2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio: Great to drive, frustrating to operate
By Jil McIntosh
April 9th 2018
Sport utilities and crossovers are among the most popular vehicles in Canada right now, and those who like sportier rides haven’t been left out. Alongside midsize athletic models like Porsche’s Macan and Jaguar’s F-Pace, Italy now weighs in with the Alfa Romeo Stelvio.
Named for the Stelvio Pass, a high-altitude, hairpin-turn mountain road in Northern Italy, this new sport-ute joins the Giulia, 4C Coupe, and 4C Spider in Alfa Romeo’s Canadian stores.
It starts as the Stelvio, at $52,995, while my Stelvio Ti began at $54,995. Both use a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and have all-wheel drive. The Ti adds extra features, such as larger wheels, real wood trim, larger touchscreen with navigation, and park sensors. There’s a Stelvio Quadrifoglio coming, which will feature a 505-horsepower twin-turbo V6, but pricing hasn’t yet been announced.
My tester was packed with a number of options, among them a $2,500 sport package; a dual-pane sunroof; an active safety package of lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and automatic high-beams for $1,500; premium stereo with navigation; and a jaw-dropping $2,500 for my red paint. My car’s full option list brought it to $65,590 before freight and taxes.
Pros & Cons
- + Comfortable, spacious interior
- + Great fun to drive
- + Sharp handling
- - Rearward visibility
- - Brake feel
- - Secondary controls
Whether or not you like Alfa Romeo’s signature triangle grille will carry the weight of the Stelvio’s nose for you, but either way, it’s guaranteed you won’t be mistaken for anything else on the road.
Overall, the Stelvio’s styling is a delicate balance of sharp lines and softer curves that suits it well. The spiky headlamps swing up to an unusual body line that stops at the rear door handle, while the rear haunch line swings up and over but doesn’t meet it. The relatively long butt conceals a decently-sized cargo area, while the hatch—which looks like it opens in two pieces, but is actually one large door—has a refreshingly low lift-over for easy loading. That said, the back window’s size and slant cuts down on rear visibility.
The Stelvio’s cabin design doesn’t set any new standards for interior styling, but it’s still an example of how to look good. It’s understated and elegant, accented in the Ti trim with real wood and a larger centre screen. My tester’s optional sport package also added premium sport seats with 12-way power adjustment, power bolster and manually-adjustable thigh support; aluminum pedals; and sport steering wheel with metal paddle shifters so large that I found it tough to reach around them for the turn signals. The wheel also houses the starter button.
The dual-zone climate control allows driver and passenger to set not just individual temperatures but separate vent modes, although there’s one fan speed for both. Unlike a few higher-end vehicles, where you have to page through computer screens to set the heated seats, the Stelvio’s hot chairs are controlled by buttons, as is the heated steering wheel that’s standard on all trims. Sadly, though, that’s about it as far as simplicity goes, and more on that in a bit. For now, let me say that while I don’t like electronic shifters in anything—the type where you push or pull the lever from a central detent, rather than pulling down from Park into Reverse, Neutral, etc.—the Stelvio’s is among the more maddening ones. Of course I’d get used to it if I owned this vehicle, but something as basic as a shift lever shouldn’t have a learning curve.
The sport seats are a work of art, supportive and with enough bolstering to hug on harder curves, but not so plump or tall that they’re a hindrance when getting in and out. The rear seats are also comfortable and there’s a lot of leg room, and they fold flat in 40/20/40 configuration to increase the cargo area.
As much as I love driving the Stelvio, this is where it and I parted company. Basically, nothing in this vehicle is quick or easy. Even before I left the parking lot, it took a considerable search to discover how to set the trip odometer. Even the owner’s manual, which contains a lot of assumptions that you already know how to work the features, was of little help.
The centre display is not a touch screen, and you use a console-mounted rotary dial to access the functions. Normally this setup isn’t too bad, but only if everything is straightforward. On the Stelvio, you have to keep scrolling and clicking through complex and slow-moving menus to reach what you want, which takes a lot of time away from the road. The stereo can be accessed through the big dial or through a smaller redundant one nearby.
I finally gave up on the voice-activated navigation system, after two of us tried and failed to get it to comprehend a single command (one of which was “cancel”—really?) Every address we attempted came up with a street that didn’t sound even remotely close, and in a different province than Ontario which we’d specified. On top of that, it took some 20 seconds each time for the system to process and come up with what it thought it heard. That may not seem like much, until you’re on the highway and telling your system an address because you’re not sure if the correct exit is coming up soon. I also had a glitch with the navigation system, where the screen went dark when set to navigation, but all other functions worked. It lasted for a couple of hours and then, after two or three engine starts, it came back on and gave me no more trouble for the rest of the week.
Behind the wheel, the Stelvio really impresses. It’s heavier than most of its rivals, and yet through some voodoo magic, it feels light and lithe, ready to spin circles around its competitors with its tight turning circle and agile handling.
At 280 horsepower and 306 lb-ft of torque, the turbo engine delivers quick acceleration, which heads to all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic. Indeed, for someone like me who grew up on “no replacement for displacement,” the giddy-up from just two litres is exciting. I’d like a bit more growl from the exhaust, but I’m guessing the upcoming Quadrifoglio will be the one with music out the pipes.
The company’s “Q4” all-wheel drive is standard on all models, and joy of joys, it’s rear-biased, but able to move 60 per cent of torque to the front wheels when required. The Stelvio hugs the curves with near-flat precision, and while the steering is light, it’s accurate and communicative. Sporty sport-utes have been getting better all the time, but this one is especially lively and fun. The ride is firm without being harsh, and while more road noise works its way into the cabin than in many others, the result is an even more engaging experience. The drive mode can be set to normal, economy, or dynamic, and I really like that it’s a hard dial, instead of an electronic button. Many competitors default to normal whenever the engine’s turned off, and you have to put it back into dynamic mode if that’s what you want, but the Stelvio always remembers your last choice and keeps it there until you change it.
My only issue was with the brakes, which weren’t linear. Instead, they felt fine until the last moment and then they grabbed hard, almost as if an assist mechanism was kicking in. It was most noticeable on firmer braking and rather annoying.
Natural Resources’ published figures for the Stelvio kick in at 10.8 L/100 km in the city, and 8.3 on the highway. I had my fun with it, and paid the price at 11.9 L/100 km. Not unsurprisingly, it wants the premium stuff.
With a starting price of $52,995, the Stelvio slots well amongst its competitors. That initial price is below that of vehicles like the Acura MDX, Range Rover Velar, and Porsche Macan, while it’s higher than the starting tags of such sport-utes as the Audi Q5, BMW X3, Infiniti QX60, Jaguar F-Pace, and Mercedes-Benz GLC.
Buyers worry about reliability any time a new model, never mind a new marque, appears on the Canadian scene, and so far, the Stelvio is too new for stalwarts like J.D. Power or Consumer Reports to weigh in on it. However, a recent survey by British buying guide What Car?, which looks at factors similar to those that Power does, recently put the brand overall in fifth position, behind Lexus and Toyota, but ahead of Honda, Hyundai, Subaru, Kia, Audi, Porsche, and Mazda.
So when all is said and done, would I permanently put this Italian stallion in my driveway? Based on the driving experience alone, it would certainly be a viable contender. But I have to live with my vehicle every day, and the Stelvio’s slow and overly-complicated interface just frustrates me too much. I want to enjoy the drive, not mess with the controls, and in something that drives as well as the Stelvio does, that really should be front and centre. Hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, not the screen.