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The 2018 Stelvio rides on the rear-drive architecture of the recently-introduced Guilia sedan (all images: Alfa Romeo North America).

Alfa Romeo Stelvio gives crossover market a ‘bravo’ injection

One needn’t be a member of the racing Rosberg family to understand that crossovers typically aren’t all that wonderful to drive. Their bodies list disconcertingly if asked to corner energetically. Their engines, usually overmatched by the weight of the tall-standing beast, take some time to align acceleration with your wishes. And although crossovers technically aren’t trucks, steering response invariably leaves you with the impression you’re piloting one.

A stunning new riposte comes from Alfa Romeo, the latest “sporty” marque to extend its brand into the seemingly incongruous realm of SUVs. Think what you will about Alfa’s tertiary troubles, but its 2018 Stelvio is little short of brilliant—and this before the U.S. market even gets the rorty V6 engine that surely will propel the Stelvio into Porsche-baiting territory.

Fact is, the base 280-hp (208 kW), 2.0-L turbocharged Stelvio already has the goods to go up against Porsche’s base-model Macan—it’s got more power, its chassis and steering are more lively and it costs at least four or five grand less. And BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLC and that ilk? Stand aside: the Stelvio, at least dynamically, is the superior of them all. Those who bring up Jaguar’s new-ish F-Pace might have some argument, but the F-Pace feels bigger and less wieldy when the corners get truly challenging.

Credit much of the all-new Stelvio’s standout dynamics to its borrowing of the luscious “Giorgio” rear-drive platform that underpins the recently released Giulia sedan, particularly the wonderfully communicative yet absorbent double-wishbone front suspension, one of the few remaining markers of an architecture that means to have the front tires work with you, to whisper something sensual when it matters most.

The Stelvio hits the pavement with the same 111-in (2819-mm) wheelbase as the Giulia, but at 184.6 in (4689 mm) is about 2 in longer and is about 8.9 in (226 mm) taller. The Stelvio has 8.1 in (206 mm) of ground clearance. That’s all about the only concession to “utility” you’re going to wrest from the Stelvio. It’s even got 50/50 weight distribution for its claimed 4,044 lb (1834 kg).

AWD—if you must

Peter Hogeveen, director of Alfa Romeo North America, stressed that much of the Stelvio’s lithe on-the-road character owes to its Giulia-based rear-drive orientation. The rear axle’s unique active transfer case assures that unless conditions warrant drive at the front axle, 100% of available tractive torque is sent to the rear and the Stelvio steers and corners correspondingly like a sport sedan. Hogeveen added that if things get slickish, the Stelvio can channel as much as 60% of engine power to the front—enough to be able in foul weather but with no pretension of trail conquering.

“I think we have the best of both worlds,” Hogeveen said. “Rear-wheel drive for efficiency and the comfort (security) of all-wheel drive.”

Meanwhile, the multi-link rear axle works in good collaboration with the front suspension and a superb tune of stability-control software to make the Stelvio a revelation on the most sinuous backroads Alfa could find in the Tennessee wilds near Nashville. Apart from the chassis’ sheer cornering agility, the Stelvio — particularly the Sport and Ti Sport trims’ sport-tuned damping—were brilliant adroitly swallowing quick elevation changes and other surface incongruities that force most crossovers, even the “sporty” ones, to reveal the limits of their suspensions’ ability. Nothing we did could cause the Stelvio’s chassis to do anything but say, “That all ya got?”

Plenty-fine four-pot

You can’t help but be a little suspicious of “luxury” SUVs’ new-normal of 4-cylinder power; after all, even the big-boosted turbocharged versions typically don’t always live up to the promise. The Stelvio’s claimed 280 hp, boosted by a dual-scroll turbocharger, is claimed to lead the class of base-engine compact luxury crossovers (Alfa may have overlooked the 285-hp Lincoln MKC, although the Lincoln does it with 2.3-L) and it’s a convincing output. Turbo lag is mostly absent, even at step-off, and there’s not a hint of vibration from its direct-injected innards. The 306 lb·ft (415 N·m) is fully available as low as 2,000 rpm.

The engine’s only disappointments are minor gruffness at some throttle openings when cruising and the 5,500-rpm indicated redline, which is a killjoy limit with an engine this willing to rev.

A ZF-supplied 8-speed automatic is the only available transmission and nobody will complain. Left to its own devices, the 8-speed’s shift strategy is almost flawless; the Sport models feature fancy aluminum paddle shifters (big, bold and steering-column mounted) if you want to do it yourself, which isn’t dissatisfying, particularly when banging down three gears with deliciously crisp automatic rev-matching all the way.

No-nonsense cabin

If a buyer might be unsure about the 2018 Stelvio’s ah, “positioning,” there isn’t much ambiguity once inside. Borrowing largely from the Guilia’s layout, the Stelvio isn’t making any pretense of spaceship ambitions. The instrument cluster has two quite-traditional pods for the speedometer and rev counter, and a sop to today’s technology with a discreetly-sized TFT display between them. In the center there’s a screen, of course, either 6.5-in for base models or an 8.8-in job; a center-console rotary knob controls most functions. There’s a no-frills automatic climate-control setup low in the center stack and that’s about it. If you’re looking for buttons and flashy gadgets, look elsewhere.

Better still, everything is well-fitted and the cabin materials impress as serviceable and slightly upscale. As for general cabin quality, history is not on Alfa’s side, of course, but Alfa bosses insist the storied Cassino, Italy, plant that produces the Stelvio and Guilia is capable of world-class fit-and-finish. We were encouraged by one example of attention to detail: the inner surfaces of the Stelvio’s door pockets were fitted with a felt-like material to prevent items placed there from sliding and clattering about. For years, we’ve mentioned this area of potential annoyance to interior engineers and designers, with the point invariably falling on deaf (or cost-conscious) ears, so kudos to Alfa for recognizing the need.

Finally, about that price. As mentioned above, not only is the 2018 Stelvio the segment’s dynamic standout, it also seems placed to be a bargain. $43,795 brings the Stelvio Sport, with leather, the specially-tuned suspension and just about everything truly necessary to fulfil the luxury-sport brief. Alfa deserves credit for conceding the need to compel comparison shoppers to try this storied brand with a checkered quality reputation.

If Alfa can tempt buyers to take the Stelvio for a more challenging drive than the standard spin around the block, we’ll wager most quality concerns will end up in the backseat.

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