The 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio and the Mystery of the 'Driver's Crossover'
Alfa Romeo puts its very special set of skills to use trying to solve one of the most perplexing issues of our time.
I am no longer surprised by the "surprisingly capable" crossover. On paper, it's like tasty non-alcoholic beer, or a particularly imperceptible condom: great for those forced by circumstance into a concessionary sort of indulgence, but no mistaking that it's still a compromise. Yet from behind the wheel of a growing number of performance-minded Hulk-hatches—the Porsche Macan, Jaguar F-Pace, Maserati Levante, Mercedes-AMG GLA45, BMW X1, and now, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio—the feeling isn't one of concession but of, well, feeling. Not as engaging as the sporty cars on which they're often based, of course, let alone ready for track-day duty, but legitimately fun to drive, and drive hard. It suggests, again, a lesson I apparently never get sick of learning: car companies don't boast lightly, even if the small, howling masses of enthusiasts (and car journalists) deem those promises impossible or, worse, antithetical to the brand in question.
So, yes, the Stelvio is nimble for a 4100-pound vehicle, and drives wonderfully for a car that sits 2.5 inches higher than the wonderful Giulia on which it's based. It lays claim to the Alfa Romeo name, as far as crossovers go. That's in part thanks to a combination of the right parts (a standard carbon-fiber driveshaft and the Giulia's double-wishbone front- and Alfa Link rear suspension), performance-minded design (a "near-perfect" 50-50 weight distribution and light-weighting menu of carbon fiber, magnesium, and aluminum), and philosophy (an AWD system that discriminates in favor of RWD characteristics, up to and including sending 100 percent of the engine's power to the back wheels). The steering has actual feel, the drive modes deliver what they promise—dynamism, comfort, etc.—revs are smooth and lag is minimal, shifts from the column-mounted paddles, available on Sport and Ti Sport trims, are quick and precise, and the big brakes have plenty of stopping power (a literally surprising amount of power during the several occasions when the emergency-braking system dramatically and unnecessarily intervened in less-than-emergency situations) even if the brake-by-wire system is on the numb side. Excepting that over-eager braking system, the car did what we asked, precisely, without getting upset, indecisive, or overwhelmed during moderately spirited driving on a gray and occasionally wet day in Tennessee's Central Basin. Plus, the all-aluminum, 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder, with 280 hp and 306 lb-ft, is forcible enough that the upcoming, 505-horsepower Quadrifoglio version seems like overkill—which of course is the point.
(One hiccup: one model we drove experienced a noticeable engine pulsing under steady-state throttle, most often in third and fourth gears, producing a feeling like the driver was toe-tapping the accelerator in time to the maracas in Sympathy for the Devil. It was easily replicable by both drivers in one car, and wholly absent in the other tester. Seeing how all the cars present were pre-production vehicles, it's easy to assume this to be a minor bug that will be sorted out, and hopefully that's all it is, but we'd be remiss not to mention that there have been a succession of reported reliability issues with the Giulia—again, the car on which the Stelvio is based—though mostly with the Quadrofoglio model.)
While the Giulia's dramatic combination of Scudetto front fascia—that upside-down triangle on the front—and front air intakes are swallowed a bit in the Stelvio's extra real estate, it retains the needed aggression, and the exterior is mostly handsome in (very much) the same way that most curvy, snubnosed performance crossovers with sloping rear rooflines, from the X1 to the F-Pace, are handsome. That is to say it looks athletic, but it's not going to zombify the sidewalk population with sex-bomb lust like even a 4C would. (The bulbous, compacted proportions give the vehicle a vaguely thumb-like appearance in profile.)
