IAIN ROBERTSON 

Immensely enthused by the test drive he undertook in the latest AR Giulia earlier this year, Iain Robertson has high hopes for the much-vaunted, first SUV to be produced by the Milanese carmaker, although he worries about bandwagon-jumping.

It is reported that Groucho Marx had an expression, usually a ‘one-liner’, for any occasion. On politics he said: “Those are my principles and, if you don’t like them, I have others.”. On the theatre he said: “I didn’t like the play but, then, I saw it under adverse conditions…the curtain was up.”. Yet, his most memorable quip was: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”.

It is perhaps this final and oft-misquoted wisecrack that is most appropriate to the situation in which Alfa Romeo has found itself. When you contemplate the apparent, continual growth of the Sports Utility Vehicle sector, it is one that is reaching a critical mass quite rapidly. Every car company and its dog wants a slice, it would seem, and not to be in it, is clearly a means not to win it.

However, regardless of the strength of market forces, no matter how they might be addressed, with whatever ingenious acronymic means is at the manufacturer’s disposal, fashion remains a fickle thing and SUV is about as fashionable as modern transport can get…for the moment. At some point in the not too distant future, the consumer’s silver platter will overflow to such a wasteful extent that the very choice that confronts him today will cease to give any purchase traction.

Of course, the specialists will weather a potential storm. They have done so before and will ride it out. Yet, simply jumping onto the Jeep, or Land Rover, bandwagon does not create an equal level of talent. The Japanese manufacturers are only too aware of consumer capriciousness. Despite the size of most of them, they can move with surprising agility and they remain cynical enough to recognise that what is in, or has been vogue, for much of the past 20-25 years can tumble like the proverbial house of cards. Of course, the same applies to the South Koreans. Yet, I fear for several of the European alternatives.

I am not alone in having sighed deeply, when it was announced that both Teutonically-funded Bentley and Rolls-Royce, let alone Latin supercar brands, Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini, intended (and, in some cases, have succeeded) to introduce luxurious and wild off-roaders. In removing their eyes from the core ball-play, it could be stated that, in return for a hoped-for ‘quick buck’, they might be mortgaging their traditional business plan; the one that has kept them afloat throughout their existences. Recovery from a failed fashion bid might prove impossible for many of them.

Alfa Romeo, that wondrously historical Italian brand, possessing one of the most attractive badges of any car company, yet one of the most troubled of pasts, could become an hysterical passenger on a runaway SUV train. Yes. Its Giulia is a thing of wonderment but it is worth contemplating, whether it is its Teutonic leanings that actually make the model so relevant, or that they will generate consumer cynicism that is better geared towards BMW…a devil they can trust…whether on its domestic market, which would always be the best hope, or in other markets, which would always be tougher on the Latin marque.

Hiking the Giulia body onto a 4×4 platform, with the potential of sharing technology costs from within the FCA (Fiat-Chrysler-Jeep) Group, a factor which might have reduced the price of getting Stelvio to market, could have been a master-stroke. However, Alfa has elected to engineer its own technology. Understandably, as the Giulia is undeniably attractive, gifting the SUV those superficial details is important. However, while an all-new, aluminium-alloy turbo-diesel engine might seem slightly anachronistic, perhaps even out of place in a sexily-badged Italian car, and, yes, there are petrol variants, including the 506bhp bi-turbo V6 Porsche-eater, Alfa expects upwards of 70% of the model’s turnover to be oil-fuelled.

Purely from an economic standpoint, I figured that the excellent 2.2-litre Jeep engine would have been applied to Stelvio but it is around 40cc greater capacity and made from pig iron, further proof that Alfa is ploughing its own furrow in Stelvio’s case (which might be dangerous financially). Its drive system is also unique, in that power is directed 100% to the rear wheels, via a carbon-fibre propshaft, and only chassis vectoring technology that detects slippage will result in the front axle receiving around 50% of the potential. It does seem that Alfa is ring-fencing its long-standing dynamic values, although its engineering prowess (remember that it was Alfa that designed and developed common-rail diesel technology for the rest of the world) is sacrosanct.

