Closing an exceptional year for Alfa Romeo, the launch of what the company claims is the world’s quickest SUV couldn’t have come at a better time.
|V6-cyl, 2891cc, twin-turbo||503bhp @ 6500rpm||443lb ft @ 2500rpm||3.8sec (claimed)||283kph (claimed)||1830kg||$93,000 (est)|
When a car manufacturer chooses to show off its latest product to the global media on the swooping coastal roads of the Cote d’Azure or the empty and perfectly surfaced (thanks, EU funding) motorways of Spain, there’s often a suspicion of a hidden agenda. Sometimes a new car isn’t all that great but there’s a hope that the scenery and the excessive lunches and dinners, along with palatial hotel accommodation, will be enough to sway a favourable verdict.
To bring the world’s most gnarly motoring hacks to the UAE, to drive an SUV up and down Jebel Jais in Ras al Khaimah, however, could be tantamount to commercial suicide if the car isn’t fundamentally brilliant. And that’s precisely what Alfa Romeo did with the launch of the Stelvio Quadrifoglio – apparently the world’s quickest SUV.
That particular accolade isn’t quite as accurate as you might first think, however. There are SUVs that can (just) beat its 0-100kph time and its 283kph top speed but none, so far at least, have managed to get around the Nürburgring in less than the Alfa’s 7:51.7 lap time. Now, perhaps, the choice of Jebel Jais starts to make sense. In fact, when evo is given the car shortly after the international launch is over, its custodian is keen for us to drive it on challenging roads to experience the handling prowess that few, if any, SUVs could hope to match.
So that’s exactly what we do, by pointing its triangular nose in the direction of the Northern Emirates where the roads are twisty, empty and border with Oman. This is the territory we normally reserve for exotica like McLarens, Ferraris and Lamborghinis. To even contemplate tearing up these routes in a family load lugger is a ridiculous notion but there is a decent clue as to its drivability in the nomenclature. Most lists of the world’s greatest driving roads include the Stelvio Pass in nothern Italy – its 75 hairpin turns helping thread together a route that’s the second highest in the Alps – so there must be a great deal of confidence in its talents at Alfa’s Turin headquarters for it to be so named.
Before we get to the nitty gritty of exploring this Stelvio’s handling and performance potential, though, we should probably cast a critical eye over its physical make up. All Stelvio variants (there are present: the four-cylinder Stelvio and Stelvio Ti, and the one here, the V6 Quadrifoglio) are assembled at Alfa’s Cassino plant in Frosinone, Italy. The model shares its platform with the excellent Giulia and the Quadrifoglio is fitted with the same rip-snorting engine as its Giulia namesake. So, in essence, is this a taller, re-bodied Giulia Quadrifoglio? Not really.
For starters the Stelvio has a rather clever Q4 all-wheel drive powertrain, while the saloon remains unapologetically rear-wheel driven. Here, the system sends torque to the rear wheels only, until the car senses it needs some help up front, when it diverts up to 50 per cent of drive to the steered pair. There’s also a torque vectoring rear diff at play, a suspension set up for speedy road handling rather than desert traversing, so it’s obvious where Alfa’s creative engineers have their priorities.
To keep the Stelvio light on its feet, aluminium has been used throughout its construction – the doors, wings, front and read sub-frames, as well as much of the suspension are made from it, while the rear cross-member is made partly from composite material. The resulting kerb weight of 1830kg might not sound that impressive but for an SUV this size (it’s bigger than it looks) it’s low enough, especially when you think about what’s propelling the ship.
And regarding those looks, for the evo team the jury is still out, regarding whether or not it’s actually beautiful but it’s fair to say that the Stelvio’s designers have done a decent job of making it pretty and distinctive, while adding in just enough aggressive styling cues for it to give the impression that it’s a bit of a beast. It’s a colour-sensitive shape, too, and does look much better painted red or blue than the white of our test car.
Interior design is fresh and tasteful, giving an overtly sporting vibe but some of the infotainment tech looks dated compared to its German rivals. Similarly, there are too many nasty, scratchy plastics for its price point – something you definitely wouldn’t be complaining about in a Macan Turbo.
Never mind that, though, we want to know if this really is the car that Alfa Romeo says it is. And our route through the mountains of the northern emirates will make any flaws as clear as day – tight turns, undulating surfaces, straight sections through canyons where the sound of it should send shivers down our spines and the occasional rough track or road scarred by horrendous potholes and broken surfaces.
Like most moderns, the Stelvio Q is a doddle to pilot through the urban jungle – smooth shifts from the eight-speed auto, light and direct steering, decent visibility (apart from that slim rear window) and really good brakes that don’t snatch when you need to stamp on them because someone else
It’s when we reach the mountains, however, that the car, as its maker has promised, gets into its stride. Getting on it, the engine’s character shines through – it sounds uninspiring until it starts revving properly, with 4000rpm when the opera arrives. Hungry for revs, this engine seems to thrive by being worked hard and the punch it delivers, helped by a perfectly matched transmission that, when in the aforementioned mode, feels more DSG than auto.
That Race mode is so addictive that it’s easy to forget all the others on its ‘DNA’ (Dynamic, Normal, Advanced Efficiency) selector – it disables the traction control, sharpens the throttle and gearbox responses, stiffens the suspension and opens the exhaust valves, turning it into a bona fide sports car. Grip remains phenomenal no matter what setting you’re in but, once the rear boots start to lose it in Race, it’s pretty simple to snap everything back into line. Given a bit more space we’d be tempted to just let it hang out and get the tyres smoking – something that’s totally at odds with normal SUV behaviour.
Dynamic mode does give you a bit of that action with the added safety net of having the car sort itself out once the tyres begin to squeal but on roads as smooth as these, Race is where it’s at for us. It’s hugely entertaining – even the thraaaap emitted by its exhausts as you lift off between gearshifts is enough to make you laugh out loud. It’s a riot.
The steering’s directness is incredible, meaning we can thread this Alfa through the corners with relentless pace. In fact the only thing missing is a genuine sports car, say a 911, to spar with to see just how closely they are matched on the region’s best driving routes.
When we think of SUVs, a rewarding or entertaining drive rarely features as an attribute. Yet Alfa Romeo has managed to combine exactly that with the everyday practicality that makes cars such as this so appealing to modern drivers. That it has managed to crack that particular nut with its very first utility vehicle is an astonishing achievement – a worthy recipient of our Sports SUV of The Year award.