THE very thought of Alfa Romeo building an SUV is enough to have some of the brand’s biggest fans breaking into a cold sweat.

But, let’s be honest, they’re all at it. Jaguar, Bentley, even Rolls Royce have leapt onto the off-road bandwagon in response to a surge in demand in recent years.

Having said that, the SUV market has changed completely since the days when Jaguar only made posh saloons and sports cars and the only nod to a sporty SUV was a Land Rover with alloy wheels.

Alfa Romeo has launched its new Stelvio into a crowded market in which a brand can’t simply peddle a half-baked clone or a jacked-up version of its latest hatchback – for this newcomer to cut the English mustard it needs to, first and foremost, be an Alfa Romeo.

This is what Jaguar has done so well with the F-Pace and E-Pace and it’s what BMW did before it with the X5. They silenced the critics who said it should never have been done by simply making something that was so good, they found it impossible to argue with it.

But has Alfa Romeo, a brand synonymous with no-compromise, passion-fuelled design and classic flair, pulled it off? Does the Stelvio feel like an Alfa Romeo? Or is is just a re-badged Fiat 500X?

Well, firstly, it’s not a tepid reworking of an FCA Group stablemate. Alfa Romeo may be in bed with Fiat and Chrysler these days but the Stelvio is based on a platform which has been developed to underpin the Guilia, some other forthcoming alfas, and the odd Maserati. So they really do mean business with the Stelvio.

And, on looks alone, it also smacks of a successful first foray into the small SUV market. You could remove the badges and ask anyone you like to name its manufacturer and it couldn’t be mistaken as anything but an Alfa. It’s gorgeous.

It’s the same story inside. It feels like a sporty coupe, rather than an SUV. It has Alfa’s trademark twin instrument binnacles and the textbook Italian touches and quirks you only get from Alfa Romeo.

I love, for example, the start button mounted within the steering wheel. I also love the heavy feel of the buttons and the indicator stalks and the general feel that you’re in something sporty, rather than in something you’d use to pull a horse out of a ditch.

Of course, this has to be a “sporty” car. So it might surprise you to find it with a diesel engine in its options list. But it’s a good one.

It’s a 2.2-litre lump, pumping out 207bhp and 347lb ft of torque, and covering 0-62mph in 6.6 seconds at the same time as returning 58.9mpg and 127g/km of CO2.

For those Alfa purists, the option of a 276bhp 2.0 turbocharged petrol engine might be more comforting, as will news of a 503bhp twin-turbo Quadrifoglio version.

But, in all honesty, the diesel engine suits the Stelvo well. The automatic gearbox also shifts cleanly. That said, although the giant metal paddles behind the steering wheel are beautifully tactile and practically beg you to get your hoof down – and sadly the gearbox doesn’t respond as well as you’d hope. It’s best left to its own devices, in the non-sporty drive mode, and you’ll still have plenty of fun.

And that’s the nice thing about the Stelvio. It does feel fun. It feels like an Alfa. It’s tight and supple, with good handling in the corners but decent suspension over the bumps.

Don’t get me wrong, a Guilia would run rings around it and there are more sporty SUVs to be had, but it’s a decent first stab at a market Alfa Romeo would have scoffed at less than a decade ago.

Alfa Romeo needs this car to work. The excellent Giulia is getting them off on the right foot, but the Stelvio is entering into a key market that could propel the brand back to the big time.

If it proves a success, it will enable Alfa to work on other exciting cars in the future and that makes me, an Alfa Romeo purist, quite excited.

I wasn’t actually all that sceptical about the Stelvio I’m happy to embrace change and I realise the SUV market allows manufacturers to tap into a lucrative trend for the greater good.

The Stelvio didn’t surprise me in any way. I knew it would be capable on the road, I knew it would be attractive and I knew it would feel like an Alfa.

I also knew that, if it had any ounce of DNA from the Guilia, it would be good. And I wasn’t wrong.