2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio review: Not the best SUV, but close

The Alfa Romeo Stelvio isn’t the best SUV, but it came close.

The Italian-made model was a finalist for the 2018 North American Utility of The Year award, losing out in the end to the Volvo XC60. The Stelvio got the nod from a jury of journalists because it’s strong on the “sport,” even if it can’t compete with Volvo’s luxury, technology, residual value, reputation for reliability…I’ll stop there.

The Stelvio is Alfa Romeo's first SUV.

The Stelvio is Alfa Romeo's first SUV. (Alfa Romeo)

It’s Alfa Romeo’s first-ever SUV, and the apple didn’t fall to far from the tree. The Stelvio is built on the same platform as the Alfa Romeo Giula, which has proven to be one of the most entertaining sports sedans on sale today. It inherits the same curvy, eye-catching styling, plus a well-balanced platform that comes standard with all-wheel-drive at a starting price of $42,990.

ALFA ROMEO GIULIA QUADRIFOGLIO TEST DRIVE:

That’s right in the mix with premium European competitors like the Jaguar F-Pace and Audi Q5 – but the Stelvio outguns them all with a 280 hp 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that’s the most powerful at that price point.

It’s matched to an 8-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted manually via racy, steering column-mounted aluminum paddles that are roughly the size of elephant ears. You’ll want to use them often, at least to help make the growly exhaust bark.

The wheel itself impresses from the first quarter-turn. Seconds after pulling away from the curb you can tell you’re driving something special. The Stelvio is responsive in a way that very few vehicles are these days, let alone SUVs. It’s a lot like the Mazda CX-5 in that regard, and comparing it to a much cheaper model like that isn’t a dig, because the Mazda is a good one.

The Stelvio's 280 hp engine is the most powerful for the price.

The Stelvio's 280 hp engine is the most powerful for the price. (Alfa Romeo)

The Stelvio is a lot quicker, of course, and has a black magically-tuned suspension that delivers sharp handling while taking the edge off big bumps. It can cross over exposed train tracks nearly as smoothly as a train riding down those same tracks.

The comfort of the ride carries over into the cabin, which isn’t the roomiest in class but can manage four adults fine. It’s not lavishly-appointed, but its styling has a kind of 1970s sports car vibe that’s enhanced by the italic font on the gauges. The luggage compartment is longer and deeper than the exterior suggests, but the sloping rear roofline does take a big hunk out of the vertical space.

The Stelvio's cabin is sports car cool.

The Stelvio's cabin is sports car cool. (Alfa Romeo)

Since this is a driver’s kind of car, it’s a little light on the autonomous features, but it does have a blind spot warning system and one of the best adaptive cruise controls I’ve tried. Some abruptly apply the brakes as you approach a car in front of you, but the Stelvio slows down gently like its running into a giant MyPillow.

You won’t want it to. On the right twisty road (like its namesake Stelvio Pass in Italy, I’m sure,) it can deliver the thrills. The drivetrain is so rear-biased that you can even coax it to do donuts in the snow, and losing yourself in the excellence of it is an occupational hazard for those who enjoy having a clean driving record.

Luckily the car is entertaining enough on its own, because the infotainment system leaves a lot to be desired. It has the basics, but there’s not a lot going on. It’s controlled by a knob instead of a touchscreen, and the whole thing feels dated and clumsy.

This is what the Stelvio's sunroof looks like when it's closed.

This is what the Stelvio's sunroof looks like when it's closed. (Alfa Romeo)

As far as reliability is concerned, there aren’t enough Stelivos on the road yet to get a good picture, but there wasn’t a squeak or rattle to be heard on my test car, even after 8,000 hard-earned miles of press fleet duty. That said, the sunroof did get stuck a couple of times during the sub-freezing week that I had it. Thankfully not for too long when it did.

That was the only issue I experienced, and one easily remedied by not choosing that $1,350 option. Although a little wind in the hair does seem right in an Alfa Romeo, which the Stelvio definitely is.

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2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio

Base price: $42,990

As tested: $52,985

Type: 5-passenger, 4-door all-wheel-drive SUV

Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 280 hp, 305 lb-ft

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

MPG: 22 city/28 hwy