Just how important are looks, really? Sure, if you’re a model, or you’re asking Rihanna or Brad Pitt for a date, or you’re a sports car, or a super yacht, being attractive is helpful. But if you’re an SUV, like Alfa Romeo’s new, brand-reshaping Stelvio, does it really matter?
There are some people who believe all SUVs are ugly because they are simply too big to look good, in the same way that all 12-foot tall people, no matter how good-looking, would be undeniably off-putting.
Yet there are undeniably a lot of people who find SUVs, particularly expensive European ones, very much attractive, as well as practical, because how else could you explain the fact that cars like this Stelvio - mid-sized SUVs - are now the biggest-selling premium segment in Australia?
We’re set to snap up more than 30,000 of them this year, and Alfa wants to take as much of that tasty sales pie chart as it can.
If success could be put down to looks alone, you’d have to back the Stelvio to succeed fabulously, because it truly is that rarest of things, an SUV that’s actually attractive, even sexy. But does it have what it takes in other areas to tempt buyers into choosing an Italian option over the trusted Germans?
Is there anything interesting about its design? 9/10
It might be unfair to suggest Italians are more interested in design than anything else, but it would only be honest to suggest that it often feels that way. And when that obsession with making things look good results in a car as curvaceous, sensuous and sporty as this, who could argue that it’s a bad thing?
I once asked a senior Ferrari designer why Italian cars, and super cars in particular, look so much better than German ones, and his answer was simple: “when you grow up surrounded by so much beauty, it’s natural to make beautiful things”.
For an SUV to look anywhere near as good as something like the Giulia sedan is a true feat.
For Alfa to produce a car, like the Giulia, that reflects its brand’s design aesthetic and proud sporting heritage - it is the brand that gave birth to Ferrari, as its spin doctors like to remind us - is almost expected, or predictable.
But to perform the same feat on this scale, on a big, bulky SUV with all of its proportional challenges, is a real achievement. I’d have to say there’s not a single angle from which I don’t like the look of it.
Even the base car, seen here, looks great from every angle on the outside.
The interior is almost as good, but does fall down in a few areas. If you buy the 'First Edition Pack', a $6000 cost and one that’s only available to the first 300 people to rush in, or the 'Veloce Pack' they’ll also offer ($5000), you get really nice sporty seats and shiny pedals, and the panoramic roof, which manages to let light in without cutting your headroom off.
Buy an actual base model, however, for a notional $65,900, and you’ll get a lot less class. The steering wheel won’t feel as sporty, either, but no matter which variant you buy you’re stuck with a slightly cheap and plastic-feeling gear shifter (which is also a bit counterintuitive to use), which is a shame, because it’s a touch point you’ll use every day. The 8.8-inch screen is also not quite of German standard, and the sat nav can be temperamental.
There are some let-downs in the otherwise nice interior.
The cool-steel gear-shift paddles, on the other hand, are absolutely gorgeous, and would feel at home on a Ferrari.
Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with? 8/10
If you’re buying the absolute base model Stelvio at $65,990, which we’d suggest you shouldn’t because it is a far, far better car with the adaptive dampers fitted, you get all those good looks thrown in for free, plus 19-inch, 10-spoke alloys, a 7.0-inch driver instrument cluster and the 8.8-inch colour multimedia display with 3D satnav, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, an eight-speaker stereo, the 'Alfa DNA Drive Mode System' (which mainly seems to light up some graphics but supposedly allows you to choose between Dynamic, Normal and an eco-friendly option you’ll never use.
Coming standard on the base car is the 8.8-inch colour display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
But wait, there’s more, including cruise control, dual-zone climate control, an electric tailgate, front and rear parking sensors, rear camera, hill-descent control, electrically adjusted front seats, leather seats (not the sporty ones, though) and a tyre-pressure-monitoring system.
It’s quite a lot of gear for the cash, but as we say, most people will want to step up to the extras you get - and most tellingly the adaptive dampers - with either the First Edition ($6000) or Veloce ($5000) packs.
The First Edition (pictured) offers adaptive dampers as part of a $6000 package.
Alfa Romeo is keen to point out how keen its pricing is, particularly against German offerings like Porsche’s Macan, and it does seem like good value, even at just north of $70k.
How practical is the space inside? 8/10
We were lucky enough to drive this car early, on a recent family holiday in Italy, and can tell you that the boot (525 litres) can swallow an astonishing amount of poorly packed crap, or a metric tonne of Italian wine and food, if it happens to be shopping day.
The 525-litre boot can swallow a lot of poorly packed crap.
The load space is practical and easy to use, and the rear seats are also capacious We may or may not have tried to pack three adults and two kids in there at one stage (not on a public road, obviously, just for fun) and it was still comfortable, while I can easily sit behind my own 178cm driving position without my knees coming close to brushing the seat back. Hip and shoulder room are also good.
Room is good for passengers in the back.
There are map pockets in the seatbacks, plenty of bottle storage in the door bins and two American-sized cupholders, and a big storage bin, between the front seats.
What are the key stats for the engine and transmission? 7/10
Because I am older than the internet, I’m still mildly baffled every time I see that a car company is attempting to fit a four-cylinder engine into a largish SUV like the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, so I’m always politely surprised the first time such a small-engined big car manages go up a hill without exploding.
