Alfa Romeo entering the luxury SUV fray is akin to a battle between David and Goliath. With the 2018 Stelvio—the first SUV for the Italian automaker whose roots date to 1910—Alfa Romeo will compete with a roster of established players, not to mention a crop of new rivals also clamoring attention. Among the Goliaths are the Audi Q5, BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLC, Porsche Macan and Lexus NX.

With the Stelvio, Alfa Romeo not only seeks awareness as it aims to re-establish itself in the American market after exiting in the mid-1990s, but to also prove it has what it takes to compete against compact luxury SUVs that are now household names.

It looks like an uphill battle for sure. But here's the thing about the Davids of this world: They have passion and verve. After our first test drive of the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, we found those two traits in abundance. Just as important, we found them at a surprising value.

Brand awareness

Alfa Romeo execs acknowledge the Stelvio isn't likely to sell in the kind of numbers its rivals enjoy, nor is that the point at this junction for the automaker. Alfa Romeo, part of the massive Fiat Chrysler Automobiles conglomerate, only recently again began selling cars in America, starting a couple of years ago with the 4C coupe and then Giulia premium sedan last year.

"We are playing the long game here," Alfa Romeo head Reid Bigland said at the Stelvio media launch in Nashville, Tennessee. Bigland affirmed the company isn't trying to grab the sales crowns of the Lexus NX and Audi Q5, but rather become a contender that stands out from the pack with its emotional appeal.

We found that in spades with the Stelvio. While much of the Stelvio's appeal is indeed emotional, its mechanicals and stats are objectively impressive. Like the Giulia, the Stelvio comes with a 280-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. All models of the Stelvio will debut with that engine, while the Stelvio Quadrifoglio with its Ferrari-derived 505-horsepower twin-turbo V6 is set to join next year. Unlike its rivals, all Stelvio models come standard with all-wheel drive. And true to its sporting heritage, the Stelvio's AWD system is rear-biased, with the ability to send 100 percent of the longitudinal engine's motivation to the rear wheels. Combined with a slick 8-speed ZF transmission, adjustable drive mode selector and all-aluminum suspension, the Stelvio has the goods for a great driving experience.

Dynamic performer

Most of the Stelvio's competitors have turbocharged 4-cylinder powertrains that, at least on paper, are similar. Yet the Stelvio is more fun, more emotional, and indeed more passionate than the majority of them. It's not just the Stelvio's power advantage over most of its competitors—with a 0-60 mph time of 5.4 seconds, this Italian SUV can certainly get up and move. It's more the way the Stelvio hugs corners, grips the road and just feels planted.

We can certainly thank its near-perfect 50/50 weight distribution for some of its impressive skills. Steering feel is right on point, with the wheel giving your hands feedback of the road below. Turbo lag, sometimes an issue with force-fed engines, wasn't readily apparent here. These characteristics make the Stelvio one of the most fun-to-drive, performance-oriented luxury crossover SUVs, right up there and quite possibly beyond the F-Pace and X3. This comes while feeling tame, compliant and easily manageable in more ordinary driving around town and on the highway.

The only traits that left us less than thrilled in our preproduction test models was wind noise that encroached at higher speeds and brake feel that could use slightly more initial bite (in repeated simulated panic stops, however, the Alfa's standard Brembo stoppers easily scrubbed speed).

Passion play, and a reasonable price

Objectively and even subjectively, the Stelvio is impressive. It's powerful, athletic, handsome and, at up to 22/28 mpg city/highway, even quite efficient. Still, a large part of its appeal is more ethereal. The 2018 Stelvio has a je ne sais quoi nature that is becoming nearly impossible to find in new cars, and certainly at its price point. That aspect, too, is a welcome surprise. The Alfa Romeo Stelvio will start at $42,990, including destination charge, when it hits showrooms in mid-July. That's right in line with mainstream rivals like the Mercedes-Benz GLC and BMW X3, which don't come standard with all-wheel drive as does the Stelvio, and aren't as powerful in base form. Fully loaded in Ti Sport or Ti Lusso trim, this Italian-made luxury crossover SUV still looks like a good value in the mid-$50,000 range.

In our first blush with the Stelvio, we felt an easy and nearly instant connection. It's among the few compact luxury SUVs that truly encourages you to embrace curves and take the long way home. The Stelvio may be a David among Goliaths, but if that battle taught us anything, it's this: Don't underestimate the underdog. 

More Luxury SUVs:

10 Best Luxury SUVs

Compact Luxury SUV Buyer's Guide

Midsize Luxury SUV Comparison Test

 


 

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