Photos by Kevin McCauley/Texas Auto Writers Association
Expletives aren’t polite in mixed company — especially if you’re representing a brand.
Luckily, I’m now back on the journalism side of the automotive media landscape, where such transgressions might be excused. “Holy This” and “Oh My That” flow freely behind the wheel of the 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio, and the public relations rep riding shotgun during the Texas Auto Writers Association Texas Truck Rodeo seemed pretty used to what must be a common reaction.
Tap the left paddle shifter twice, the tach slams right, the exhaust burbles and spits, the engine starts to sing and you begin to understand why Italians needed to create interjections like “Countach.” If you’re expecting family traits from the fabulous Giulia, you’ll find them — it’s a more subdued experience than provided in this year’s most intriguing sport sedan, but only barely.
More Macan than Cayenne in size, the Stelvio is hardly a reckless cannonball into the crowded crossover pool. Interestingly, Alfa Romeo resisted the temptation to fit two cozy buckets in the rear, opting instead to seat three across in a pinch. From a practical perspective, the split-folding rear seats make the most of easy ingress, but it’s hard to imagine cramming a full family into this sports car posing as a crossover. The utility is there, with more than enough usable cargo space behind the second row, and an upright hatch design that saves precious degrees of rake to maximize each available inch of storage. Its practical mission fulfilled, the Stelvio goes on to fulfill a more romantic destiny: giving passengers and the driver a taste of Italy.
Pop the driver door, and your eyes reflexively scan for the fabulous wrapped leather dash and color-keyed accent stitching found in the Giulia Quadrifoglio — but, as of now, those options will only be available at a later date. Instead, the Stelvio presents with many of the same design cues rendered in more basic materials and colors, preserving the flat-bottom steering wheel and asymmetrical center console lid as centerpieces. The tone-on-tone black and silver accent motif of the tester will satisfy most buyers, but those who crave a properly Italian interior experience will undoubtedly opt for the red interior, finished with the classic Alfa crest embossed in each headrest. The end effect recalls the thick richness of the 164, a product of stylist Giugiaro’s genius and the brand’s last stand before a two-decade hiatus in America.
Few 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines breathe such fire, especially under the hood of a crossover. On the road, the Stelvio is mean, mad and fast, with the powerband stretching nearly the full length of the tach and eight quick ratios keeping the momentum going. Road feel is composed, but delivers enough feedback to seemingly shrink the Stelvio’s size at speed. No driver’s car should shield its pilot from engine sounds, and the Stelvio sings at decent volume when the play pedal is pressed. This is no Alfa in name only: the Stelvio was clearly built to cater to crossover shoppers who want solid steering rather than weightless assist — even if they need modern family-friendly conveniences like lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control.
Today’s plague of selectable drive modes often requires navigating a maze of touchscreen menus to make driving fun, but Alfa Romeo eliminates that annoyance with a rotary control commanding Dynamic, Natural and Advanced Efficiency modes. The system “latches”, which means the car will stay in the selected mode upon restart, rather than forcing the driver to select a mode each time. In Dynamic mode, the full clamping force of the Brembos is unleashed, with what feels like the top brake pack in the segment. Throttle tip-in response sharpens, with steering reacting to millimeter-level inputs from a laser-straight center. Anything is possible in this modern world of torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive and clairvoyant stability control — even hustling through Texas backroads in a 4100-pound tall hatch, keeping pace with proper sports cars in front and behind. Alfa Romeo recently took the upcoming Quadrifoglio to the Nurburgring to set the world’s fastest lap in an SUV — murmurs suggest Jeep is forbidden from taking the Trackhawk there — giving the Stelvio proper credentials to fit its name.
At the North American introduction of the Alfa Romeo 4C, I asked a pair of representatives from an Alfa club if they had ever dreamed the brand would return to American shores. They told me they never doubted Alfa would be back — not for a moment. Nods to these dedicated Alfisti abound inside the Stelvio, from the “Gira” text denoting revolutions in the tachometer to proper Brembo calipers fitted as standard. Worthy of special mention, the base Stelvio wears classic five-hole round-spoke alloy wheels straight from iconic Alfas of the ‘90s — the finishing touch on the singular vehicle that indicates Alfa Romeo is back not as a low-volume niche player, but as a serious choice for luxury buyers who still give a damn about the pleasure and sport of driving.