First drive: 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio


The 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio is a breath of fresh air in a luxury market increasingly crowded with lookalike, drive-alike small luxury SUVs.

Hitting the road with more horsepower, more torque and a faster 0-60 m.p.h. time gives the elegant Stelvio a strong hand to play against established competitors like the Acura RDX, Audi Q5, BMW X3, Jaguar F-Pace, Mercedes GLC 300 and Porsche Macan.

The Stelvio may be the new kid on the block, but it's also the smartest, best-looking kid in class.

The Stelvio rolls into U.S. dealerships next week with a 280-hp turbocharged 2.0L engine and prices starting at $41,995. It uses the same new architecture ? called ?Giorgio? ? as the Giulia sport sedan Alfa began selling in the U.S. late last year.

The Stelvio and Giulia are the start of Fiat Chrysler's attempt to raise Alfa's profile and profitability to compete with Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Jaguar, Lexus, Mercedes and Porsche.

The Stelvio and Giulia's engineering draws heavily on Ferrari, which is part of the same industrial empire as Alfa Romeo and its ritzier sister brand Maserati.

Behind the wheel, that heritage quickly becomes apparent. The Stelvio's steering is extraordinarily fast and responsive for an SUV, but without any nervousness. The Stelvio's 50/50 front to rear weight distribution is more like a sports car than most SUVs. The result: smooth, flowing dynamics in a comfortable vehicle that clings to curves and encourages enthusiastic driving.

Even the engine note is distinctive: a reassuring thrum that reminds you there's something special under the hood even in sedate driving.

The eight-speed ZF automatic transmission shifts quickly and smoothly in calm conditions, but anticipates the driver with crisp downshifts through curves and hills.

The Stelvio's EPA rating of 22 m.p.g. in the city, 28 on the highway and 24 in combined driving falls in the middle of its competitive set. Its 5.4-second 0-60 time and 144-m.p.h. top speed lead the class.

The driving position is comfortable and feels natural, a pleasant evolution from Italian cars' historically idiosyncratic relationship among seat, steering wheel and pedals.

The all-wheel-drive system is tuned for handling, not off-road ability. If you ever see a Stelvio sill-deep in mud or scrambling over rocks, it'll mean the nav system malfunctioned, not that the driver wanted to do this.

The all-wheel-drive system can shift 100% of power to the rear wheels to improve fuel economy in steady highway driving.

The gauges are clear and easy to read, and most of the controls are simple. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will be available for smartphones this fall, but early Stelvios sold without them will not be updateable, an omission that's likely to unnecessarily alienate the most committed owners who ran out to get the first Stelvio in town.

Bad form, Alfa.

Like the Giulia, the Stelvio uses a rotary controller to manage features like audio, navigation, safety and driver assistance systems. It's far from the worst of its kind, but it's not a selling point. I'm surprised Alfa chose it, since Fiat Chrysler has the most user-friendly controls on wheels in the Uconnect system most of its brands use.

The Stelvio's 111-inch wheelbase is identical to the Giulia sedan. The SUV is 8.9 inches taller and 2.0 longer. The Stelvio is about an inch longer than the Q5, X3 and GLC 300. It's 1.6 inches shorter than the F-Pace. The Stelvio has less cargo space than its competition. It can tow 3,000 pounds, more than most competitors.

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio at a glance:
  • All-wheel drive luxury SUV
  • Base price: $41,995
  • Engine: 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder
  • Power: 280-hp @ 5,200 r.p.m., 306 lb-ft of torque @ 2,000-4,800 r.p.m.
  • Transmission: 8-speed automatic
  • EPA fuel economy rating: 22 m.p.g. city/28 highway/24 combined
  • Wheelbase: 111.0 inches
  • Length: 184.6 inches
  • Width: 74.9 inches
  • Height: 66.0 inches
  • Curb weight: 4,044 pounds
  • Assembly site: Cassino, Italy
  • Engine assembly site: Termoli, Italy

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