Payne: Alfa Romeo Stelvio, sports sedan in disguise

Posted by hpayne on July 6, 2017

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How do you make an Alfa Romeo SUV? Take a road-carving Alfa Giulia sedan, jack it up 21/2 inches, bolt in all-wheel drive, and the next thing you know you’re hounding sports cars through Hell, Michigan’s twisted back roads.

Say hello to Stelvio, the latest performance car in crossover clothing.

With the SUV trend here to stay, performance brands like Alfa need to adapt to market demand. But that doesn’t mean they need sacrifice who they are. Indeed, sports car manufacturers like Alfa, Jaguar, Porsche and Mazda are leading an SUV revolution that is blurring the line between sedan and ute.

Porsche saw the opening first with its Cayenne and Macan crossovers channeling the brand’s racing DNA to make the best-handling small trucks ever built. Alfa and Jaguar have taken the formula a step further by building their midsize Stelvio and F-Pace SUVs on the same bones as their performance sedans (Giulia and XE, respectively). For their next act may I suggest building Alfa’s compact crossover on the 4C sports car’s carbon-fiber tub? Or Jaguar’s compact E-PACE on the F-Type’s aluminum spine?

With the Stelvio, Alfa has not only crafted a performance vehicle with five-door utility (in the old days we would have called it a sporty station wagon), but it has made it affordable. In the sweet spot of the mid-size luxury sport utility market, the Stelvio brings $50,000 Macan handling for just $43,000 — with more horsepower, more features and more utility. Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it, too?

Your fearless critic tested Stelvio through gnarled mountain roads southeast of Nashville — a southern extension of my native Appalachia. A few decades ago, these trails wouldn’t have seemed welcoming to an Italian performance brand, much less an SUV. But the Stelvio was right at home.

How times have changed.

A vintage, orange-and-Confederate-flagged “General Lee” Dodge Challenger sat by the road in rural Leiper’s Fork. It was a relic of a different age. Today, Leiper’s Fork is a hip suburb on the southeast edge of country-music capital Nashville, home to sprawling ranches owned by singer celebrities like Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton.

Manicured horse fences border estates with long, gated driveways leading to imposing mansions with oak front doors answered by beautiful people. As I galloped along in the sexy Stelvio — Boy, this filly is fun to ride! — it turned a lot of heads. As it will in other multicultural metropolises like Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and Washington. Their driveways are chock-full of BMW after Audi after Mercedes. All of them silver. All of them familiar. All of them with sterile, alphanumeric badges like X3 and Q5 and GLC. All of them soooo … German.

Detroiters might even feel a pang of kinship since Alfa is Fiat-Chrysler’s luxury brand. Surely, the Italian shares some Yankee ingenuity underneath? Well, no.

“Alfa is separate. Separate engineering group in Modena (Italy). Separate distribution,” says Alfa boss Reid Bigland. “Our belief is if you want credibility, you cannot co-mingle with mass market operations.”

Alfa carries this principle to a fault. It doesn’t even share Chrysler’s acclaimed UConnect infotainment system, which would be an improvement over the Stelvio’s middling, rotary-controlled entry. This signorina oozes the Italian authenticity of a vehicle that was raised along Italy’s formidable Stelvio pass. There’s the Giulia’s signature Alfa snout. And the three-piece Trilobo grille.

But above all there’s the same Giorgio platform that underlies the Giulia sedan.

The first thing you notice is the sports car-like steering. It’s not hydraulic like the halo 4C sports car, but the point of 4C was to set a tone. Stelvio and Giulia share a crisp, 2.3-turns lock-to-lock steering that required minimal input as I dashed through Tennessee countryside. Paired with the same sophisticated suspension, 280-horsepower (class best), fuel-efficient (24 mpg — just 2 mpg less than Giulia), turbocharged 2.0-liter engine and eight-speed transmission, Stelvio deserves comparison to its sedan sister — even though Giulia’s lower roofline (by almost 9 inches) and center of gravity are reminders that SUVs aren’t quite cars.

But while the Stelvio is a bargain athlete compared to the reigning Teutons, it must also be compared to the new crop of ambitious, mainstream SUVs nipping at luxury’s heels. Consider the Mazda CX-5, which is my reigning Utility Bargain of the Century at $34,000.

At a whopping $22,000 below my loaded, red Stelvio Ti Sport edition, the Soul Red Mazda is also an easy-on-the-eyes, all-wheel drive athlete. The Mazda’s list of features (including two-way cruise control and driver-safety assists) are the equal of the Italian. Most eye-opening is the similarity in their Euro-styled interiors.

The interior is a sore spot with Stelvio (though its roomy back seat is a welcome improvement over the Giulia’s Delta coach-class quarters). For all the Alpha’s drama outside, its interior is undistinguished in the premium class. It’s pleasant. But where is the personality? Think of Volvo’s Scandinavian wood or the Audi A5’s virtual cockpit as transformative interiors.

Alfa might have done this too with a dash that echoed the Stelvio’s nose. Or a digital, motorbike dash that echoed the 4C. Even where Alfa tries to be unique — think the Ti Sport’s awkward, steering-column-mounted shift paddles — the result is lacking. My advice would be to accept the interior and play to Stelvio’s strengths: standard features, raw athleticism and sex appeal.

Take a well-endowed base, leather Stelvio. Option the safety-assist, Sirius XM, heated seats/steering wheel and Alfa’s signature, smoky black, five-hole wheels, and you have a spicy Italian dish for just $45,685. That’s $10,000 north of the Mazda, but well south of the Germans.

For those with money to burn (looking at you, Timberlake), save it for the coming special dessert: the Stelvio Quadrifoglio. As you might have guessed, it’s a crossover version of Giulia’s earth-pawing, BMW M3-blitzing, Nurburgring-lap record-holding, 505-horsepower sedan.

It promises to destroy the Nurburgring lap record for SUVs. Heck, has any SUV even dared tackle the legendary German course’s 73-turn roller-coaster? Consider the line between SUV and sedan permanently blurred.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER SUV
Powerplant 2.0-liter, longitudinal, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder
Transmission Eight-speed automatic
Weight 4,044 pounds
Price $42,990 ($55,240 Ti Sport as tested)
Power 280 horsepower, 306 pound-feet torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 5.5 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed:

144 mph

Fuel

economy

EPA est. mpg: 22 city/24 highway/28 combined

Report card

HIGHS BEST-IN-CLASS, 4-POT ENGINE;

SEXY ITALIAN ACCENT

Lows Generic interior design; haunted by Italian reliability

questions

Overall:★★★

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