Stelvio Speciale? That’s quite a name…
Yep, sticking two of the more evocative words from the Italian motoring lexicon on the back of an SUV is quite a move, too. “I drive a Speciale” certainly writes cheques that a 1.6-ton family car could never hope to cash.
There is some hope here, though. The Alfa Romeo Stelvio is one of the neater driving SUVs on sale, and this Speciale is your best bet at buying one with the 280bhp petrol engine from the Giulia Veloce fitted.
So where does it fit in the Stelvio range?
It’s technically the model below the flamboyant, 503bhp Quadrifoglio, but it’s markedly down on power, instead sitting atop a small handful of four-cylinder petrol and diesels. Speciale is one of four trim levels you can choose from, all of which are tricky to tell apart, to be honest. But in short, it’s the cheapest way to get Alfa’s 2.0-litre petrol in 280bhp trim.
There’s a 210bhp diesel, too, but the petrol’s the one you want. It sounds half-decent for a four-cylinder and, despite the chunky weight and bluff shape, it imbues the Stelvio with real eagerness. Its 5.7sec 0-100kph time seems positively modest when you’re actually driving the thing. Both engines come exclusively mated to an eight-speed automatic gearbox – your only choice across the entire Stelvio and Giulia range, in the UK at least.
Can it possibly live up to its glamorous name?
The signs are good as soon as you step inside. No SUV I’ve experienced allows you to sit so snug and low, with a genuinely sporting driving position save for a steering wheel that doesn’t quite pull out far enough from the dashboard. Once you’ve grabbed hold of it, though, you’ll quickly locate perhaps the most exquisitely placed paddleshifters of any car (except the Giulia, naturally), big, tactile metal items that are always exactly where you want them, regardless of steering lock.
It’s a trick so few get right. As is using a dial that physically clicks between the various driving modes, meaning the car will start up in whichever mode you chose last rather than defaulting to Normal. These are signs the Alfa engineers care and have invested their time developing the stuff us enthusiasts appreciate. And signs that also help win trust when climbing into a car whose badging initially seems so cynical.
Does it maintain that trust?
It gets off to a very good start. The gearbox is superb, with smooth, barely perceptible shuffling between the gears when left in D and urgent – but not overly aggressive – changes if you choose to manually use those paddles. And you will, if only to remind yourself how well crafted they are.
As mentioned, it’s a quick car, and with oodles of grip it’s easy to maintain that speed too. The Stelvio comes as standard with all-wheel drive – where that Giulia Veloce is rear-driven – and while you’ll need to be pushing hard to really tell the difference, it’s there.
The Stelvio largely does a good impression of the lower, lighter Giulia, but it ultimately feels its extra weight and top-heaviness the harder you drive. There’s an overarching smoothness to the whole thing that’s hard to resist, though; drive this off the back of any of its premium German rivals – Q5, X3, GLC – and you’ll suddenly realise how much their S Line, M Sport and AMG Line trims clatter you across the tarmac. Alfa’s made a car with silky smooth ride quality and light, settled steering. It has sharp reactions, but it doesn’t beat you up.
So it’s not hardcore, like Ferrari’s Speciale…
Nope. At the risk of sounding really silly, the way this Stelvio Speciale (and its Giulia Veloce relation) reacts to dishevelled roads brings to mind the effortless way McLaren’s Sports and Super Series cars do. Their vast differences in price and performance are evident – naturally – but it feels like there’s a shared mentality. Namely, comfort and fun don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
It cruises almost silently, in fact, and is far more cocooning than most of us would expect from an Alfa Romeo this quick. It bodes well for using this as a proper family car, and there’s loads of room for people and stuff alongside an infotainment system that works decently enough. The interior’s been designed far less extrovertly than the exterior, but by Italian standards the ergonomics are pretty good.
Cards on the table time: I’m really not a fan of SUVs, and expect I’ll never take their side in a battle against an equivalent saloon car. The Stelvio Speciale is, by the standards of the class, a great SUV; nimbler and keener to drive than the cars it rivals but with a softer edge, too.
A great SUV, but when the Giulia Veloce channels the same character through a lighter, lower (and cheaper, and more fuel efficient) shape, merely a good car. Imperatively, though, one that’s good enough not to be embarrassed by its overly evocative name.