It's better inside. Leather interior is standard across the range—hide quality improves as higher trim levels are purchased—as are keyless entry and a back-up camera, and the Stelvio passes the baseline comfort test necessary for any commuter car. The interior layout is well considered and the aesthetic is suitably clean, upscale-Euro—all muted brightware and dark wood—and certain details, like headrests embossed with the Alfa logo or the lovely steering wheel, flat-bottomed and perfectly proportioned, with the engine start-stop button nestled right where your left thumb naturally falls—just like a Ferrari!—feel properly special. Apple Car Play and Android Auto, which are becoming expected amenities, are not available in the infotainment system in launch models, though later vehicles will come so equipped. But the 8.8-inch display uses the same intuitive user interface as other FCA models, and the 3-D mapping is both handsome and easy to read. Combined with a seven-inch thin-film transistor display nestled between the double-binnacle gauge cluster, and the driver's cockpit feels like a thoroughly modern—and during the drive, it must be said, a properly fun—place to sit.
But during that drive I still couldn't shake the thought that it's odd to make soulful driving dynamics the defining characteristic of a crossover, even though they should be the defining characteristic of an Alfa Romeo. And there's the rub. A crossover is a vehicle defined by ride height and meant for commuting and probably kids and little else; it's a tall hatchback without the people- and cargo-hauling capabilities of a wagon or proper SUV. (In a nod to this reality, the pavement-bound Stelvio forgoes other crossovers' gratuitous attempts at limited off-road capability, though keeps the pretense, as proved by the cosmetic skidplate-looking trim piece in the rear.)
To wit: the back seat is really meant for two adults, not three, at least if they're meant to be in there for any length of time (the center console leaves negligible legroom for the middle passenger). The cargo area, at 19 cubic feet, is dwarfed by basically any wagon on the market, and is only technically more roomy than most large sedans—all of which sport significantly more passenger room. (At 89 cubic feet, occupancy volume in the Stelvio is closer to a midsize Audi A5's 87 cubic feet than the 112 in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class or the Genesis's 113.) So in essence the Stelvio is a heavier, much taller but only slightly larger Giulia—length and width are increased by just 1.8 and 1.7 inches, respectively; wheelbase is identical—that seats 4.5 people and likewise can't tow anything or go off-road. And yet in the base Stelvio, in Dynamic mode the eight-speed automatic transmission will hold your preferred gear regardless of how high you roam in the rev range, no exceptions—a feature increasingly hard to find even in true performance vehicles—and the Quadrofoglio-badged variant has a dedicated race mode because ... something to do with the Nürburgring, probably.
Which begs the question: why? Why include those things in a crossover—in a high-riding, large hatchback?
The answer is simple: because, truly, Alfa Romeo has to build this car, because crossovers are the fastest-growing segment in the auto space, because ride height and the illusion of safety that comes with it are all most consumers want out of a modern car. And Alfa, being for all of its history the enthusiast's enthusiast brand, built what it knows: a vehicle that is by turns dramatic, engaging, annoying, at times bordering on special, and more than the sum of its parts. Which is all you can ask of any good car.
And that, in today's world, in this country, is what the crossover is: a "car." Coupes and sedans are now specialized models, like station wagons and sports cars. One could argue the crossover is now the default working definition of a car; it's the type of vehicle most buyers think about when they think about buying a new vehicle. Like the rise of English dark moth in parallel to industrial pollution, we are witnessing in real time a stage in evolution where natural selection, responding to rapidly changing conditions, favors a new set of traits. The short-term survival of a "car" will depend on its ability to weigh 4000 pounds, perch the driver comfortably above the ground, and incessantly beep and prod and cajole.
There are two ways to look at this situation. The pessimist will conclude that the party is over—that it's all safe sex and teetotaling wheat juice from here on out. A more optimistic observer will realize that, thanks to the work of brands like Alfa and Porsche and Jaguar and BMW and Mercedes and others, it's becoming increasingly difficult to climb into a boring car in any segment. One view laments that the enthusiasts' choices, though more reliable and capable than ever, are somehow less "pure"; the other notes that most every type of vehicle, even the maligned crossover, is now being created for those who truly love driving.
Let's go with the latter. If circumstances—a pair of car seats, a spouse's particular requirements—dictate that a crossover is in your future, the Stelvio will feel like a godsend, because it will not feel much like a concession.