Does Alfa Romeo’s Stelvio have the chops to dodge a Deutsche mar­que be­fore send­ing the in­cum­bent champ flat-pack­ing back to Swe­den?

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents - WOR DS ANDY EN­RIGHT PHO­TOS ALAS­TAIR BROOK

Alfa hi­jacks the Gi­u­lia. Can it do the same to the premo SUV class?

WHETHER you like it or not, the SUV is the mod­ern evo­lu­tion of the wagon. Re­sist the temp­ta­tion to aer­ate this mes­sen­ger in a hail of bul­lets and con­sider that for a mo­ment. Buy­ers have voted with their wal­lets and wag­ons now sit a lit­tle higher and can go a lit­tle far­ther off the beaten track. Leonard Setright, a cranky, Bri­tish fac­sim­ile of Peter Robin­son, had this fig­ured out al­most half a cen­tury ago but, for most of us, it’s taken that long for the penny to drop.

In­deed, it took un­til 2004 for Wheels to anoint an SUV with its Car of the Year gong and that year’s win­ner, the Ford Ter­ri­tory, has be­lat­edly been joined in the past two years by two more of its ilk; the Mazda CX-9 and the Volvo XC60. Our reign­ing champ swept the board in the fi­nal round of vot­ing, and the Swede has im­pe­ri­ously bat­ted aside any­thing in its path since. It cleaned up in its first Wheels com­paro, is reign­ing World Car of the Year and, by my reckoning, is likely the most ex­trav­a­gantly awarded ve­hi­cle in his­tory. Ev­ery­thing to lose, then.

The ar­rival of Alfa Romeo’s Stelvio was the cat­a­lyst for this test. Its sedan coun­ter­part, the Gi­u­lia, landed a podium spot at the XC60’S COTY win and we were cu­ri­ous to see whether el­e­vat­ing the Alfa’s Gior­gio plat­form genes a few cen­time­tres would de­tract from the for­mula. We’re scratch­ing our heads a lit­tle here and won­der­ing when the last time we pitched the philo­soph­i­cal poles of Alfa and Volvo into a com­par­i­son to­gether, so to tie the two to­gether and act as a me­dian point of ref­er­ence, we’ve also in­cluded BMW’S X3.

All three wag­ons are diesel pow­ered and drive goes to all four wheels. In price or­der, we have the $67,900 Alfa Stelvio Q4 diesel, fol­lowed by the $69,900 BMW X3 xdrive 20d with the Volvo XC60 D5 R-de­sign weigh­ing in at $75,990. But then things get a bit more con­vo­luted. We’ve al­ways rec­om­mended that you spend an ad­di­tional $2490 on air sus­pen­sion when spec­i­fy­ing an XC60, but this one’s run­ning on steel springs and, to com­pound the is­sue, huge 21-inch al­loys. Add the op­tional Life­style Pack which in­cludes a glass roof, heated front seats and metal­lic paint and this one runs out of the show­room at $80,840. The Stelvio we have here in­cludes the First Edi­tion pack, a $6000 bag of tricks that adds 19-inch wheels, adap­tive sus­pen­sion, a 14-speaker Har­man Kar­don stereo and a whole host of other bits. You’d be mad not to tick this box, but the as-tested price gets lifted to $75,200. Then there’s the BMW which adds, well, ev­ery­thing. An M-sport pack­age, a glass roof, metal­lic paint, Ver­nasca leather, the Driv­ing As­sis­tant Plus pack­age, a nav­i­ga­tion up­grade and the In­no­va­tions Pack­age, which lifts the price to an eye-wa­ter­ing $88,650.