While bigger, faster Stelvios will arrive later in the year, with the all-conquering QV set to land in the fourth quarter, the versions you can buy now must make do with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine making 148kW/330Nm, or the 2.2T diesel with 154kW/470Nm (a 2.0 Ti will also arrive later, with a more fabulous 206kW/400Nm).
Most Stelvios will be powered by a 2.0-litre petrol engine (148kW/330Nm) or a 2.2T diesel (154kW/470Nm).
It should come as no surprise from those numbers that the diesel is actually the better option to drive, with not only more usable, down-low torque (the max arrives at 1750rpm) but more kilowatts as well. The 2.2T thus gets from 0-100km/h in 6.6 seconds, quicker than the petrol (at 7.2 seconds) and also quicker than competitors like the Audi Q5 (8.4 in diesel or 6.9 petrol), BMW X3 (8.0 and 8.2) and Mercedes GLC (8.3 as a diesel or 7.3 in petrol).
Even more surprisingly, the diesel sounds slightly better, more growly, when you attempt to drive it hard, than the slightly wheezy petrol. On the down side, the 2.2T does sound tractor like at idle in multistorey car parks, and neither engine sounds even vaguely like you would want an Alfa Romeo to.
The diesel is the pick at this level - doing an impressive job despite being asked to do the equivalent of piggybacking Clive Palmer up a hill - but the 2.0 Ti (which will hit 100km/h in a more impressive 5.7 seconds) would be worth waiting for.
The 2.0 Ti pictured here will arrive later with even more power (206kW/400Nm)
How much fuel does it consume? 8/10
Alfa is also keen to point out that its new Stelvio is class leading when it comes to fuel economy, with claimed figures of 4.8 litres per 100km for the diesel (no one else gets under 5.0L/100km, they say) and 7.0L/100km for the petrol.
In the real world, driven enthusiastically, we saw 10.5L/100km for the petrol and closer to 7.0 for the diesel. The simple fact is you will need, and want, to drive them harder than those claimed figures suggest will be possible.
What's it like to drive? 8/10
Much like sitting down to watch the Socceroos lose again, I’ve learned not to expect too much from the driving experience offered by SUVs, because the way they drive clearly has little relevance to the way they sell.
The Alfa Romeo Stelvio comes as a genuine surprise then, because it drives, not just like a sports car on slightly rubbery stilts, but like an impressive but high-riding sedan.
Reports about how good the QV version is have been flooding in for some time now, and I've been taking them with large spoonfuls of salt, but it’s clear to see how that car can be so sharp and exciting to drive, because the chassis of this car, as well as the suspension set-up (at least with the adaptive dampers) and the steering, are built to cope with far more power and vigour than is on offer in this base model.
I was surprised at how good the First Edition Pack cars we drove on some properly challenging roads were.
That’s not to say this version feels horribly underpowered - there are a few times when we were overtaking up a hill that more power would have been welcome, but it was never slow enough to be worrying - just that it’s clearly built for more.
In almost all situations, the diesel, in particular, provides enough grunt to make this mid-size SUV genuinely fun. I actually smiled while driving it, several times, which is unusual.
Most of that is down to the way it corners, rather than the way it goes, because this thing really is a light, nimble and enjoyable car on a twisty bit of road.
It feels genuinely involving through the steering wheel and genuinely capable in the way it holds on to the road. The brakes are genuinely good, too, with plenty of feel and force (apparently Ferrari had some involvement here, and it shows).
Having driven a far more basic model, without the adaptive dampers, and being less than impressed overall, I was surprised at how good the First Edition Pack cars we drove on some properly challenging roads were.
This really is a premium mid-size SUV I could almost, just about live with. And, if it’s the right sized car for your lifestyle, I’d absolutely understand you wanting to buy one.
Warranty & Safety Rating
3 years / 150,000 km
ANCAP Safety Rating
What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating? 8/10
There’s much talk from Alfa about how its offering wins on emotion and passion and design, and not being bland and off-white/silver German, but they’re also keen on saying that it’s a rational, practical and safe alternative, as well.
Alfa claims, yet again, a class-leading safety score for the Stelvio, with a 97 per cent adult occupancy score in Euro NCAP testing (aka a maximum five stars).
What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered? 8/10
Yes, buying an Alfa Romeo means buying an Italian car, and we’ve all heard the jokes about reliability, and heard companies from that country claiming those problems are behind them.
The Stelvio comes with a three-year/150,000km warranty, to make you feel safe, but that’s still not quite as good as the Giulia, which is being offered with a five-year one. We’d be pounding the desk and demanding they match that offer.
Servicing costs are another point of difference, the company claims, being cheaper than the Germans at $485 a year, or $1455 over three years, with those services coming every 12 months or 15,000km.
Properly beautiful in a way only Italian cars can ever be, the new Alfa Romeo Stelvio really is what the marketeers promise - a more emotional, more fun and better-looking option to the German offerings we’ve been served up for so long. Yes, it’s an Italian car, so it might not turn out to be quite as well built as an Audi, Benz or BMW, but it will definitely make you smile more often. Particularly when you look at it.
Are the Alfa's looks enough to tempt you away from the Germans? Tell us in the comments below.