Tested: Alfa Romeo’s new Porsche fighter
DEEP in northern Italy, just south of the Swiss border, is the Stelvio Pass, one of the world's great driving roads.
It's the second highest pass in the Alps, at 2757 metres, and on either side it descends like a coiled snake into the bowels of the earth, especially the northern route down to the village of Trafoi, where you have to negotiate 48 hairpin corners in 14km.
If you're in this part of Europe, rent a car - the faster the better - and have a go at it, early in the morning or late in the afternoon when all the other petrolheads, cyclists and tourists have left.
It will be the most exhilarating drive of your life. You're in Italy, so you're expected to have a crack and you won't be arrested if you enjoy yourself. I drove it in a BMW M3. Yeah, I know. Get a real job …
The fact that Alfa Romeo calls its new mid-size SUV the Stelvio tells you precisely its intent - to compete at the pointy end of the class, where the Porsche Macan rules.
We're testing the Stelvio Ti, priced at $78,900. It overdelivers on performance and luxe at this price compared with German rivals.
Alfa's 2.0-litre turbo four produces 206kW of power, put to the road via an eight-speed automatic/all-wheel drive with a mechanical limited-slip rear differential.
Claimed time for the 0-100km/h sprint is 5.7 seconds, so Ti won't pucker your cheeks like the top of the range $149,900, 375kW 2.9-litre turbo V6 Quadrifoglio - the fastest SUV in the class at 3.8 seconds - but it will show its tail-lights to most of the field.
Premium running gear includes bespoke suspension dampers from specialist maker Koni and 20-inch alloy wheels shod with 255/40 Michelin tyres.
Leather upholstery, heated front seats, dual zone aircon, alloy pedals, keyless entry and start, remote opening windows, power tailgate, tinted glass and parking sensors are also standard.
Alfa does a great sports seat, firm yet luxuriously comfortable, supportive and heavily bolstered with an extendable cushion.
You face an elegant, old-fashioned dash with double-barrel analog instruments and rotary controls. In your hands is Alfa's lovely thin-rimmed, leather-wrapped sports steering wheel with the engine stop-start button under the left spoke - in exactly the same spot Ferrari puts it - and long, slim, fixed shift paddles in cool-to-the-touch metal, again a la Ferrari.
Infotainment, modelled on BMW's iDrive, is reasonably intuitive, though you can occasionally get lost in the menus; the rear camera display is small and blurred.
Voice control usually gets it right and smartphone mirroring is standard. Wireless charging is not provided.
Firm and comfortable, the rear bench can become tight for legroom if front occupants are tall. The ride is firm and fidgety, with the occasional harsh thump on choppy surfaces. Compliance improves at speed but there are smoother-riding SUVs around - the optional adaptive suspension dampers, at $2200, may improve comfort.
The Stelvio is comprehensively equipped at base model level and the Ti adds adaptive cruise.
Alfa's 2.0-litre turbo sounds more like a diesel than a performance petrol engine but it pulls with a mean, sinewy edge from about 2500rpm to almost 6000rpm and powers the relatively light (1619kg) Ti up the road at a rapid rate.
Peak torque of 400Nm kicks in at a relatively high 2250rpm, so it's a bit short on bottom end grunt - a typical Alfa, in other words.
It's frugal on the highway at 6-7L/100km but you can push consumption towards the mid-teens if you leadfoot it in town. Expect 10L-12L/100km in suburban driving, on premium.
The eight-speed auto chases fuel economy in Eco and Normal modes; in Dynamic it tends to hold tenaciously to the lower gears in the hope you'll depress the accelerator once more.
Mid-corner, with your hands at 12 and 6 o'clock, your fingers can't reach the paddle-shifters. Ferrari (and Alfa) counter that you should have changed gears before you entered the corner, so stop whingeing and learn to drive.
The rear-drive bias and 50-50 weight distribution endow tidy, neutral cornering characteristics under power. However, the featherlight steering - extremely direct for a relatively tall SUV - can also make it feel twitchy and unbalanced when you first point it into a bend or change direction quickly.
You have to learn to use tiny, millimetre-perfect inputs at the wheel, then it works.
Alfa's brake-by-wire also takes some getting used to - touchy on light applications around town, the pedal lacks feel throughout, though stopping power from speed is fine.
Italy makes the most beautiful cars in the world and now, at last, it's making this beautiful SUV. I'll have mine in red, of course.
Alfa has to offer better value than the Germans to get on buyers' shortlists. I like the fact that it looks and drives like the real Italian deal, too.
PORSCHE MACAN FROM $81,400
Untouchable as soon as the road begins to turn and twist, beautifully built and very high trade-in values. 185kW 2.0-litre turbo/seven-speed dual-clutch auto. 0-100km/h in 6.7 seconds.
VOLVO XC60 T6 R DESIGN FROM $78,990
Hipper than hip Scandi design, superb quality and a tight, comfortable drive. 246kW 2.0-litre with turbo and supercharging/eight-speed auto. 0-100km/h in 5.8 seconds.
Porsche's Macan is still in a class of one when it comes to seriously sporty SUVs but the Stelvio passes the "real Alfa" test - it's quick, it talks to you and brings a lot of joy for your money.
ALFA ROMEO STELVIO TI
WARRANTY/SERVICING 3 years; $1455 for 3 years/45,000km
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo, 206kW/400Nm
SAFETY 5 stars, 8 airbags, AEB, blind spot monitor, rear cross traffic alert, adaptive cruise
SPARE None; repair kit