Most of these op­tional in­clu­sions are nice-to-haves, which we can ef­fec­tively ig­nore, but the Alfa and BMW ride on cost-plus adap­tive sus­pen­sion sys­tems while the

“The es­tate car mar­ket will never be quite the same again now that the Range Rover has been in­tro­duced. It is, af­ter all, just as much an es­tate car as any­thing else…”

– LJK Setright, Car, Fe­bru­ary 1971

Volvo, which needs to, doesn’t. And as soon as you drive them down a road, you no­tice the fact. The XC60 never quite set­tles into the sort of serene glide path you ex­pect. It’s never harsh nor does it feel as if it’s run­ning out of an­swers at sen­si­ble speeds, but there’s a tir­ing nervi­ness to its ride. Switch the BMW and Alfa into their soft sus­pen­sion set­tings and they’re both more con­fi­dence-in­spir­ing. The Alfa feels sup­ple and lim­ber while the X3 is won­der­fully serene.

Although buy­ers who pri­ori­tise han­dling and per­for­mance tend not to make their next search cri­te­ria ‘diesel’ and ‘SUV’, there’s also a marked dif­fer­ence in how these ve­hi­cles tackle a de­mand­ing road. The Alfa is an un­mit­i­gated joy. No, it’s not as sharp as a Gi­u­lia, with ad­di­tional roll and pitch, but it’s the only one of these three that you’d take for a drive just for the fun of it. Ev­ery­body who drove it emerged shak­ing their heads in ad­mi­ra­tion and then won­der­ing what the hell the 375kw Stelvio Q is go­ing to be like. In Q4 form the Stelvio al­ready has a mon­ster front end and a supremely re­spon­sive gear­box. Should you scruff it up a road in man­ual mode, it’s the only one here that will sit on the red­line be­fore you click up on one of those de­li­cious fixed alu­minium pad­dles. The hy­per­sen­si­tive brakes take some get­ting used to. Most of the time you can mod­u­late them with just a gen­tle flex of your big toe, but any­thing more than that re­quires a sen­si­tive ca­ress with the clog. The 2.1-litre four is vo­cal when stretched but it’s punchy, car­ry­ing 250kg less up the road than the XC60 and de­liv­er­ing 100Nm more than the X3. In terms of straight­line grunt to 100km/h, the X3 is to the Stelvio what the Alfa is to a Porsche 911.

Dy­nam­i­cally, the BMW and the Volvo are an in­trigu­ing pair­ing. The BMW is markedly the slow­est, and while it can’t match the laser fo­cus of the Stelvio, nev­er­the­less does a tidy job on a chal­leng­ing road. The steer­ing is ac­tu­ally bet­ter in Com­fort than Sport, the lat­ter in­tro­duc­ing an in­con­sis­tency that al­ways re­quires half a hand more lock mid-cor­ner, re­sult­ing in dis­ap­point­ing apex author­ity. Switched to Com­fort, it’s far eas­ier to scribe a clean line and feed what power you have. Body con­trol in both modes is prob­a­bly the finest of the bunch, but it re­wards a dis­ci­plined driv­ing style. Try to bully it into a cor­ner on the brakes, as you would with the Alfa in Dy­namic mode, and the X3 lapses into un­der­steer ear­lier than you’d like.

The Volvo makes good on its 37kw power ad­van­tage over the Ger­man SUV, re­lent­lessly reel­ing it in on straights, but the XC60’S weight, re­mote steer­ing and pat­tery front end sees the BMW dis­tance it on cor­ner en­try. Re­fine­ment at free­way speeds is close to the X3 with the Alfa in­tro­duc­ing a lit­tle more tyre roar and en­gine noise into the cabin. The Stelvio’s su­per­struc­ture also has a cu­ri­ous propen­sity for longde­cay thrums as it hits ex­pan­sion joints, har­monic fre­quen­cies ring­ing through a chas­sis that clearly suf­fers a tran­sient acous­tic damp­ing in­ad­e­quacy.

What the Volvo loses in dy­nam­ics it claws back with per­ceived qual­ity. Put bluntly it feels far more ex­pen­sive in­side than the BMW and in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent class to the Alfa. You’ll need to in­vest some time get­ting to learn the touch­screen con­trol sys­tem, but once you’re up to speed with it, you’ll be flick­ing through it like Tom Cruise in Mi­nor­ity Re­port. The

qual­ity of fit and fin­ish, the bold­ness of de­sign, the depth of con­sid­ered think­ing in­side the ve­hi­cle and the sheer pres­ence of the XC60 make it a lovely thing to live with day in day out. Just ask edi­tor Inwood, who’s suf­fer­ing some sort of post-trau­matic stress from hav­ing to hand back the keys to his XC60 T8 long-ter­mer.

