One U-turn Too Many? The Alfa Romeo Stelvio

So, the inevitable has come.

Not the imminent Trump presidency, but the arrival of the first Alfa Romeo SUV, the Stelvio. The words “Alfa Romeo” and “SUV” appearing side-by-side is not as potentially disastrous as a US leader prepared to secure a “great deal” with Russia, wage trade wars with China, Mexico, and Canada, and deport South Americans and Muslims en masse; but is not easier to stomach for all of those who love the Italian brand for its flair and purity.

Here it is, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, at its Los Angeles world debut…
…and its namesake, the Stelvio Pass, one of the most scenic and rewarding driving roads of the world at the Italian Alps.

I mean, it’s hardly hideous to look at, but to claim that the Stelvio is “100% Alfa Romeo” and “unmistakable in its DNA” — as described at the premiere — is probably a side step too far from the incongruence between the company’s essence and the vehicle type. Alfa Romeo simply don’t build SUVs. The segment didn’t even exist back in the 70s and 80s when Alfa was enjoying its previous spell of success and glory on road and track. The closest they had come to building an SUVs, during their relatively lukewarm and lacklustre period in the mid 90s to the mid 00s, was the 156 Crosswagon, which was nothing more than a wagon with a raised ride height and Alfa’s in-house Q4 four-wheel-drive system installed, to make sure it didn’t get stuck in the first puddle it encountered.

The 156 Crosswagon Q4, seen here tackling more than a puddle, that’s the last time Alfa Romeo went down the trail in an offroader (puns welcome). This stayed on the lineup for a few years after the 159 came into production, with the former never receiving a similar treatment. Probably for the better.

As expected, the Stelvio is built on the same Giorgio platform and powered by the same drivetrain as the new Giulia, with all the carbon-fibre and titanium in its structure, and the same Ferrari-derived, 505bhp 2.9L twin-turbo V6 in its top Qv spec. The official figures have posted a time of 0–100km/h at 3.9s, just a tenth off its sports saloon sibling, but here’s the catch — the theoretical Nurburgring time derived from the computer simulations returned a 7:59 lap time, a significant increase over the 7:32 the Giulia managed, and suspiciously about a quarter of a second quicker than the Porsche Cayenne Turbo S. The world’s fastest SUV (or not) aside, it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to realise how the additional weight, the higher centre of gravity, and the less aerodynamic shape of the SUV could impact on performance and handling despite being basically the same car. There’s simply no way to avoid the inconveniences good old physics dictates.

Screenshot of the full premiere at the Los Angeles Motor Show. Note the Stelvio’s claim to the fastest SUV ever with a nice round 7:59:00 lap time figure, narrowly (and theoretically) beating the Porsche Cayenne Turbo S. I’d believe it when I see it, and who goes attacking the ‘Ring in an SUV anyway?

I understand perfectly that with the addition of the Stelvio to the current line-up, Alfa Romeo would be much better positioned to re-establish itself as a true industry leader in design, technology, and of course, sales figures — after all, that’s exactly the approach taken by Porsche when they gave the world the Cayenne, which has since turned the failing brand around, gone through three generations, and become by far its most profitable line. With the right Italian references and some luck, the Stelvio might become Alfa Romeo’s and even FCA’s Cayenne in a few years.

A cursory glance at the competition further drives home the point — the Stelvio’s debut follows that of the Maserati Levante, which itself came after the Jaguar F-Pace and the Bentley Bentayga, the first SUV offerings from two quintessential British carmakers despite their current foreign owners, while Rolls Royce has their Cullinan due in 2018/19. Even Aston Marin flirted with the idea through its DBX concept earlier this year, although they firmly refused to call it an SUV. Against the backdrop of a myriad of BMW X’s, Audi Q’s, and Mercedes GL’s, the inescapable fact is that customers love their luxury SUVs — there’s no doubt about it; and whilst it might not yet be financial suicide for Alfa Romeo to not attempt the ever-growing segment, it would most certainly hamper their chances to a successful brand renaissance. But is that really necessary?

The latest luxo-SUVs: The Jaguar F-Pace (top left); the Bentley Bentayga (top right); the Maserati Levante (bottom left), and the Aston Martin DBX-electric-4WD-concept-we-won’t-tell-you-it’s-an-SUV that might sneak into the market.

Ferrari has contributed much to the engineering of the Giulia and Stelvio, with the Qv powerplant widely believed to reappear on the next generation entry-level offering (the Dino revival makes sense?). Reading between the lines, I can only imagine that through the Stelvio exercise Ferrari sees themselves sufficient in covering the luxury performance SUV department, and has therefore, proudly and cunningly, stayed away from the SUV bandwagon as its own brand while focusing on their supercars, leaving the dirty work of brand dilution to Alfa Romeo.

It’s not simply about broadening the product range either — Alfa Romeo had also built lesser-known vehicles apart from their sporty offerings, from a military off-roader in the 1900 M “Matta”, to a whole line of light commercial vehicles in the Romeo / Romeo 2 / F12 / A12 to name a few. These often share components extensively with period Alfa Spiders and GTVs, might wear the badge and the scudetto grille, but are crucially not the face of the company. Many of my mates came to regard the Cayenne as the Porsche archetype following its market success, and the prospects of the Alfa Romeo name to be primarily associated with an SUV is unthinkable, at least to us Alfista.

The 1900M “Matta”, the Italian Jeep or Land Rover, depending on who you ask. Civilian versions are hard to come by, as it is obviously purpose-built for military duties. “Matta” means the mad one in Italian, in case you don’t know.
Across 3 decades Alfa did build these cute little vans too, they borrowed heavily from the trusted technology of the established road cars of the time, and the twin cam engine even found its way into the engine bay.

Meanwhile, I’m still rather mystified by the popularity of the heavy and substantial SUV in a mostly urban setting. Perhaps the higher seating position and vantage point in driving an SUV do offer a sense of security and authority, but the weight penalty and all the compromises in performance, handling, and efficiency are virtually unavoidable; while the engineering and design concessions to ensure road comfort and practicality render the tall, imposing body style a mere shadow of true off-road capability. It’s all a bit unnecessary — after all the average Cayenne or X5 would never encounter any worse terrain than the gravel on the driveway — just get a sporty wagon/shooting brake for performance and extra boot space for the highway, or a Land Rover/Mercedes G-Wagen if you intend to travel off-road in style and luxury.

Still not official, but a Sportwagon based on the new Giulia sounds like a natural development of the lineup. Need more boot space? There you go.

As soon as the first Stelvio hits the showroom, it probably wouldn’t be spared the bastardisation by Premier League footballers with their ostentatious bodykits, 22-inch rims, and chromed/reflective paintjobs. Regardless of the PR-speak at the premiere, packed with all the evocative buzz words you could imagine, such an unhappy union between design principle and marketing strategy, between elegance and vulgarity, all carried by the Stelvio, seem to spell the end of the thoroughbred Alfa Romeo that I grew to love.

Diouf’s Cadillac Escalade with all the wrong things you could imagine rolled up into one. Quite why footballers tend to have an appalling taste in cars is beyond me. Can you imagine yourself seen driving such a monstrosity? I’d rather take the bus. Still, at least he’s retired.

Let’s hope I’m wrong. With Brexit and a Trump victory already, 2016 is certainly a year of extreme polarisation, and a live example to how the sound-minded could be so wrong about their estimates and predictions.

Till next time.

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