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Stelvio hopes to climb the mountain of German competition

Thursday, 12th October, 2017 10:06am

Last year, Alfa Romeo re-invented itself, but perhaps you did not notice nor care. It has become worryingly easy to be cynical about the Italian brand’s penchant for resurrection, and it has had more drinks in more last-chance saloons than Clint Eastwood and Randolph Scott combined.

It is a brand which has been kept alive more by goodwill and misty memories than anything else, and has seen its sales tumble to a fraction of once-healthy levels, both here and around the globe.

Yet, this time, there is some genuine substance to Alfa’s latest revival. The Giulia saloon, launched last year, is actually really good. It’s arguably the best car in its class to drive, and we don’t just mean the Ferrari-engined €100k Quadrifoglio version either. It seems to have at least decent levels of quality and reliability, and (almost always an Alfa given) it looks good too.

You, the Irish car buyer, don’t seem to have cared much. So far this year, Alfa Romeo has registered just 47 Giulias. Audi, the best-selling brand in the segment, sold 1,249 A4s. Jaguar, never the biggest-seller in the Irish market, has shifted almost three times as many XEs as Alfa has Giulias. It’s understandable when people don’t buy a bad car, but when you’re staying away from a good one, what’s going on?

Perhaps an SUV will fix all of that. Certainly, adding extra heigh, bulk, four-wheel drive, and some ruggedness of image has helped others pick up their sales game. Nissan was a European bit-part player before the Qashqai, after all. So Alfa has created the Stelvio, some decade-and-a-half since it showed off its first ever SUV concept, the Kamal.

The Stelvio (which, oddly, does bear a certain visual similarity to that original Kamal concept) is basically a Giulia wearing lift shoes. It uses the same chassis, much of the same structure, the same 2.2-litre diesel and 2.0-litre turbo petrol engines (and yes, there will be a screaming 510hp V6 turbo Quadrifoglio version too) and much of the same interior.

Sad to say, it doesn’t look quite as good as the Giulia. Keeping the same face and stretching it upwards has worked well for BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Jaguar, and Lexus but less so for both Porsche (whose Macan is also a Stelvio rival, at least at the top end) and Alfa. The Giulia’s face looks good on the Stelvio’s taller front end, but the rest of the body just looks too generic and not half pretty enough. Seen from side-on, there’s too much Hyundai Tucson in the profile.

Still, you know that old phrase about there’s no such thing as an ugly-looking racing car when you’re winning? Well, perhaps that’s true too for premium SUVs when they’re being cheap. OK, not cheap exactly, but with a starting price of €47,295 for the 180hp diesel rear-wheel drive model, the Stelvio does, slightly, undercut the entry level stickers of the Audi Q5 and Merceces-Benz GLC, and has a more powerful engine to boot (as well as a 0 per cent finance introductory offer).

That 2.2-litre diesel seems quieter and more refined here in the Stelvio than it does in the Giulia, and our test car was helpfully equipped with the gruntier 210hp version (prices for which start at €53,145) which makes short work of any straight stretch that comes into view. With the same eight-speed automatic (standard equipment, another significant price advantage over German rivals, as well as the Jaguar F-Pace) and gorgeous, tactile, real-metal gearshift paddles, here is a powertrain with which one can have a little fun. It’s not musical, like an Alfa petrol engine of old (how could it be) but the instant oomph from the turbo and relentless feel to the acceleration give it a sufficient dose of Italian brio.

It all feels pretty good from the cockpit, too. The cabin is basically that of the Giulia’s, with a few trim panels to raise is all up a bit in height. Overall, the quality, fit, and finish all seem at least competitive with the Anglo-German opposition. The Stelvio’s cabin is realistically behind that of the Audi and Mercedes in terms of quality and style, but about level-pegging with the Jaguar and the (outgoing) BMW X3, which isn’t bad going. It’s very comfortable too, with really good front seats, and plenty of space in the back seats. Just enough width in the back for three child car seats too, which means you won’t notice the lack of a seven-seat option, and a decent 525-litre boot.

In dynamic terms, it’s in a bit of a middle ground. It has the same super-sharp steering as the Giulia, which is nice in terms of responsiveness, but perhaps a little too fast at getting the nose to dart into a corner.

We’ve become used to SUVs with chassis reactions like those of a lower-slung car, but your brain still thinks that a car this big and tall will be a little slower to respond. The ride is also a touch too firm. Our test drive was on the mostly smooth roads of the Ards Peninsula, just outside Belfast, and even here the Stelvio feels quite hard-sprung. It’s not harsh, nor crashy, but a bit more pliancy wouldn’t have gone astray. That said, the Stelvio is far, far more engaging to drive than either its Audi or Mercedes rivals, and not far off that provided by Jaguar. Porsche’s Macan remains untouchable at the top of the driving appeal chart, however.

In isolation, the Stelvio is really rather good. It stacks up well against its rivals, feels entertaining and occasionally even exciting to drive, and seems to have the sort of quality levels that are expected from a car of its station.

It it were from an upstart Korean brand, we’d be singing its praises to the rafters and issuing warnings about how the European grandees would want to watch their backs.

Of course, you can’t view it in isolation. For every red-blooded car nut who knows and loves what Alfa stands for, there are a hundred more who don’t know, don’t care, and will buy German because that’s what everyone else does. Perhaps, though, there is some salvation in the Stelvio. Just as its name comes from a famous pass through the treacherous terrain of the Alps, so too the vehicular Stelvio does seem to offer a path to success for Alfa Romeo. July’s sales figures showed that, across Europe, it actually sold more Stelvios than Jaguar did F-Paces, and about as many as BMW did X3s.

If the Stelvio’s SUV shape and all-wheel drive traction can help to drag Alfa’s sales upwards, maybe we’ll all start praising this particular resurrection.

Dan Seaman Motors Forge Hill is Cork’s leading Alfa Romeo dealer. Call 021-4320266 for more information.

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