What is it?

This is the Stelvio, the first SUV to be built by Alfa Romeo. Now, Alfa Romeo isn’t exactly the biggest car brand in the Middle East, but if you know anything about cars, you’ll know that the name is steeped in automotive history. Unfortunately, much of Alfa’s history has been coloured by a perception that, while the cars might have been lovely to drive, they were terribly unreliable.

The Stelvio is part of a rejuvenation plan that brings Alfa’s credentials up to 21st-century standards. It sits on the same platform as the Giulia, the new saloon in Alfa’s line-up, but is SUV-shaped because, well, the market demands SUVs. It’s also bigger and more practical than the Giulia.

This isn’t just your average soft-roader, though. The brief when creating the Stelvio was to build an SUV that handled just as well as the saloon upon which it’s based. Thanks to the tallness of the car, the extra weight, and, well, physics, this was no small task. The result, though, is a good-looking, mid-size SUV that might actually be enjoyable to drive.

It’s a good thing that the Stelvio has this as a USP, because the market it’s wading into is bustling with competition. Its price (starting at AED 199,000) puts it up against the likes of the Jaguar F-Pace, Audi Q5, Volvo XC60, BMW X3, Porsche Macan and Mercedes GLC-Class.

How does it drive?

The clue should be in the name. The Stelvio Pass is a mountain road in northern Italy that’s ranked among the best driving roads in the world. So, if we’re honest, we’d be pretty disappointed if the Stelvio wasn’t fun to drive.

There is a range-topping model that comes with over 500 bhp, but we tested the reasonably posh one that sits a step down the range. It comes with a 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder that develops a reasonably healthy 280 bhp, with power fed to all four wheels via Alfa’s Q4 all-wheel-drive system. And we’ll say from the off that, for an SUV, the Stelvio drives very well.

The power is more than adequate: 0-100 km/h is taken care of in 5.7 seconds, and in a car as big as the Stelvio, it feels even faster than that. There’s little in the way of turbo lag, but the silky smooth ZF 8-speed gearbox takes you effortlessly through the gears as you build up pace. The throttle is gloriously responsive, too – your right foot feels more like it’s in control of a sports car than a mid-size SUV.

But, really, the triumph of the Stelvio comes in its steering. At low speed, it’s incredibly light, meaning you can place it with ease when navigating a car park. But at higher speeds, that lightness turns into a pointiness that you’d usually associate with a much lighter car. Turn the wheel just a fraction, and the nose darts in the direction you’re pointing it. It’s like steering with telepathy.

And, boy, the car feels good when you’re attacking the bends. Due to their high centres of gravity, SUVs tend to roll a lot through the corners, but Alfa’s engineers have done a stellar job of controlling that, with the weight of the car sitting much lower down. And that four-wheel-drive system is rear-biased but steps in whenever grip is needed. The result is a compact SUV that actually enjoys being thrashed around. You won’t be drifting this thing, but you can enter corners fast and hard, take advantage of the extraordinary amounts of grip the car offers, and exit supremely quickly. The engine note isn’t bad, either.

And that’s with the car set to the ‘natural’ mode. The Stelvio is equipped with Alfa Romeo’s ‘DNA’ drive selector. ‘N’ stands for ‘natural’, while ‘D’ stands for ‘dynamic’. ‘A’ is for ‘all-weather’ – which is naturally pretty useless in this part of the world.

Anyway, flick the switch up to ‘D’, and there’s no immediately noticeable effect – save for a glowing, red graphic of the car’s suspension set-up and powertrain. But once you start flowing between bends, you begin to notice subtle differences. A raspier engine note; a slightly heavier steering rack; a slightly firmer ride. What’s great about the system, though, is that 90% of the performance is available if you leave the set-up in ‘N’. ‘D’ is simply reserved for those who really want to go all-out.

Otherwise, if you simply want to glide about in the Stelvio, it’ll do that beautifully, too. The ride is properly good, thanks largely to the fact that the suspension set-up is carried over from the Giulia saloon, but fitted with more travel. Indeed, the only complaint with the refinement comes when you’re cruising at motorway speeds, at which there’s a little more wind and tyre noise than you’d expect of a car in this class. Don’t get us wrong; it’s not intolerable, but an equivalent Audi or BMW is quieter.

Interior quality and tech

The Stelvio’s interior is refreshingly different. The Germans obviously create lovely cars in which to sit, but the Stelvio’s cabin is just adorned with so much style – it’s like walking into a modern Italian furniture showroom. Great slabs of crisp, light wood run across the length of the dashboard, and are found on the door sills as well. That’s juxtaposed against taut leather and real metal switchgear. Where there are plastics, they’re high-quality and incorporated well into the overall design.

The steering wheel and column is a thing of beauty. On the leather-clad wheel, there’s a red stop-start button that’s reminiscent of the starter button on any of the current Ferraris. And behind the wheel, there are wonderfully tactile and enormous paddle shifters – which again draw comparison to Ferrari. The engine was developed using Ferrari technology, so we won’t begrudge Alfa Romeo the obvious association.

Otherwise, there’s plenty of room and light, and visibility is good on all sides. The seats are excellent, and there’s a very generous boot space – particularly if you fold the rear seats down.

Design-wise, the Stelvio is all good, then (better than most, in fact). But things get a little shakier on the tech front. At the top of the dash is an infotainment screen that’s beautifully integrated into the overall cabin design. Just it’s a little small. And while the system is a doddle to navigate via a scrolling wheel on the centre console, it isn’t exactly the last word in technological innovation. There’s a reversing camera and sensors at the front and back, but rivals now offer 360-degree parking cameras and self-parking systems. Bluetooth pairing is a little complicated to set up, and the sat-nav, while good-looking, is rubbish for, you know, navigating.

Likewise, the Stelvio’s German rivals will give you fully configurable digital read-outs for speed and revs, while the Alfa has to make do with old-school analogue dials, and one small screen that can be configured a little bit. That said, in the Stelvio you do get fully electric seats, an electric sunroof, and adaptive cruise control. The suspension set-up is also pretty clever.

None of this is the end of the world; the Stelvio has all of the basics covered, but it’s not the car you’d choose if you were looking for the latest and greatest tech that the car world can offer. Instead, you’d choose the Stelvio based on how it drives and looks.

Running costs

It’s too early to tell how the Stelvio will depreciate in this region, but for insurance, you’re looking at between AED 5,000 and AED 6,000 for comprehensive cover. In terms of mileage, the Stelvio is actually mightily economical in this guise – so long as you’re not thrashing it all of the time. You should easily get 700 to 800 km out of a tank – handy, with petrol prices going up.

Our verdict

If it were up to us, the mid-size SUV class wouldn’t exist at all. Most cars in this class are severely compromised – they’re too high-riding and heavy to be decent drivers’ cars, but they’re too under-engineered to be any good off-road. The Stelvio, though, turns that notion on its head. It makes no claims about off-road ability, but it looks great, and it drives even better. If you’re looking for a mid-size SUV that won’t suck the fun out of your daily commute, we’d recommend taking one for a test drive.