An exotic car competing against everyday luxury SUVs

“An Alfa Romeo SUV?” asked the older man parked beside me. “What does it cost to get into an Alfa Romeo SUV?”

“The base price is around $40,000,” I replied.

The man whistled, an automatic response to the stratospheric sum he’d clearly been imagining. Then he paused as the true figure sank in. He looked at his Toyota RAV4, a similarly sized crossover that approaches $40,000 with all the options. Then he looked again at this 2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio. “That’s actually not bad.”

It definitely isn’t......

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio - Driven Exterior
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Even when you add the $1,295 destination charge to the Stelvio’s base price, you’re still only looking at a starting MSRP of $41,840.

That’s less money than dime-a-dozen compact luxury SUVs like the BMW X3, Audi Q5, or Mercedes-Benz GLC. It’s some $10,000 less than the Porsche Macan, and it’s barely half the base price of a Maserati Levante.

The Stelvio is rare, to be sure — but not because of the price. Rather, Alfa Romeo has struggled to get the word out that it’s selling a beautiful and brilliant-driving, yet thoroughly practical and comfortable crossover SUV for less money than its closest competitors. When you drive one, it will catch attention as a rare Italian exotic.

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio - Driven Interior
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Then again, quirks and frustrations are almost inseparable from exotic cars, and the Stelvio threatens to provide some of that experience, too. Alfa Romeo is reestablishing itself in the U.S. market against a headwind of suspicion against Italian cars’ reliability — and early results for the Stelvio and its Giulia sedan platform-mate have not discouraged the perception. Alfa Romeo also provided these vehicles with more austere dashboards and lower-grade infotainment technology than the best luxury brands.

SUV buyers looking for a leather-wrapped cacoon would not be the right fit for a Stelvio. But if you’re interested in a more fun-to-drive and more exclusive compact luxury crossover, and you’re willing to put up with those quirks and frustrations, the Stelvio is both a novelty and a delight.

2019 ALFA ROMEO STELVIO - DESIGN

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio - Driven Exterior
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At first glance, the most notable aspect about the Stelvio’s exterior design is its signature Alfa Romeo grille: a narrow inverted triangle dropping down between the slim, horizontally oriented headlights on the vehicle’s upright front end.

But this isn’t merely a generic SUV body with a classic grille slapped on the front.

Spend time with the Stelvio, and you might find the rest of the vehicle’s design even more captivating than the front end.

It’s certainly more voluptuous, with graceful bulges and curves — beautifully complemented by our test car’s rich coat of Rosso Competizione (Competition Red) paint. Perhaps our favorite single spot on the Stelvio’s exterior is the muscular arch that starts below the rear side window and finishes just above the taillight. But importantly, it’s a cohesive part of an attractive whole. Overall, the vehicle leans itself forward, but not with the wildly aggressive slashes and creases that define a Lexus NX 300. The Stelvio asserts its performance credentials more subtly, looking the part of a performance vehicle without screaming it.

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio - Driven Interior
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The interior is more of a mixed bag.

Our first impression was charitable, especially when we drove our first Stelvio back in 2017. While the cabin doesn’t scream luxury, its clean lines could come across as elegant minimalism to the right eyes. But now, facing another two years’ worth of fresh competition, the Stelvio’s cabin just doesn’t look and feel rich enough for its price tag. It’s especially troubling on our test car, whose long list of extra-cost options swelled the as-tested price to $61,090. A luxury performance car doesn’t need to be slathered in sumptuous leather and wood, but it still deserves higher-grade materials and more visual punch.

The good news is that Alfa Romeo is addressing one of our complaints for the 2020 model year. The company recently announced a new infotainment system to replace the clunky, awkward unit on our tested 2019 model. The new system adds touchscreen capability, instead of relying solely on a control knob located between the front seats. It also promises improved graphics and faster responses — both welcome. In changing light conditions, like going into the shadow of an underpass and popping back out into the sun, our test car would laboriously re-render the screen in a series of blocks. The system also didn’t make good use of its full 8.8-inch width, frequently leaving unused dead space on the right side.

2019 ALFA ROMEO STELVIO - UTILITY

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio - Driven Interior
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Automakers face the temptation to make their sportiest SUVs lower and sleeker, like sporty cars. But although the Stelvio isn’t the class leader for interior space, it holds its own, while providing an unquestionably SUV-height driving position. This is no glorified tall hatchback like a Porsche Macan or BMW X4.

True, by the numbers, the Stelvio barely edges out the Porsche or BMW with a tiny 18.5 cubic feet of cargo room behind its rear seat.

That would be only about as much room as you get in a big sedan’s trunk. But the Stelvio feels far more spacious in the real world, with a large, open floor area and less intrusion from the sloping rear windshield. Alfa quotes a class-competitive 56.5 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat folded down. A 40-20-40 split maximizes flexibility between passengers and cargo, and the available hands-free power liftgate opens with a well-placed kick under the rear bumper. The Stelvio can tow up to 3,000 pounds, competitive for its class.

