Test Drive

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Test Drive Review: We Hope It Lasts

A crossover with all the passion the brand promises, but FCA reliability is a big concern.

During the years when Alfa Romeo was still planning its triumphant return to North America, it all seemed like a pipe dream destined for the scrap heap of misguided business plans in Fiat’s corporate offices. I mean, at the time, they were just toying around with the 8C and 4C and a bunch of little hatchbacks and a couple sedans, and they delayed the arrival more times than Tesla has missed production targets. But Fiat knew they had a brand with history.

Despite some of that history being questionable, the name itself is so freakin’ sexy — c’mon, say it with me, people, Alfa Romeeeeeeo – they knew plenty of people would come calling for a bit of that action. While a handful of 8Cs might have made it here early on, the 4C was a spectacular way to mark the brand’s return and establish its identity and branding as performance and passion – I mean, exposed carbon-fiber tub, mid-engine, manual steering, it’s insane for this day and age of crossover-hungry North America, but it was just right.

Next came the Giulia, and it’s another car that some people might buy just to be able to say the name every time people ask them what they drive, but it arrives just as the market is running from sedans like they will give them the plague. Luckily for Alfa Romeo, it read the signs correctly, and the Stelvio SUV arrived hot on the heels of the Giulia and its Quadrifoglio variant, and now the brand is in business in earnest in North America. Sure, it is early days yet, but sales are growing by leaps and bounds, already selling more cars in the first three months of this year than they did in the first half of last year.

The Stelvio is contributing an equal share to the Giulia, but expect that to rise, because it manages to capture most of what is good and great about the Giulia and add a whole new dose of practicality with so few compromises. Y’know how people on the internet moan and groan about how a sedan or wagon drives so much better than crossovers or SUVs? Sometimes I wonder where they are driving… Gran Turismo? Forza? Out in the real world, the Stelvio delivers exactly the kind of performance you can use every day. What’s most endearing to me about the Stelvio is the balance of power and capability.

The 2.0-liter turbo-four, at 280 hp and 306 lb-ft of torque, is a bit more aggressively tuned than the 2.0Ts from its German rivals, and at 4,044 pounds in base trim doesn’t weigh much more than them, so its acceleration to 60 mph is impressive, pegged at 5.4 seconds. It’s reasonably efficient too, posting city / highway / combined ratings of 17 / 23/ 19 mpg, and I finished off at 19 during winter-like weather even while driving more aggressively than usual because of the Stelvio’s charms. When chasing maximum acceleration in dynamic mode, the eight-speed automatic snaps off quick shifts without pause, and a gigantic pair of paddle shifters are at your disposal to flick through those gears at a moment’s notice.

Now, about those shifters… normally I’m mystified by the inclusion of paddle shifter in almost any SUV, even performance-oriented Europeans, but there was just something about the Stelvio that made me reach for those genuine aluminum paddles - maybe because they’re so huge, but also a bit because of how the car drives. That’s right, I said it: car. This is a car. It must be. Yeah, it’s basically a wagon. An SUV really has no business handling this… naturally. Back at its launch event the engineers blathered on about axis points and roll center and it mimicking the feel the driver gets from the Giulia, but I did not get enough drive time, nor were the roads familiar enough to really get a sense of how it stacks up.

It is phenomenal. Other premium SUVs with performance upgrades can corner flatter and out-accelerate the Ti, but the upcoming Quadrifoglio will likely crush them. This Ti, however, even outdoes some of the mid-sporting models with fluid transitions and excellent chassis and steering feedback to capture that ultimate driving feel that makes piloting an ordinary vehicle an occasion unto itself. The steering has the right mixture of weight and feel, and the suspension is compliant enough to absorb all sorts of potholes and bumps without excessive crashing around.

