It seems that the 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio did not win our 2018 Luxury Compact SUV Challenge. It didn't even come close, actually, placing fifth out of seven, a full 112 points behind our winner, the 2018 Volvo XC60. But I don't care that the Stelvio didn't win, because you know what? I love it anyway.
Think about the characteristics that define a good contemporary SUV. You'd probably say a comfortable ride, the latest technology, commanding ride height, and a quiet cabin with plenty of space for passengers and cargo alike.
Well, if you're looking for those things in the Stelvio... you'll be disappointed. Judges Patrick Masterson, Kelsey Mays and I panned the Stelvio in many of these categories. Out of our seven contenders, it ranked fifth in noise and multimedia features. It was sixth in cargo storage and backseat comfort. And it was dead last in interior quality, front-seat comfort, in-cabin storage, ride quality, visibility and fuel costs.
Those ranks were all deserved, as there are things about the Stelvio that drove me crazy. Like, say, the fact that you can't scroll through your radio station presets; the buttons on the steering wheel and center console just move you to the next station automatically. The backup camera picture for some reason only uses a third of the screen. The backseat feels like a cave. And the driver can hardly see out of the rear window because the glass slopes down and gets real narrow.
How do you feel about the Stelvio, Kelsey? "Visibility sucks. Cabin storage sucks. Multimedia system is hard to use."
Patrick? "The center console storage bin is practically nonexistent, and it has maybe the worst rear visibility of the bunch."
All of the judges agreed that the XC60 was the SUV we'd take home out of the contenders. Its well-rounded feature set, interior quality and technology make it a comprehensive, family-friendly SUV. But after that, it gets more complicated for each of us.
I thought long and hard about this, because there are so many reasons not to go with the Alfa. I have a soul; I care about people who have to sit in the backseat of whatever I'm driving. The Stelvio's inability to perform the basic functions expected of an SUV is almost laughable. There are many logical reasons not to get one... But sometimes, the heart wants what it wants.
The Stelvio isn't for everyone, and my Challenge scoring reflects that. But it is for me; it's the second vehicle I'd take home. Here's why, in no particular order:
Quick, Quick, Quick
The Stelvio crushed the competition in our instrumented acceleration testing, sprinting from zero-to-60 mph in 5.33 seconds and the quarter-mile in 13.82 seconds at 98.4 mph. Those are crazy numbers for an SUV, and they represent a 0.82-second gap in the zero-to-60 between the Stelvio and the second-place 2018 Audi Q5, and a 0.73-second gap in the quarter-mile, also to the Audi.
Its turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder made the second-highest-rated horsepower (280 hp) and the most torque (306 pounds-feet) of the vehicles in our test. These track times also translated to the street, where the Stelvio's throttle and transmission are responsive, especially when selecting gears on your own — which makes me wish the regular Stelvio also had the giant shift paddles that can be found on the high-performance Quadrifoglio version.
A Real Name
Vehicles should have proper names and not all be identified like droids from "Star Wars." I'll take "Stelvio" (named after the famed mountain pass in Italy) over the rest of this alphanumeric bunch for the rest of time.
As good as the engine is, what stood out to me as the most intoxicating aspect of the Stelvio's driving experience was the steering. Oh, the steering. Wrench the wheel and the Stelvio follows; it doesn't take corners so much as dive-bomb into them. The Stelvio's handling and dynamics were head and shoulders above the rest of the field. Kelsey said, "Steering feedback and turn-in are both sublime, [with] quick, decisive response to any flick of the wheel."
And the suspension that gave the Stelvio such a low score in ride quality does pay off when the SUV is pushed. It keeps the Stelvio remarkably flat in corners and allows the driver to do things like throttle-correct the mild oversteer, which wasn't true of any competitor we tested. It's a vehicle that asks to be pushed, which is about the best compliment you can give to something with sporty aspirations.
The Stelvio had the least conventional styling of our seven SUVs — and to my eyes, the best. There was a lot of congruency among the rest of the field, save for the Stelvio and the Lexus NX 300. But while the NX 300 stood out for looking busy with all of its angles and sharpness, the Stelvio's sleek profile stood out for its beauty. Does the shape of it contribute to the poor visibility? You bet it does. But if you can't see out of it, you want to at least be assured that people are staring for the right reasons. Also, a big shout-out to those wheels, which I adore, along with Alfa Romeo's proclivity for sticking that gorgeous logo all over the place.
It may seem shallow to like the Stelvio so much for its looks and how it drives in the face of its shortcomings. Perhaps that's true, but I loved how honest the Stelvio was. "Yeah, I'm terrible at being an SUV," it seemed to say. "But look at what I can do that the others can't," en route to handily sweeping the powertrain and handling scores in our judges' scoring.
Masterson put it best, saying "all of the excitement is restricted to the driver's seat. So long as that's where you're sitting, its flaws won't distract you in the way that they do as a passenger." And that's the crux of it! This was the only driver-oriented vehicle in our Challenge, and for that, I can't help but love it. Whenever we had to shuttle the vehicles, the Stelvio was the one I grabbed.
I checked with my fellow judges to see where the Stelvio would end up in their take-home rankings - Patrick had the Stelvio third, behind the XC60 and the Q5. Kelsey put it fifth.
Those are much more defensible places than my position, and I know they might think I'm crazy for loving the Stelvio so much. But I won't hear their protests for long as I tip in the throttle and blast away down the highway, leaving them and their practicality behind.
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