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DRIVEN: Alfa Romeo Stelvio Meets the Giulia Family on the Track

Alfa Romeo now has an SUV in its range, it is called the Stelvio, and purists of the brand should not reach for their supply of Xanax.
2017 Alfa Romeo Stelvio on Motorpark track in Romania 63 photos
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The first ever SUV from Alfa Romeo was revealed at the 2016 Los Angeles Auto Show, and it rides on the Giorgio platform that it shares with the Giulia. The latter is the brand’s first rear-wheel-drive car in more than two and a half decades, and I got to drive them back-to-back on a circuit.

Instead of a conventional test drive article, which would not have been appropriate given the limited time we had in the Stelvio, we will present you a different approach of the Milanese brand’s first “Sports Utility Vehicle.”

We were invited by an Alfa Romeo importer on a race track, which is 4.1 kilometers (2.5 miles) long, and has a straight that is just shy of one kilometer, or a little over half a mile. We got to drive only a couple of laps in each version of the cars that were made available to us, but it was enough to leave with a big smile on the face after each run.

The lineup included two versions of the Stelvio, two diesel-engined Giulias, and a Giulia Quadrifoglio. It is important to note that I started off with a rear-wheel-drive Giulia, moved to a Stelvio diesel, followed by the gasoline-engined version.

I continued the line with an all-wheel-drive Giulia Veloce diesel, and finished off the event with the brandy-dipped cherry on the cake – the manual Giulia Quadrifoglio.

I chose to drive them in this order to be able to compare them in the same environment and conditions, and to better express and comprehend the differences between the Giulia and the Stelvio. It was the best compromise I had at hand to properly understand these cars in a limited time frame.

This story will not go into specifics like fuel economy, interior materials, and prices. It will be about feelings and driving Alfa Romeo cars on the track, which is what I experienced to a thrilling degree.

With explanations out of the way, the time has come to tell you the tale of Alfa Romeo’s first SUV on a racetrack, and why the model should be on your shopping list if you can afford one.

It takes guts to take an SUV on the track and drive it like you stole it, but Alfa Romeo let us do it to the extent of every individuals’ abilities and behavior.

Stelvio on the track – First Impressions 
The first impression when you hear someone invite you to drive an SUV on the track is that they have lost their mind. Instead, Alfa Romeo’s event has demonstrated the opposite.

The average customer might never drive his or her SUV like this ever, but it is the safest way you can experience these cars on the limit of your abilities.

I insist on underlining this aspect, because the Italian SUV is better on the track than expected. I predicted that my day would not go well during and after the drive, and even feared that FCA’s hype train might have gone too far. Was this a mistake wrapped in good intentions? Not at all, dear readers.

The Stelvio was so good to drive that I could not care less about its price, interior space, tech features, or luggage space in the minutes spent inside it. I just got in and drove it as hard as I could within the lines of the circuit.

The story you are reading was supposed to be a report on how the Stelvio drives on the track, and it exceeded expectations and even reason to a great extent.

It is fair to note that off-road credentials do not matter for most SUVs, and this model is probably not happy when you take it off paved roads. However, when you have room to stretch its legs, it goes like its pants are on fire, and you forget you are in an SUV.

The only thing that bothered me, and managed to stand out, was the fact that the seat did not go as low as I had wished. Then again, I had just climbed out of a Giulia, and there’s a small chance that I wanted more than what was physically possible.Driving the Stelvio – No Ifs or Buts
Every version of the first true SUV from the Italian brand comes with many aluminum parts, a carbon fiber drive shaft, an eight-speed automatic gearbox, and all-wheel-drive as standard.

That is not bad at all, if you look at its competitors, and it delivers a promise of sporty driving with an emotional waterfall that soothes your soul.

Many automakers have tried to make their SUVs feel like their sedans and hatchbacks, but few have come close. Alfa Romeo’s engineering team can rest assured that it has accomplished this to an impressive degree.

The Stelvio is not a Giulia on stilts, in spite of the longer springs it fits on the Giorgio platform to enable a higher ride height and more ground clearance. It has electronic nannies, but if they interfere with your driving on a dry road, you are doing something wrong, going too fast in open traffic, or both.

It weighs 1,660 kilograms (3,660 pounds) with fluids for both versions, which is over 150 kilos less than a Macan with a four cylinder engine, or just about lighter than a comparable BMW X3.

That difference in weight means that with an average driver behind the wheel it will be significantly lighter than an empty comparable SUV from a rival brand. Evidently, the difference also means that a light passenger will, at most, get you neck-and-neck with a “wet” model from a competitor without anyone at the wheel.

A low center of gravity for this class of vehicle, with the lowest weight in the segment, an athletic platform, and right tires will get you a car that handles better than any other SUV for the same amount of money, and even for its segment.

Sure, there’s always the Porsche Macan, but the comparison in itself shows just how far the Italians have taken this car from a dynamic standpoint.How did we drive it that we ended up liking it so much?
As I explained above, the Stelvio was driven on the track, with just a few laps for each version. The situation is the equivalent of taking precisely three sips of a cold drink on a hot day. You get the idea, you like it, and then it is over.

Knowing that our time with the Stelvio was limited, we did not bother using the All-Weather Mode or the Normal mode. We stuck each car in Dynamic and gunned it like the car was Cinderella just before midnight.

It was worth waking up at 6 a.m. and driving two hours each way. Well worth the drive before and after "THE DRIVE," if you will.

We knew that Alfa Romeo’s development team tried to emulate the Giulia in SUV form, and driving them back-to-back helped us perceive the differences and similarities with ease.

They did a good job, because the Stelvio is not, and does not feel like a Giulia on stilts. It gets the Giulia essence, puts it on a higher shelf, but it is there and hits you in the face like a sniff of an expensive perfume.Is it the best SUV in the world?
Truth be told, the Stelvio is not the best SUV ever made, and that is okay with us. It does not have to be the best at everything, because those are try-hards that tend to fail across the line.

Alfa Romeo
is more like a go-big-or-go-home kind of brand, and they nailed it this time. Who knows, maybe this Giorgio platform is the best thing that has happened to the car industry in general, and FCA in particular.

The steering is not the sharpest in the world, and you can feel the Stelvio’s height when shifting direction consecutively at high speed. You cannot beat physics, and this car complies with Newtonian laws like a skilled attorney – it goes as far as possible before busting because of "its client."

Overcook it, and it blows up in your face like a failed soufflé. Drive it just right, at a brisk pace within your abilities, and you get to enjoy a sensorial experience that will let your brain know that you made the best choice for your soul.What about those Giulias you mentioned?
Funny you asked, I also liked them. The diesel-engined Giulia Q2 and the Q4 Veloce were fun to drive for their segment, and it was entertaining to hear their tires squeal when driving at good speed, in a corner that proves too tight (as Juha Kankkunen might say).

The Giulia Quadrifoglio was an experience on another level from its normal siblings, and it made it clear that it means business.

Sure, it comes with the same electronically-operated brakes that do not provide a level of feedback as high as conventional ones (you'll get used to them quickly), but it drives like it was made to make an owner of a rival model cry after trying it on the track.

The shift mechanism of the manual transmission is not perfect, as it may feel dodgy if you want to go from third to second, but you will get the hang of it with time.

Like all other Alfa Romeos, the Giulia Q is not a perfect car for its segment if you look at it with your brain alone, and it may not be the absolute best in all aspects if you just go heart-first.

However, it gets your blood flowing in the right way when driving it as hard as you feel comfortable, which is something that money cannot buy.

Instead, you can get one (if your bank account allows), and help Alfa Romeo live on making cars like these. Drive one like a madman, and you will understand.

 
 
 
 
 

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