Hanging out in the hood with the Italian Stallion, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio

The planetary SUV bug has caught almost everyone and Alfa also had to make an impact at some point in this car market. They needed a rising star and some event to put them on the map. They chose the track that strains the limits of everything on two and four wheels: the terrifying, stomach-churning, R500-per-lap Nordschleife and stuck their SUV on it.

The definition of an SUV usually entails that it is a station wagon with raised ground clearance, upright built body, tall interior packaging, and towing capacity. None of these words are in the same category as super car, right?

Enter the Stelvio.

Here is an SUV that broke the Nurburgring Nordschleife record in a mind-numbing time of under eight minutes in September 2017 and although it is a year later, no other manufacturer has managed to top that. The SUV in question is the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio, an aggressive derivative of the normal Stelvio thrusting out 380 KW, and topping out at a staggering 285 km/h.

To put this into perspective, the time it stamped into the history books is faster than Godzilla (the fastest production Datsun on the planet), The BMW M4 and the Lamborghini Gallardo (yes, I had to double-check that). It is no small feat and the engineers at this historic company should be lauded.

Unfortunately, South Africa will only be getting the standard version, but even with these grand expectations in mind, I eagerly anticipated my drive in this iconic vehicle.

With the current competition in the market, any SUV that enters it needs to fulfil all the consumer needs and have with innovation and authenticity that invites future buyers to invest their hard-earned credits not only into the car, but into the brand. Today, when you engage in a financial transaction, you are in for the long haul. Most buyers will have to keep their vehicle for a minimum of three years before entertaining the notion of changing wheels. This means every new entry into the market must fulfil future value needs as well.

Alfa has always manufactured beautifully styled cars that through the ages drip with sex appeal and fiery (if unreliable) personalities. In the new era of motoring, consistency, future value, financial flexibility and maintenance plans have become the new directives of the consumer.

A mate of mine owns a few sleazy bars and collects Italian artefacts; among his cave of hidden treasures lurk a few Ferraris and Alfas. I visited him with the Stelvio, and now he is ordering the “fast” version when it arrives. I perused his Alfa Romeo 8C and his prized GTV, and one thing that glared at me was how polished and well-finished this new Stelvio is. Nothing rattled and felt badly assembled, though Italian engineering is based on passion, not necessarily practicality. The Stelvio defies all this and yet maintains the traditional exquisiteness of the brand.

“Luigi” and I parted ways after a chest-bursting expresso and we took off from the affluent Jo’burg suburb to go hunt some corners.

The Stelvio forces a sense of 1930s Al Capone gangsterism on you. I don’t know whether it’s the orgasmic steering wheel or the hooded dials, perhaps it’s the black-on-blood-red displays, but the SUV feels quick, and that’s where its appeal lies. There is no mistaking the Stelvio’s heritage and in some ways I can appreciate Luigi’s obsession with these art objects, because make no mistake — you are buying a work of art. It may not saunter along with the price tag of Ferrari, and although it may not be assembled by hand, it still feels unique and full of charisma.

The Q4’s all-wheel drive system rests in rear wheel stance until it detects loss of traction, then the system applies power to the front and keeps you out of the panel shop. This style of traction is invigorating when driven hard. The suspension features rear multi-link aluminium and double wishbones in the front; this is borrowed from the Giulia, but obviously the higher stance of the Stelvio requires some changes, like stiffening to counteract the ride height.

Weighing almost 1.7-tonnes and powered by a two-litre turbo power-plant, the SUV produces an interesting blend of classical exhaust notes infused with catalytic inhibitors. I liked the rumbles that escaped from the back end under hard acceleration and although the upshifts could do with some louder noises, it’s a car not a bike, so let’s allow it the accolades for having a distinct personality.

The Stelvio’s engine revs flamboyantly to its limiter and holds its character with the composed stature of the thoroughbred it is meant to represent. It scrabbles past the 100km/h mark in about five-and-a-half seconds and keeps going till about 229km/h on the GPS, not bad at all for this SUV. It’s stable at these speeds, which is probably more important than anything on our less than favourable roads.

The scimitar-like paddle shifts attach to the driving column, not the steering wheel, and although they are as long as a dragon’s tooth, they’re not easy to downshift in those awkward moments when you desire a lower gear. It looks and feels divine and this is an Alfa, so enjoy the finesse and flare. The different driving modes produce harder shifts with the paddles. Strange but true. Perhaps it’s to remind you of the driving mode you are in.

The Stelvio corners deceptively well, as you sprint into the bend with the apex approaching, you can sense the back end beginning to move, but before you need to correct the front wheels grab some tar and before you know it, you have exited the turn, well into your next piece of mayhem. It takes some getting used to, but I’m an average driver even on a good day, so it compensates well for my lack of skill.

The car steers well enough but the brakes are where I feel the response could be better managed. They stop the Alfa strongly, but feel lackadaisical when you initially apply pressure. One of the other vehicles I recently drove mimicked this effect.

The car is thirsty under hooligan conditions but simmers quickly in the urban commute, no doubt thanks in part to the carbon propshaft, which helps keep that unsprung weight slightly lower. The brand has taken on the criteria I had mentioned earlier by providing a solid financial and maintenance platform. Traxion finance offers flexible options with guaranteed future value allowing some peace of mind in this toxic economic maelstrom.

The wind noise is minimal at the legal limit and while the seats could be more comfy, it does support you better than some other vehicles in this segment. Overall the cabin and boot present enough space for those off the beaten path trips that families are so fond of nowadays.

The premium maintenance plan that spans six years or 100 000km sweetens the deal on this tempting red cookie.

The heritage, poise, personality and performance of the Stelvio combined with competitive pricing goes a long way to solidifying the brand in South Africa. It’s a pity we see so few of them on the road. Perhaps they need a better media company?

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