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio - Driven Interior
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The Stelvio’s passenger accommodations are pleasant but unremarkable. As we mentioned, the driver gets a traditionally high seating position — by which we don’t mean towering like a Chevy Suburban, but in line with less-sporty compact luxury crossovers. The optional front sport seats proved comfortable but look more magically supportive than they feel; they neither coddle you like the best luxury car’s, nor fully envelop you like a sports car’s. The rear has adult-friendly space for two passengers or three in a pinch, but no excess of legroom or extra-generous seat cushioning.

2019 ALFA ROMEO STELVIO - HOW IT DRIVES

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio - Driven Exterior
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The Stelvio shares its rear-wheel-drive-based platform with the award-winning Giulia sedan, and little was lost in translation to SUV form.

The Alfa crossover instantly impresses with taut, quick, precise steering, along with confidence-inspiring body control that lets you take full advantage of the steering responses.

Few luxury cars dare to act upon the driver’s inputs so instantly, with even performance-oriented competitors like the Jaguar F-Pace feeling fat and lazy in comparison. The Stelvio doesn’t need tiresome corrections to stay pointed in a straight line, but when you’re ready to change direction, the deed is done in a heartbeat. This responsiveness would be invigorating even in a good coupe or sedan, and it’s all the more amazing in an SUV. Twist the steering wheel and you’re feeling the soul of this vehicle, its most significant standout quality and one that we love it for.

The Stelvio’s performance focus extends to a straight line. Most competitors have a base four-cylinder engine making around 250 horsepower, with many offering a high-cost upgrade to a larger six-cylinder. The base Stelvio is livelier, making 280 horsepower and 306 lb-ft of torque from a turbocharged 2.0-liter four. The vehicle weighs less than most competitors — Alfa quotes just 4,044 pounds — further helping performance. Not only is the Stelvio quick, but the engine emits a subtle snarl when revved that stands apart from the mild hum found in many base-engine competitors. Every Stelvio has an eight-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters for manual gear selections.

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio - Driven Exterior
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The Stelvio has three selectable driving modes in its “DNA” system — Dynamic, Normal, and Advanced efficiency. We tried out all three modes and found lively acceleration and sharp responses in all three. This isn’t a vehicle that ever relaxes into a mild-mannered muddle with laggy throttle responses and sluggish steering. Enthusiasts will be happy to choose Dynamic to pound a winding empty road, then switch to efficiency mode in stop-and-go commuting. The DNA selection knob sits near the shifter on the center console.

Despite its agility and power, the Stelvio also manages a respectably smooth ride and reasonably thrifty fuel consumption. The suspension is firm but masterfully controlled, so bumps don’t punch through as hard slams even with the tested vehicle’s sport-tuned suspension. That’s not always the case even in comfort-focused luxury SUVs, thanks to today’s trend toward oversized wheels. At the pump, the Stelvio scores EPA ratings of 22 mpg in the city, 29 mpg on the highway, and 25 mpg overall in base rear-wheel-drive form; the all-wheel-drive model, like our test vehicle, slips to 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway/24 mpg overall.

Alfa Romeo Stelvio specifications
Engine 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder
Horsepower 280 HP @ 5,200 RPM
Torque 306 LB-FT @ 2,000-4,800 RPM
Fuel economy 22/29/25 (RWD) / 22/28/24 (AWD)
Weight 4,044 lbs

I averaged about 25 mpg in a week of mixed driving, which included a stretch of high-velocity journalism conducted by my Italian brother-in-law, who agreed to share his impressions on the Stelvio while visiting the U.S. from Milan. (It drives “perfectly,” he concluded, but the interior would never win him out of his BMW.)

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio - Driven Exterior
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For maximum performance, the Stelvio Quadrifoglio model switches to a ferocious 505-horsepower turbocharged V6 engine and even stiffer suspension tuning. It starts around $80,000. Unlike the Germans, Alfa Romeo doesn’t provide a middle ground between entry-level and maximum-level performance — no six-cylinder making horsepower in the mid-300s like the BMW X3 or X4’s M40i variants or the Audi SQ5.

2019 ALFA ROMEO STELVIO - PRICING

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio - Driven Exterior
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As we mentioned, the 2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio starts at $41,840 including its mandatory destination charge. That includes uncommonly generous standard equipment, including genuine leather upholstery, power-folding mirrors, and rain-sensing windshield wipers — all of which are typically expensive extras in this class. The value quotient improves further when you factor in the frequent discounts available on the Stelvio. But what the Stelvio is missing, however, is advanced safety technology. Features like automatic emergency braking and blind-spot monitoring, now standard equipment on many budget-priced mainstream cars, are optional on the Stelvio.

The Stelvio has a dizzying array of trim levels, options packages and standalone options. The main note is that the trim levels start at an unnamed base model, then progress to Sport, Ti, Ti Lusso, Ti Sport, and then Quadrifoglio. Except for the $81,000 high-power Quadrifoglio, these trim levels are clustered fairly close together in price and standard equipment. The main difference is that the base and Sport offer a choice of rear- and all-wheel-drive, whereas the rest have AWD standard. Dissecting our tested Ti Sport’s $15,050 worth of extra-cost options revealed that nearly half ($6,950) was dedicated to primarily cosmetic upgrades. The Stelvio is easy to customize and we’d encourage you to tailor it to your specific interests, which means you won’t have to pay extra for the options you don’t want.