But then sling it into a corner and it stays on track with progressive body roll and as much grip as the winter tires would allow. The brakes bring the vehicle down from speed adequately, but response from the brakes isn’t linear, offering very mild braking from the first bit of pedal travel, then suddenly just clamping down, making for some awkward and sudden stops for no good reason. The all-wheel drive is invisible as it shuffles power, so it always seems ready for more, and a fresh spring snowstorm meant I got a dusting of snow in which to test it and it powers through the powder competently and confidently.

In other more ordinary conditions, it’s an easygoing cruiser on the highway especially equipped with adaptive cruise, and nimble enough with lighter steering in normal mode for city traffic. Although it has a back-up camera to help with parking, the rear visibility is pretty atrocious, so it does offer some challenges backing into or out of parking spots. There are a couple more things I have to complain about, too: the massive paddle shifters and the odd fabric on the steering wheel. The paddle shifters are so big they can get in the way of the other stalks, and because they’re column mounted, I swung and missed a couple of times when trying to change a gear with significant steering angle applied.

The material nitpick is the weird, grooved fabric around the handholds - it felt like guitar string, which I hate the feel and sound of, so it creeped me right out. I know there’s an Alcantara shortage and all, but something more neutral or natural would be preferable. Although it’s a tiny thing, it would drive me nuts if I had to put my hands on that every day, every drive. Okay, I’ve seriously overused my budget for dynamic critique of a midsize luxury utility vehicle, but that is its calling card, and the rest is a mix of average and disappointing. In terms of practicality, the Stelvio falls a bit short on trunk space, with 18.5 cubic feet in the trunk opening up to 56.5 with the seats folded.

However, the seats are split 40/20/40, so you can drop the middle as a ski pass-through or go for a handful of different configurations to maximize passenger and cargo capacity. Passengers in the two main back seats shouldn’t have much to complain about, with modestly contoured and supportive seats, and while headroom is passable legroom is tight. As usual, the middle seat is rather inhospitable with raised cushion and barely any legroom. Up front, the seats aim for sporty support more than easygoing comfort however, and the high side bolsters mean getting in is a bit more of a chore, although I really appreciated the adjustable thigh and torso bolsters that lock you into place.

It may not be a sports car, but it does some of the little things that make it feel a little more like one. There’s also plenty of room to spread out and a nice wide armrest that positions your arm perfectly to manipulate the scroll wheel that controls the infotainment, and a couple splashes of wood trim to enrich the atmosphere in the cabin. Although some of the materials and switchgear aren’t as polished as familiar luxury brands, at least it’s not a parts bin shared with Chrysler and Dodge products like some of the Maseratis.

Unfortunately, the infotainment system also isn’t shared with Chrysler and Dodge vehicles, as UConnect is a winner and could have simply been reskinned with Alfa-appropriate graphics. Instead, the system is an Alfa original mimicking BMW’s iDrive or Audi’s MMI, but falls just a bit short. Some people really hate it, but after spending a few minutes poking around, I found it easy enough to use on the fly for most functions like phone and audio. It seems like something owners would get used to rather quickly, and only an issue for the first stretch of the learning curve.

It is by no means perfect, but the 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio is an appealing proposition starting at $41,995 plus $995 for destination fees, but it takes the Ti trim at $43,995 plus destination to complete the package with 19-inch wheels, 8.8-inch display screen, genuine wood accents. Ti models can then be tailored to suit different personalities with Sport or Lusso for those that prefer luxury appointments over 20-inch wheels, black trim and those sporty, highly bolstered seats. When it comes to Alfa Romeo’s return to North America, I am still in shock that they actually made it across the pond, and the Stelvio is the key to growth and making it stick.

The Stelvio isn’t perfect, but it is entirely livable and does well to carve out its niche with a driving experience that lives up to the passion card the brand likes to play, but the elephant in the room is its reliability. Will it last? Will FCA sort out any production kinks that lead to repeatedly poor ratings from Consumer Reports and JD Power in their quality and reliability surveys? That’s a leap of faith that owners will have to take. If Alfa doesn’t turn around its reliability, it will burn through all those hopeful customers that were attracted to Stelvio and Giulia for its distinctive looks and experience in the luxury crossover market.

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