Alfa Romeo is back. With a Boom!
The soul, the ineffable essence of a machine that cannot be transcribed into numbers on a data sheet. The character, the way it presents and tells its moods. The emotions, the bursts of laughter, the smiles, the goosebumps, the memories and the attraction that a machine can imprint in your mind. All these abstract subjects are often forgotten and underestimated in today’s production cars. All in the name of safety, pollution, standardization, profit and efficient design.
Porsche announced that, soon, the Carrera 911 will be electric. Shortly after, Audi took the mike and announced that the next Lamborghini Aventador will be Hybrid. Increased weight, engine music vanishes (in some cases they replicate an engine sound through the stereo system), there will be less exhaust smell, the clutch pedal will disappear.
Yes, we have to accept that an era is at an end. All cars look the same, smell the same, feel the same. All boring, heavy, computer programmed and controlled, cold. Some claim 1,000 Bhp, which cannot be used unless you own an airport. You can do 0-100 km/h in less than 3 seconds and if you stay on the throttle longer than an instant, jail will be your hotel room for the night. For what? All for market share, all for profit. New niches and micro-niches made up every year to satisfy the needs of the most spoiled brats.
I don’t like the automotive market and after 30 years on the roads, I start longing for carburetors, for the heirs of Colin Chapman, for the engineers’ creativity at giving you cheap thrills and making you develop a relationship with your own car, day after day, corner after corner, without all the complications and the surgical solutions of IT programmers.
“Forget about the shape. It drives like a sports car”
The Soul. On the Racetrack
I was skeptical about the Stelvio but my heart beats for the brand. At the end of the day, Ferrari was born as an extension of Alfa Romeo. I was called to drive the Stelvio Quadrifoglio on the race track. Yes, I am lucky. Yes, I am a driving instructor. Yes, I sometimes get cool gigs. However, I thought I was on another boring drive around in a tank SUV that goes quickly on the straights and parks itself in the corners. 505 Bhp from a twin turbo 2,9l, 6 cylinder engine, engineered by Ferrari. Ah, the magical surname. It has to be good, of course (?) but the weight? 1,830 Kg is a lot. Imagine the inertia when it comes to cornering? Well, I sat in it, I was welcome by the marvelous carbon fiber seats, wasn’t very impressed by the interiors, apart from the carbon fiber inserts and the red stitching, and away I went.
I selected Dynamic mode first and I started smiling. Well, it’s never too late to get surprised even if you are a grumpy, old-fashioned Italian race driver, who likes to heel-and-toe when downshifting. It felt like the Stelvio wanted to immediately tell me “She” has a soul. “She” (because in Italy cars are females, contrary to Germany, where cars are Der Wagen, masculine) hugged me immediately and confided me that she wanted to run, really run. We immediately engaged, we got friends straight away and the pace increased exponentially. I then selected “Race” and another layer of skin came off the Stelvio. The sound changed to a glorious grunt, the gearbox started to shift at the speed of a Ferrari 458 (150 milliseconds), suspension got stiffer and the previous smile became quite hysterical.
The 8-speed gearbox selects the next gears with the “bang” of an assault rifle, while the power gets transferred on the tarmac through the four-wheel drive system with an almighty traction, even in the tighter of the corners. The transmission transfers the largest amount of power to the rear wheels, giving an even sportier behavior and will automatically move some of the power to the front when necessary
The Carbon Ceramic brakes surprise me. The Brembo front six calipers bite the enormous disks with a lot of tenacity even when they become glowing red. Fading is very limited and I could drive several laps without having to cool them down. The feedback is good. I always had the perception of the grip from every tire without ever feeling that the ABS was engaging.
In Race mode, all electronic aids are switched off and I cherish the fact that this car is so well balanced that the computer is not needed to save your life. This Stelvio can live without a CPU. This is a great result already.
“The two electronically controlled clutches in the rear differential make it possible to control torque delivery to each wheel separately. This ensures the optimal transfer of power to the ground even when the car is pushed to its dynamic limits. This makes the Stelvio safe and fun to drive at all times, without recourse to intrusive inputs from the stability control system.”
Under and oversteer are transmitted to my seat and to the steering wheel with immediate action, leaving plenty of space and time to correct them.
The engine is rich in power and torque at any revolution. Its medium-range delivery is very strong but it still pushes hard till the 7,000 rpm line. Not bad for a Turbo engine. Have I ever felt the need for more power? Not in this world, not on an SUV. If the Dubai Autodrome main straight was another kilometer longer, this car could hit more than 280 km/h. I don’t think I’ll ever be in that rush.
On the Road
Few days after I picked up the same Rosso Competizione Color Stelvio for three days test on the road. First of all, I connected my phone to the media, I then realized it had a full-size glass screen over my had, which gives plenty of light inside the cockpit, I found the same very firm seats and all the modern accessories for a comfortable ride on open busy roads. The Adaptive Cruise Control works as good as in the German competitors, the inside noise when “Race” mode is switched off is minimal, the suspensions are nearly as soft as a VW Touareg and the Harmann Kardonn stereo system makes me feel home. Parking is very easy thank to reverse cameras, beepers and the excellent visibility (apart from the rear window). The Quadrifoglio is a beast in disguise and glides through traffic nearly unnoticed. This is because Alfa Romeo has been silent or I would say inexistent for decades and quite a few people don’t even know it exists. The gearbox is smooth and goes through the eight speeds (why eight?) without me noticing it and the engine purrs like a tiger on drugs. Can you drive this car every day? Sure you can. Can your wife do it? Ehrrrm, she could but you wouldn’t let her. Can you go off road? No, please. You can reach your winter chalet in winter without snow chains but surely Alfa Romeo didn’t engineer this SUV to challenge a Land Rover Defender on rocky terrains.
Those seats, ohh those seats. Thin, firm, ergonomic and made of Carbon Fibre and finished in Alcantara. I couldn’t ask for more. They look stunning and they work great, both on the race track and on the road. Sitting position is excellent and the commands are in the right place. Shame though because some details look like they have been finished in a rush or the designers run out of
Space is plenty in the front seats and the back seats can host two adults comfortably. Headspace is plenty even if the overall internal dimension of this Stelvio is not of an Audi Q7. The boot is decent and I appreciated the sliding rails where you can arrange your equipment while driving like a lunatic on the Dolomites or…. on the Stelvio Pass, between Italy and Switzerland. (See the Porsche 356 article?)
Best in its class?
Is this car a winner? You decide. It lapped the Nurburgring Nordschleife in 7’51″00, not bad for an Italian debutant that costs a third of a Lamborghini Urus. It drives great on the race track, where normally most of SUV look like an elephant in a crystal shop, it feels at ease on open roads, it’s pretty, at least in the front, and it has a badge that has a history of cars with a soul, even if not perfect and not as disciplined as the German cousins. It’s moved by a Ferrari engineered engine that sounds glorious and has a red engine start button.
I was a toddler when my dad bought a Giulia Spider in 1977 and he looked like a superhero to my eyes. Maybe my kids felt the same way when saw me driving the Stelvio the other day.