SALT LAKE CITY — The first Alfa Romeo debuted in 1920 after Italian investors and a French automotive company took the reins at the turn of the century.
It wasn't until the mid-1950s, however, that an independent dealer in New York brought Alfas to the United States. Forty years later, those exports ceased. It would be another 20 years before an Alfa would reach the U.S. in 2015.
The Giulia sedan debuted this past year, and the 2018 Stelvio crossover is built on the same platform. The two models represent what Alfa hopes is just the beginning for a full return to the U.S.
“Alfa is watching closely how well the Stelvio and Giulia do in the U.S., and the hope is that more models will follow based on their success,” said Dave Erickson, general manager at Ken Garff Alfa Romeo in Salt Lake City.
From where I sit, things look good for Alfa in this country.
The Giulia and Stelvio share a beautiful front-end design and a reminder of Alfa’s glory days. The trademark triangular grill and deeply recessed headlights create a truly unique and striking shape. The aggressive lower air intakes add to the design.
From the rear, the Stelvio sits low and wide and an upper spoiler helps carve out a protruding deck that adds to the aggressive flair of the vehicle. Large, round, chrome dual exhaust outlets complete the look.
From the side, the lines are cleaner and less aggressive, but the lower door sill is off-set and prominent. The five circle wheels on this model are similar to those found on German sports cars in the 1970s and '80s. The wheels are striking, coupled with Alfa brake calipers.
The Stelvio’s appearance is unique and a standout compared to the many crossovers on the road today. I doubt I’ve driven a vehicle that resulted in as many stares, compliments and questions as the Stelvio.
On the inside, the Stelvio is impressive but a bit subdued compared to the exterior styling. There are Alfa Romeo logos on the steering wheel, the tachometer and the front seat headrests. I even found one behind the rear seat armrest while looking for cup holders.
The materials are excellent overall, some even familiar to current Fiat Chrysler owners. The dash and door panels use similar soft-touch materials to those found in Jeep and Dodge products. The textured dash looks good and the metal and plastic trim pieces are very good quality overall. The matte finishes were a welcome sight.
Unlike other Fiat Chrysler products, the touch screen is less obvious and blends into the dash with a dark, tinted cover. The design is good but may have contributed to Alfa’s decision not to use the standard UConnect driver interface found in other Fiat Chrysler products.
It’s clear from the interior styling — and sticker price — that Alfa is attempting to reach a middle ground between popular nonluxury crossovers and those built by German luxury competitors. The interior is well-appointed, yet restrained.
The best example is the simple driver interface knob and the climate controls. There can be elegance in simplicity, and many manufacturers have lost sight of that as technology increasingly invades center consoles and dashboards. Alfa has done a beautiful job of incorporating technology without creating an airplane-like instrument panel.
The view out the windshield is particularly good, and the curves of the hoodline and high-arching fender flares remind me of much sportier, pricier options. The analog instrument panel is perfect and features dual dash humps above both the tachometer and speedometer.
One drawback to the sporty styling is the rear cargo space. Compared to a similarly sized Mazda CX-5, the lower roof line and wide rear fender flares mean there is less cargo room with the seats folded flat.
One of the first things I noticed was that the touch-screen interface was not the familiar UConnect system typically found in Fiat Chrysler products. It will be interesting to see if this is a temporary absence or an intentional move to differentiate Alfa models from other Fiat Chrysler cars.
The interface works well but isn’t nearly as user-friendly or attractive as UConnect. One upside is that physical controls replace the need to go to the screen settings.
The driver control knob located on the center console is simple to use and contains fewer outward buttons than most competitors. There are three driving modes, including "dynamic" (sport), "normal" and "advanced efficiency (eco or economy) mode.
The test vehicle lacked the optional $1,500 tech package that would include things like blind spot monitors, adaptive cruise control, emergency braking and lane departure warnings.
Performance and handling
Remembering the push button start was located on the steering wheel was the primary challenge in driving the Stelvio. In four days of driving, I forgot the most obvious location for the start button several times.
Once started, though, the Stelvio was very satisfying to drive. The four-cylinder turbo engine is coupled with an eight-speed automatic transmission and column-mounted paddle shifters for manual use. The transmission performs much better than those in Fiat models I’ve driven before and is very smooth.
Turbo lag is noticeable from a dead stop and proved to be the most frustrating thing about the Stelvio. The power band of the drivetrain is the opposite of most turbo-fours. Rather than engaging quickly and holding through the middle gears, the Stelvio gains power and smoothness at higher speeds.
The 5.4-second zero-to-60 mph time likely requires some finesse with the transmission and engine when starting from a light. A smoother start would make the Stelvio even more satisfying to drive.
Manual mode is where the Stelvio really shines. The car feels quicker, the excellent Italian exhaust note comes to life and low-end power is more readily available with higher revolutions per minute between gear shifts.
The braking and steering are excellent, particularly when compared to other Fiat Chrysler products, which are notorious for spongy brakes and soft steering. The Stelvio, in fact, steers so precisely and tightly that it actually takes some getting used to. It is possible, at first, to oversteer at every turn, even while changing lanes.
The Stelvio’s handling is excellent for a midsize crossover. Upon returning the Stelvio, Erickson insisted I drive the Giulia sedan for comparison.
“You’ll notice little difference between the two in terms of handling. They are the same car from behind the wheel," Erickson said.
The Giulia’s lower center of gravity meant slightly better handling, but I would expect the difference to be more dramatic than it is. Alfa has done a good job of tuning the crossover to closely match its little brother sedan.
Alfa, much like it German competitors, focused on lightweight materials like carbon fiber and aluminum. The near perfect 50/50 weight distribution helps the Stelvio achieve its handling capabilities.
Alfa Romeo has a lot riding on the Stelvio. The crossover and small SUV market dominate in the U.S. The Giulia sedan is a good one and priced well compared to other luxury vehicles in its class. The Stelvio, however, could prove to be the game changer that keeps Alfa Romeo in the sights of American car buyers.
The Stelvio is well-appointed, sporty and fun to drive. There were few disappointments. Best of all, a well-equipped model will sticker for less than $46,000. Compared to other European and Japanese luxury options, the Stelvio is definitely worth a look.
Vehicle Type: four-door, five-passenger, AWD crossover
Engine: 2.0-liter turbo I-4
Power: 280 horsepower, 306 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Eight-speed auto with manual mode and paddle shifters
Wheelbase: 111 inches
Fuel economy: EPA city/highway 22/28 miles per gallon, premium fuel
Warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles bumper-to-bumper and drivetrain, 12 years corrosion, roadside assist for 4 years/unlimited miles
MSRP as tested: $42,990