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Stelvio a promising niche player


First Drive: 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio

Brian Harper Driving.ca BORMIO, Italy ? The Stelvio Pass in Italy?s Ortler Alps isn?t kind to out-of-shape old dudes. Actually, it?s not that kind to those who are in shape, either. At 2,758 metres above sea level ? that?s 9,048 feet for those who don?t speak metric ? the air on the second-highest paved mountain pass in the Alps is a little thin. With more than 75 hairpin turns, it is considered by many to be one of Europe?s truly great driving roads. So, it follows that Alfa Romeo, one of Italy?s truly great car companies, would name its new, premium-priced sport ute after this famed mountain pass ? and then let us try out its namesake. Driving the Stelvio Pass is mindblowing, if you attack it early enough in the morning to avoid the buses, crazed motorcyclists, huffing-andpuffing cyclists and sightseeing rubberneckers gumming up any potential banzai run. Then there?s the fog that limits visibility to just past the hood. Eerie. And once you climb above the mist, you?re greeted with snow and skiers, some of them curious about what will undoubtedly be the newest SUV at the resorts this winter. The only letdown is that I wasn?t behind the wheel of the Stelvio Quadrifoglio, as this halo version of the SUV lineup won?t be in showrooms until next year. Fitted with a 505-horsepower, twin-turbo 2.9- litre V6, it will be crazy fast; Alfa definitely has Porsche?s Cayenne Turbo in its sights with this one. It?s the less outré base Stelvio and Ti versions we?re driving, powered by a milder 2.0-L turbo four-cylinder that nonetheless puts out a respectable 280 hp. If these engines sound familiar, it?s because they are also found in the new Giulia. Along with sharing the same ?Giorgio? platform, there is much mechanical commonality between Alfa?s two latest models. The day before was spent getting to Bormio from Milan, and was more about the countless roundabouts, numerous mountain tunnels (some as long as eight kilometres) and traffic congestion along the one-lane roads through villages and towns than it was about the Stelvio. But monotony can allow for a more critical eye than when gazing at the magnificence of the Alps, when they eventually loomed into view. Having 280 hp and 306 poundfeet of torque to play with during the few opportunities we had to get around slow transport trucks, farm machinery and Fiat Puntos, proved the Alfa has decent shove when boot is put to gas pedal. The extra 30 to 40 ponies it has over its primary competition ? think base versions of the BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLC, Audi Q5 and Jaguar F-Pace ? is very usable. Alfa Romeo claims a time of 5.5 seconds to hit 100 km/h from a standstill, however anybody expecting a Pavarotti high C to emanate from the twin exhausts is going to be disappointed. The turbo 2.0-L engine sounds as flaccid as the similar-sized units found in the Stelvio?s rivals. The engine is hooked up to an eight-speed automatic transmission, fairly standard for the segment. Power is then routed to the SUV?s intelligent Q4 all-wheeldrive system. The system operates in rear drive until extra traction is needed, in which case up to 60 per cent of the engine?s torque can be transferred to the front axle. Tipping the scales at a solid 1,834 kilograms ? despite extensive use of aluminum in the body, engine and suspension components, and a carbon-fibre prop shaft ? the Stelvio nonetheless drives like a much lighter vehicle. Some credit goes to a near perfect 50/50 weight distribution, a high degree of torsional rigidity and a very light 11.8:1 steering ratio. In fact, the steering feels almost too disengaged. It takes selecting ?Dynamic? with the SUV?s DNA drive-mode selector to stiffen up the Stelvio?s driving behaviour. This delivers sharper brake and steering feel with more aggressive engine, transmission and throttle tip-in calibrations. If you want to mellow out, ?Natural? or ?Advance Efficiency? will dial down the sportiness. Ride comfort takes a bit of a hit in Dynamic mode, though the suspension (double wishbone up front, multi-link at the rear) filtered out the worst of the patched roads that made up a good portion of the drive. The Stelvio is about as attractive as an SUV gets, with Alfa Romeo?s iconic scudetto (shield) ? flanked by the air intakes, together called the trilobo ? the most obvious styling cue. In profile, the sides are well sculpted, ending at the rear with a fastback-styled liftgate. The sport ute exudes muscularity, wanting to challenge roads, not shopping-mall parking lots. However, considering Alfa Romeo?s roots are in Milan, the fashion capitol of the world, one might expect the Stelvio?s cabin to be worthy of its own turn on the catwalk. Sadly, this is not the case, as the sport ute?s interior is very conventional in terms of both materials and layout. Oh, it?s nicer than the F-Pace?s interior, however the new Q5?s dash area puts it to shame. A Lusso package available on the Stelvio will better accessorize the cabin, with genuine wood trim, softer leather, aluminum pedals and the like. There are a coupe of nice touches, though, including the flat-bottom steering wheel (where the pushbutton start button is located) and the aluminum paddle shifters the size of Dumbo?s ears. Behind the wheel is a standard full-colour seven-inch, thin film transistor (TFT) cluster display, bordered by two large white-on-black analog gauges. On the centre console are two rotary dials; the first controls the DNA Drive Mode system and the second controls the highresolution infotainment system with real-time vehicle performance pages and telemetry, plus 3D graphic navigation. All Stelvio models will feature Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The usual conveniences ? heated seats and steering wheel, rear-view camera, rear park sensors, power liftgate ? are standard. The Stelvio will succeed as a niche player in the premium SUV segment; the market is so hot right now that it can?t fail. And, while not perfect, it?s still pretty good. Plus, it offers class-leading power and performance, inviting comparisons with the base versions of sportier models such as the Jaguar F-Pace and Porsche Macan. A new player among the regulars is always good. It shakes things up, and the Stelvio has more than enough brio to do just that. Manufacturer?s suggested retail price starts at $52,995; $54,995 for the Ti. Sport packages are available for both trim levels, while the Lusso package is offered on the Ti. The Stelvio is in dealerships now. KIA of Owen Sound

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