That 2,143cc four-cylinder unit develops a healthy 210bhp at 3,750rpm but, more importantly, a hefty 347lbs ft of torque from 1,750rpm and, driving through an 8-speed fully automatic transmission (complete with £275’s worth of large aluminium paddle shifters, should you desire manual over-ride), it blitzes the 0-60mph dash in a mere 6.3 seconds, topping out at a less-than-spectacular 134mph. Mind you, promising 58.9mpg on the Official Combined fuel cycle, while emitting a lowly 127g/km CO2 (thus a 25% BIK taxation rate), suggests that Stelvio users have an uncommonly competitive rival to other SUVs in the class.

Although the range starts south of £33k, this model is listed at £38,490, around £3,000 costlier than an equivalent Jeep Cherokee and on par with several of its other competitors, which adds to the potential difficulties confronting Alfa Romeo. Factoring in a raft of options (in that now typical manner) that include leather upholstery (+£850), yellow Brembo brake callipers (+£300), paint (+£770…one of these days, somebody will demand that their chosen model be left in cost-effective ‘primer’!), upgraded 19.0-inch alloys (+£850), compact spare (+£275), cold weather pack (+£550), driver assist pack (+£700), power front seats (+£750), convenience package (+£525) and electrically folding door mirrors (+£275), results in another upwards hike to £45,610 as tested. Oops!

To be fair, the standard equipment is generous and, as the 19.0-inch wheels do not exactly help the Stelvio’s occasionally jouncy ride quality, the 18s will surely be enough. Sat-nav, connectivity, air-con, combined cloth/hide upholstery, a decent stereo and the raft of EU-insisted safety and semi-autonomous addenda may be enough, if you want to keep costs in trim. Of course, market temptations being what they are, means that most Stelvios will carry at least £5,000’s worth of options, so, join the club.

As mentioned, the ride quality of the test car was not exactly brilliant and mid-corner bumps could deflect it off the chosen line. Still, grip levels are high and, thanks to the insistent capabilities of the electronic type, even attacking a greasy roundabout resulted in little more than a tiny drift that was corrected automatically and without drama. Body roll is controlled but is greater than with the Giulia model, mostly because of the increased ride height. While the damping is a bit ‘sudden’ on some road surfaces, the Stevio rides quietly enough, with only a slight murmur coming from the fat tyres. The car’s steering is lovely and fairly fast reacting, although the turning circle is not as tight as that of the Volvo XC60, which will irritate during parking manoeuvres.

Alfa has borrowed the Fiat Group ‘DNA’ driving mode selector for the Stelvio, although, despite pretty screen graphics, it cannot hide the fact that the differences between Dynamic, Normal and the ‘A’ settings are barely noticeable. Apart from running the car onto a grass verge for photographic purposes, I did not take the opportunity to drive it off-road, although I have been informed that it will tackle ‘soft-roading’ tracks with aplomb, noting that its drivetrain features hill descent control, although anything more challenging might get it stuck, which suggests that the more competent Jeep, or Land/Range Rover, alternatives might be worth consideration, if ‘boondocking’ is your bag.

The cabin of the Stelvio is easy to access both front and rear and the boot is of decent proportions and nicely trimmed throughout. Just as Giulia proved that the archetypal short-legged-long-armed Italian driving position might have been banished forever, the Stelvio boasts a superb, multi-adjustable driver’s seat and steering column. It is a comfortable place to reside. The dashboard architecture is a replication of the excellent packaging introduced by Giulia and, personally, I prefer the fact that its dash-centre information screen is not of the ‘touch’ variety, which always become marked and grubby.

Conclusion:   Of prime interest to potential Stelvio customers is AR’s questionable reliability. The brand did not even make the last JD Power survey, because insufficient numbers were sold to warrant it. However, even a three years warranty will not suffice, if your Stelvio spends half of its life on a low-loader being ferried to and from your local Alfa Romeo dealership. I truly wish I could be more positive about that aspect. The Stelvio is pleasant enough to drive and I feel certain that the Green Cloverleaf version (506bhp) will be a flaming hoot. However, the market is ultra-competitive and features some truly excellent rivals to the Alfa, so many in its price range, in fact, that I wonder if Stelvio can make enough of an impression to survive. Part of me (heart) wants it to be so but the cynic (head) suggests it will not.

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).