Until the recent local launch of the Lamborghini Urus, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio was the lone performance SUV from Italy (we mean no disrespect to the Maserati Levante). The evocative Stelvio flagship is now available in South Africa with prices starting at R1 675 000... The newcomer is fiendishly fast, thoroughly thrilling to drive and makes the feats it can achieve look laughably easy, but where does it fit in the market?
The Italian luxury car brand chose the picturesque (and mercifully quiet) incomplete Jebel Jais mountain road in the Ras Al Khaimah region of the United Arab Emirates (“the Stelvio Pass of the Gulf region” – as the firm's representatives called it) to introduce the flagship of its Stelvio executive SUV, a model range that recently became available in South Africa and has drawn mixed, but mostly positive, media reviews.
If ever there was a show of intent: Alfa Romeo's first performance SUV is also claimed to be the world's fastest SUV in production.
The Stelvio Quadrifoglio is essentially the off-roader version of the Giulia Quadrifoglio super saloon, with the not-insignificant addition of a Q4 all-wheel-drive system that can dynamically apportion up to 100% of the 375 kW/600 Nm produced by the Ferrari-derived 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 to the newcomer’s rear wheels, with a maximum of 50% available to the front of the car as driving conditions require.
Whereas some critics have bemoaned the fact that the new generation of Alfa Romeos (based on the rear-wheel-drive Giorgio architecture) lack a little drama and sass in their conventional configuration, the Quadrifoglio derivatives turn the much-loved Alfa spiritedness up dramatically.
The Stelvio Quadrifoglio still has a relatively high stance; it leaves room for an even more hardcore version in the future...
This is particularly true when one compares the Giulia with its four-leaf-clover-adorned sibling, but in the case of the flagship Stelvio, replete with its sculpted aprons, vented bonnet, a quartet of protruding exhaust tips and striking 20-inch black alloys, the contrast is less dramatic. Having perused the exterior execution of the Quadrifoglio in detail, it seems the high clearance between the wheels and their arches contribute to the still-somewhat-upright stance of the car. Otherwise, it’s an achingly-pretty SUV.
Inside, the Super derivative’s drab textured, dark grey dashboard has given way to a leather-trimmed and contrast stitched appointment and the unit we drove had lavish lashings of carbon fibre on the seatbacks, console, dashboard, handle inserts and steering wheel. These deliberate adornments are exactly what the Stelvio’s stylish interior needed. It may not be a class-leading in terms of fit and finish, but its quite acceptable and now features Apple Carplay and Android Auto functionality.
Lashings of genuine carbon fibre and a sumptuous stitched-leather dashboard set the Quadrifoglio's interior apart.
Yes, it has that Vrrr phaa
Reams of copy have appeared in exaltation of the Quadrifoglio’s Ferrari-flavoured 2.9-litre twin-turbo motor, but whereas the 3.8-second 0-100 kph and 283 kph headline stats speak for themselves, they do not convey the instantaneous throttle responses, innate flexibility and aural character of the force-induction V6. Many turbocharged motors sound a trifle muffled and dull – even upon full-bore acceleration – and that hint of lag between throttle input and accelerative response is ever-present. To its credit, the Alfa’s engine is singular in its character: in the mid-range it emits a brawny yawl and, as it strives towards the upper reaches of its rev range, it positively sings.
Even more impressive is the derivative-specific tuning of the 8-speed torque converter automatic transmission… it operates nearly unobtrusively in ordinary driving conditions, but changes cogs within a rapid 150 milliseconds, delivers pleasurable punches to the driver’s lumbar region and elicits delicious braaphs from the exhaust tips when it shifts aggressively in Race mode. Even when in Dynamic mode, the newcomer’s powertrain makes its presence felt; the Stelvio's German opposition, take note!
Admirable body control
With a kerb weight of 1 830 kg (which is not that portly for a medium-sized SUV), an ideal 50/50 weight distribution and what Alfa claims is the best power to weight ratio in its segment, the Quadrifoglio has all of the ingredients of an accomplished performance machine.
However, its upright stance and top-heaviness (typical of an SUV) don’t lend themselves to flat cornering attitudes and that’s where the AlfaLink adaptive suspension system really makes its presence felt. The Stelvio flagship resists body lean admirably, with only over-enthusiastically rapid entries to tight corners or hairpins prompting the big Alfa to list temporarily as its tyres squeal for mercy. Given the rear bias of its all-wheel-drive system, in Race mode, the newcomer is not reluctant to shake its rear end (although the stability control stops things from getting lairy)!
Slides can be easily controlled in Race mode, but given the Quadrifoglio's lofty grip levels, these happen at giddying speeds.
The particularly quick (let’s say darting) action of the Alfa’s steering wheel, something inherent to both Giulia and Stelvio packages, requires some – but not much – familiarisation. Thanks also to the prodigious grip that’s available, it is palpably easy to place the Quadrifoglio’s front end, with little steering correction required.
What was a little disappointing however, was the snatchy nature of the brake-by-wire setup; those who regard themselves as driving aficionados will argue that deliberate and decisive braking inputs are recommended, but if you just want to dab the brakes to scrub off some speed or subtly slow your progress in traffic, too much “bite” to the pedal is irritating. Having said that, the unit we drove the most was a “nibbler”, but the other unit, less so…
The AlfaLink adaptive suspension deserves credit for the way it smoothes out road imperfections.
Although the layout and driving conditions of the Jebel Jais road were conducive to hard driving, the Stelvio nevertheless proved adept at being mild/gentle when it needed to be. Given its performance bent, the Quadrifoglio delivers a palpably pliant ride quality that can be tuned to a soft damping mode in Dynamic mode and a mid-level setting in Race setup, which is likely to prove very handy when the newcomer traverses some of the marginal roads we encounter in South Africa.
In fact, for what it is, the Stelvio flagship is an accomplished and poised performance machine. It can slip seamlessly from urban family car to tar-shredding juggernaut with virtually no fuss whatsoever. There was something very reassuring and confidence-inspiring about the way that the Quadrifoglio would deal with high-speed cornering manoeuvres and have its throttle and brake pedals alternatively mashed into the recess of the footwell with tremendous gusto. The interior of the (admittedly well-prepared) test units remained creak and shudder free and the suspension and powertrain were unflappable… as for the Alfa Romeo’s tyres, well, they certainly wailed their lungs out in the extreme conditions.
Whether the flagship Stelvio's kerb presence and surfeit performance can justify its premium-SUV price tag is a moot point.
The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio is eminently engaging. A devastatingly fast (and satisfyingly user-friendly) performance machine, it's nothing short of a tour de force. "With a starting price of just under R1.7 million (January 2019) and the Race edition a not-insignificant R1 825 000, it darn well ought to be", I hear you say. Yes, its asking price seems rather expensive for an executive SUV, but it needs to be remembered that although it is similar in size to the Audi Q5, BMW X3/4, Mercedes-AMG GLC, Jaguar F-Pace, Range Rover Sport and Volvo XC60, performance-wise it will obliterate most larger SUVs priced around it. It's most natural competitors are the 375 kW/700 Nm Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S coupe 4Matic+ (also around R1.7 million) and the 324 kW/600 Nm Porsche Macan Turbo with Performance Package (R1.6 million, with the 5-year maintenance plan).
Some might not understand the Stelvio Quadrifoglio’s raison d’etre, but those who do, are highly unlikely to be disappointed. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the finest of its breed. It is a devastatingly fast and satisfyingly user-friendly performance machine in equal measures.
View a promotional video clip of the Stelvio Quadrifoglio below: