Al­ti­tude Slick­ness

Driv­ing the Alfa Romeo Stelvio on its name­sake road, Italy’s famed Stelvio Pass

Sharp - - CARS - By Pet­rina Gen­tile

AT FIRST, the course seems im­pos­si­ble. It’s a rip­pling grey rib­bon of a road fad­ing into the dis­tant snow­caps. A ter­ri­fy­ing as­cent pinned up by stones, it looks sim­ply too pre­car­i­ous to be nav­i­ga­ble. But it is — and it’s breath­tak­ing.

On an episode of Top Gear, Jeremy Clark­son and gang de­clared Italy’s Passo dello Stelvio — the Stelvio Pass — the great­est drive in the world. They weren’t wrong. Carved into the north­ern Ital­ian Alps to con­nect Bormio to South Ty­rol and Switzer­land, the Stelvio Pass is the high­est paved moun­tain road in Italy and the sec­ond high­est in Eu­rope. It boasts 48 heart-pound­ing hair­pin turns over nearly 20 kilo­me­tres, zigzag­ging to an el­e­va­tion of more than 9,000 feet. No won­der it’s a bucket list trip for auto en­thu­si­asts world­wide.

And while most ar­rive in sports cars or con­vert­ibles, I’m driv­ing the only car named af­ter the road it­self — the 2018 Stelvio, Ital­ian au­tomaker Alfa Romeo’s first-ever SUV. True to its name, it proves more than up to the chal­lenge of travers­ing the pass.

Of course, I’d rather be driv­ing the high-per­for­mance, top-ofthe-line beast dubbed the Stelvio Quadri­foglio, which has Alfa Romeo’s most pow­er­ful pro­duc­tion en­gine: a 2.9-litre, twin-turbo in­ter­cooled V6 with 505 ponies and 443 pound-feet of torque. But it won’t be avail­able in Canada for some time, so in­stead I get be­hind the wheel of a mid-level Stelvio Ti, pow­ered by a 2.0-litre tur­bocharged four-cylin­der. De­liv­er­ing 280 horse­power and 306 pound­feet of torque, it can reach 0 to 100 km/h in 5.4 sec­onds en­route to a top speed of 233 km/h. (For the record, the Quadri­foglio can do the same in only 3.9 sec­onds and has a top speed of 285 km/h.)

The pass is beau­ti­ful, but daunt­ing. It grows more in­tim­i­dat­ing with each turn, awe in­creas­ing with al­ti­tude. These twists de­mand not power so much as sta­bil­ity, grip and a sense of ease. Rarely does the speed limit ex­ceed 50 km/h. You can oc­ca­sion­ally push harder, but the heavy, thick fog and in­ter­mit­tent blow­ing snow make it dif­fi­cult. Fac­tor in the pedes­tri­ans, cy­clists, trans­port trucks, and nar­row stretches barely wide enough for one ve­hi­cle, let alone two, and you have all the in­gre­di­ents of a white-knuckle ride. Few guardrails, sharp cliffs, and makeshift memo­ri­als de­liver con­stant re­minders of the dan­ger.

Up here, I un­der­stand why Alfa Romeo gave its SUV this name: the ride is sporty and well bal­anced enough to be en­ter­tain­ing, but its size and so­lid­ity keep me planted on the road. The Q4 all-wheel-drive sys­tem, which is stan­dard, has a strong rear bias for a sportier ride, but it can trans­fer up to 60 per cent of the en­gine’s torque to the front axle for bet­ter con­trol when needed. On this road, it’s a bless­ing. The Stelvio, it turns out, is named per­fectly.

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