the Stelvio Ti ($44,990). Alfa says the Quad will arrive in early 2018 at a price to be determined. All Stelvios have standard all-wheel drive, called Q4, and with the exception of the standard wheel size — 19 inches versus 18 — the Ti’s $2,000 price bump makes no difference in the vehicle’s performance.

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Driving upgrades come with the selection of the optional Sport Package ($1,800 on the Stelvio, $2,500 on the Stelvio Ti) or the Performance Package, which comes later in the model year. I spent most of my time in a Stelvio Ti Sport ($53,640 as equipped) but also put some miles on a non-Sport Stelvio to gauge the performance differences ($52,435 with options).

Quadrifoglio Can Wait

Alfa has already reported that the Quadrifoglio’s dual-turbo 2.9-liter V-6 will propel it to 60 mph in a scant 3.9 seconds, but the base Stelvio is no slouch. Without question, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder seems wee for an SUV, even turbocharged, but it’s becoming more common. What’s less common is what this 280-horsepower engine delivers: zero-to-60 mph in a claimed 5.4 seconds, which makes it quicker than base competitors, a large group including the BMW X3, Porsche Macan and Infiniti QX70 among others.

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As in the Giulia, on whose platform the Stelvio is based, this engine’s torque peak is specified as 306 pounds-feet at 2,000 rpm, but it feels like it needs to wind out a bit more than that to really get moving. You won’t mistake this for a bigger block, but the Stelvio makes it work thanks to one of the Giulia’s high points: a responsive eight-speed automatic transmission. It upshifts smartly and downshifts readily, and the Dynamic mode both predictably holds onto lower gears to higher rpm and responds to a jab of the accelerator when you need a kick down. But it’s in manual mode where you see how quickly the transmission reacts. Even the base Stelvio performs in this regard, but there’s little joy without the shift paddles that come with the Sport Package — giant aluminum paddles mounted to the steering column rather than the wheel that are just as satisfying here as they are on the Giulia.

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This isn’t the only responsive automatic transmission, but typically this kind of performance comes from dual-clutch automated manuals like Porsche’s PDK or Audi’s S tronic. What amazes us is that this is the same conventional eight-speed automatic from Germany’s ZF that many other vehicles use — sometimes, well, dismally.

Mind Your Gear

The Stelvio Ti Sport handles nicely. Alfa cites a weight distribution of 50/50 front/rear, but I felt a good deal of understeer nosing into corners. Applying some gas brings the tail around and balances things out nicely, but you need to be mindful of your gear, either manually or by using the DNA selector to choose Dynamic mode. If you’re in Natural or Advanced Efficiency mode, even this transmission won’t be quick enough to get the small engine into its torque band and power you out of the turn. According to Alfa, the Q4 AWD sends all the torque to the rear wheels as a default, but up to 60 percent can go to the front when needed. In the future, a mechanical limited-slip rear differential will become available as an option; sadly, I didn’t have access to a racetrack, but on the street, the system performed fine as it is.

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Likewise, Alfa promises an adaptive suspension option for the Stelvio, as well as on the Quadrifoglio version, which will provide computer-controlled variable shock-absorber rates along with a push-button control at the center of the DNA knob. Until then, your choice is regular and sport tuning, and I strongly recommend the Sport Package. Even with optional 19s rather than 18-inch wheels, the regular Stelvio had noticeably more body roll than the Ti Sport. Despite having upgraded 20-inch wheels, the Sport I drove was comfortable on the well-maintained roads around Nashville. Firm, yes, but by no means hard or punishing. 

Though it shares the sedan’s wheelbase and steering ratio, the Stelvio’s steering didn’t feel as quick to me as it did in the AWD Giulia Ti we recently tested, but neither did it feel as overboosted. Perhaps it all just jelled with the SUV’s characteristics — when equipped with the Sport Package.

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Hitting the Brakes

Ironically, the one thing that put the brakes on my enthusiasm somewhat was the Stelvio’s brakes. In a couple of staged panic stops, the standard Brembo brakes with four-piston front and single-piston rear calipers provided decent stopping power, but the pedal feel overall is quite numb and the action nonlinear. This is a complaint I’ve had, even stronger, about the 4C. What appear to be the same brakes as the Stelvio performed a bit better on the Giulia, with stronger stopping power (understandable, given the weight difference) and better linearity and feel, though not the best.

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For a larger vehicle, the Stelvio compares favorably to the well-regarded Giulia. I even discovered that Alfa Romeo improved upon the feel and sound of the multimedia controller and DNA knob, which came across as rickety and cheap in the sedan. The Stelvio also recalls the Giulia when you compare it with its competitors: It provides above-average performance without many of the typically associated shortcomings, though it does fall behind somewhat due to its styling. The specs suggest it trails many peers in front and rear legroom by several inches and in cargo space by many cubic feet — but in actual use, I questioned if these numbers were accurate. I’ll dig further into this and the Stelvio’s features in our coming full review.

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Photo of Joe Wiesenfelder
Former Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, a launch veteran, led the car evaluation effort. He owns a 1984 Mercedes 300D and a 2002 Mazda Miata SE. Email Joe Wiesenfelder

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