2019 ALFA ROMEO STELVIO KEY COMPETITORS

2019 Porsche Macan

2019 Porsche Macan Exterior
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The Macan is the other performance leader of the compact luxury crossover class, especially when you focus on more than straight-line speed. The difference is between the Porsche’s polished excellence versus the Alfa Romeo’s raw eagerness. The Macan feels more like a luxury car, but the Stelvio is arguably more fun to drive. And the Macan is priced more like a luxury car, too — starting some $10,000 higher than the Stelvio despite coming standard with 248 horsepower instead of 280. And the Stelvio has more real-world interior space even if they’re competitive on paper, while also getting an extra 3 miles per gallon.

Read our full review on the 2019 Porsche Macan

2019 BMW X3

2018 BMW X3 High Resolution Exterior
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Germany’s compact luxury crossovers are led by the BMW X3 and X4 in terms of Stelvio-rivaling performance. But the BMWs focus more on solidity, refinement, and composure than true sports-car-like friskiness. They do so successfully, but it’s a different experience from the Alfa. Like the Macan, they have a 248-horsepower four-cylinder engine as standard. But because they cost less than the Porsche, you can upgrade to a 382-horsepower six-cylinder that slots in price between the base Stelvio and the wild Quadrifolgio.

Read our full review on the 2019 BMW X3

2019 Jaguar F-Pace

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio - Driven
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Another compact luxury SUV from a niche performance brand, the Jaguar F-Pace is a natural Stelvio rival on paper. But in normal driving, the Jaguar provides more ability than excitement — it will grip the road and go where it’s pointed when you push it, but like the BMW, it’s a more clinical experience than the Stelvio. It’s neither bigger nor heavier than the Alfa, but it feels like it’s both. The F-Pace does follow BMW with ferocious six-cylinder acceleration at more attainable prices than the Alfa, and it also offers a Stelvio-rivaling 296-horsepower four-cylinder to slot above its base 247-horsepower engine. The F-Pace’s interior decor is in line with the Stelvio’s on the plainer side of the class, but the Jaguar has more interior room.

Read our full review on the 2019 Jaguar F-Pace

2019 Lexus NX 300

2020 Lexus NX300 Black Line Special Edition
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Among the Japanese compact luxury crossovers, the Lexus NX 300 is the most focused on driving enjoyment, particularly in its F Sport variant. It’s nimble and feels a full size smaller than, say, the Jaguar F-Pace — even though they align closely in dimensions and weight. And although Alfa’s discounts reduce the difference, it’s less expensive than the Stelvio. But it also feels like a lighter, less solid, less substantial vehicle. That’s not surprising, since the NX is derived from the previous-generation Toyota RAV4, which was notable for mediocre ride and handling. Lexus has stiffened up the car to improve its responses, but at the expense of a bouncy ride. The Stelvio is a magnificent car to drive, while the NX 300 feels like a much cheaper one that manages to handle well (though still without the lightning responses and precision of the Alfa Romeo).

Read our full review on the 2019 Lexus NX 300

2019 Maserati Levante

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio - Driven
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They’re not direct competitors; the Maserati is much larger, much more powerful and much more expensive than the Stelvio. But if you’re interested in an Italian luxury SUV, pickings are slim. And at least based on a brief drive of the Levante, the Stelvio is above and away the more fun vehicle. The Levante is comparatively ponderous in normal driving conditions; it’s the sort of performance car that can’t make you smile until you drive it on a racetrack (or treat public streets like racetracks). And despite its size and price, the Levante doesn’t bring an extra-spacious or extra-gorgeous interior. The highlight is an available Ferrari-built V8 engine that you can’t get for less than $120,000.

Read our full review on the 2019 Maserati Levante

2019 ALFA ROMEO STELVIO IN A NUTSHELL

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio - Driven Exterior
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The Stelvio’s razor-sharp responsiveness and eagerly snarling engine make it one of the most fun-to-drive SUVs — at any price. And yet it’s priced at the entry-level side of the luxury segment. Throw in the pleasant ride quality and usefully spacious interior, and this is looking like a win-win proposition.

Then again, if you’re indifferent to the Stelvio’s world-beating driving dynamics, or actually prefer something with a more isolated, relaxed feel, its downsides loom large. Why buy the Stelvio over an SUV with richer cabin trim and superior infotainment? The Alfa isn’t the sort of luxury car you settle peacefully into and drift along. It doesn’t try to be. But buyers interested in a mere accessor — an Acura driving and ownership experience behind an Alfa Romeo face — may be disappointed. And if you haven’t fallen in love with how the Stelvio drives, it will be even harder to persevere through any unscheduled visits to the dealer.

But while the Stelvio isn’t for everyone, we need to hammer down the key point: This SUV drives like a sports car, looks like an exotic, and costs less than a similarly sized Audi, BMW, or Mercedes. There are reasons not to buy one, to be sure, but don’t assume automatically that it’s out of your league.

Brady Holt
About the author

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