The BMW’S cabin looks like a de­sign trope that’s reach­ing pen­sion­able age by com­par­i­son. My teenage nephew would doubt­less de­scribe it as ‘normie’, but here’s the thing: it all works, beau­ti­fully and with­out that level of opac­ity that you’ll ini­tially ex­pe­ri­ence in the Volvo. The big­gest door bins, a wire­less phone charger, phys­i­cal but­tons for all the key func­tions, a tac­tile in­put sys­tem, the list goes on. Only the overly chubby steer­ing wheel, poor leg­i­bil­ity of elec­tro­plated but­ton type­faces and the lack of steer­ing wheel ad­just­ment range de­tract from its func­tion­al­ity. It’s also eas­ily the big­gest in­side, with acres of space in the rear, an agree­ably low rear win­dow line and the largest boot.

Then there’s the Stelvio. Pluses? It has a clas­si­cally hand­some twin-cowled in­stru­ment panel, great seats and a big­gish boot. Stack­ing up the mi­nuses is de­press­ingly easy. The most per­plex­ing fact about the Stelvio is that it takes the chas­sis of the Gi­u­lia, a com­pact sedan for the thrust­ing sin­gle buck, and in trans­form­ing it to the sort of ve­hi­cle that might be deemed fam­ily-friendly, re­duces the length of its wheel­base. It’s far more cramped in the back, and the rear door aper­ture is pinched if you’re shoe­horn­ing kids into child seats. It also lacks the headup dis­play and adap­tive cruise con­trol sys­tems that have be­come stan­dard fit on al­most all of its ri­vals. It’s no hy­per­bole to say that it feels more akin to a Hyundai Tuc­son than a Volvo XC60 in­side.

Ar­riv­ing at a ver­dict here presents us with a dilemma. As-tested, the ve­hi­cle with the most rounded set of skills is the BMW X3 xdrive 20d, but much of what makes this par­tic­u­lar car feel so good comes from the lib­eral sprin­kling of op­tional fairy dust and the hardly neg­li­gi­ble ef­fect of the adap­tive damp­ing. It’s also hard to over­look the fact that, for an en­gi­neer­ingled com­pany like BMW, the X3 is the slow­est and thirsti­est on test. By con­trast, the only no­table mi­nus on the Volvo’s ledger is the omis­sion of its bril­liant but op­tional air-sprung ride. Were we to spec­ify these cars as we’d rec­om­mend them, the Volvo would com­fort­ably win, so to de­cide this test on the va­garies of a press of­fice box-tick­ing ex­er­cise seems in­vid­i­ous in the ex­treme.

The Alfa clearly comes third al­beit with some caveats. It’s a de­light­ful thing to pedal but an aver­age SUV and the cri­te­ria for suc­cess here is as a ver­sa­tile fam­ily-friendly oil-burner. If you fan­cied a Gi­u­lia but want some­thing that you can fling a bike or camp­ing gear in­side, the Stelvio earns a solid rec­om­men­da­tion. It’s an easy thing to love as long as you don’t ex­pect it to ex­cel at the util­i­tar­ian, and we can’t help but ad­mire its in­tran­si­gent re­fusal to play to es­tab­lished rules.

De­spite Volvo do­ing its best to hob­ble its car for this re­view, the least con­vinc­ing XC60 we’ve tested squeaks in by a nose. The BMW X3, a car we’ve pi­geon­holed as a peren­nial un­der­achiever, al­most man­aged a Brad­bury here and in the process has won a se­ri­ous mea­sure of re­spect. While the Volvo wins on a the­o­ret­i­cal tot-up, if there was a spir­i­tual win­ner’s award on of­fer it’d be wing­ing its way to Mu­nich.



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