First Impressions: Alfa Romeo Stelvio

Much to the excitement of car enthusiasts across the United States, Alfa Romeo returned to this side of the pond with the Giulia sports sedan in 2017. Following soon after was the Stelvio, a compact SUV to target the huge U.S. market for such vehicles.

Alfa Romeo Stelvio (2018) - picture 1 of 198 - Front Angle - image resolution: 1024x768
Exterior styling was never going to be a struggle for Alfa Romeo

As part of a search for a new family vehicle, I’ve spent about an hour–an admittedly short time to assess a car, but I’ll do my best–behind the wheel of the 2019 Stelvio. Nearly twice as many Stelvios were sold as the Giulia in 2018 and the performance Quadrifoglio version recently set SUV lap records at Silverstone, Brands Hatch, and Donington Park.

First things first, the Stelvio looks striking, particularly when compared to almost any other SUV. I got nearly as many admiring looks driving it around Tampa Bay as I do when behind the wheel of a classic TVR. But you’d expect that with an Alfa.

You’d also expect it to drive among the best in its class. It does. The Stelvio is more taut than many sedans and hatchbacks, with perfectly-weighted steering and minimal body roll. The high driving position betrays a car that does a wonderful impression of sports sedans. I only drove the Ti Sport trim level, but the Quadrifoglio–with its Ferrari-derived V6–is obviously even more dynamic.

The question, though, is not whether the Stelvio drives nicely or not. Of course it does, it’s an Alfa. Perhaps only the Porsche Macan could match it. The question is whether or not the Stelvio can make a mark on the increasingly-competitive premium midsize SUV market. Americans can’t get enough of them, but it’ll take a lot to get over the lack of brand visibility that Alfa suffers thanks to it’s hiatus and small model range.

The Audi Q5 is the benchmark, and it is in comparison to other cars where the Stelvio struggles. The Alfa Connect infotainment system is a decent set-up, but the lack of a touchscreen and occasional clumsiness in maneuvering that results contrasts strongly with Audi’s wonderful MMI system. And if comparisons to the Q5 are helpful, the lack of a digital cockpit like in the Audi makes the incredibly busy instrument cluster on the Stelvio look even more outdated.

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The interior is well designed, but that Alfa Connect system feels outdated

That distinctive Italian styling also has its drawbacks, namely in rear seat headroom and cargo space. It isn’t that its especially small, just not as big as in the Q5 or others. Some might also find that rear visibility suffers as well, although personally I didn’t really mind. And when you’re a relatively small brand trying to compete against the big manufacturers, it’s things like this that matter.

Elsewhere, the Stelvio is average. The interior is comfortable and the ride is decent, although a little firmer than some others thanks to the superior handling. Alfa did manage to hit pricing right where it should be, starting at just over $40k and running all the way up to the $80,000 Quadrifoglio.

It also includes the now-standard suite of safety features like blind-spot monitoring, cross-traffic detection, automatic braking, lane departure warning, and so on. I wish I could point to this as a strong point for the Stelvio, but really it’s expected nowadays.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be an Alfa Romeo review without a discussion of reliability. The brand has a horrendous reputation for this, and the Stelvio is an unproven entity. No horror stories have emerged yet, and I hope they never do. It’s hard not to root for Alfa.

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The Alfa Connect system is controlled by the dial in the center. The glossy surface is deceivingly not a touch pad

Alfa did a lot of things right with the Stelvio. The handling is unmatched and makes any drive in the car an event to be cherished. It stands out from the crowd thanks to the styling, and it does manage to stay comfortable and quiet most of the time. The problem I have is with the underwhelming tech. For the vast majority of people, a clunky and unintuitive infotainment system is unforgivable. And besides the handling, there aren’t enough upsides to allow the Stelvio to stand alone.

I wanted so much to like this car. And I do, as a driver. But I couldn’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone who wants an SUV that ticks all the premium boxes. To a car enthusiast like myself? Sure. Consumer reviews have been stellar, although I suspect that’s because the only people buying Stelvios at the moment value driving experience over all else. If I were to go out and choose a free SUV for myself today, it would be a Stelvio Quadrifoglio. Pure driving bliss, however, isn’t enough to dethrone the king of the premium compact SUV, the Audi Q5.

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