What I Learned Driving the Alfa Romeo Stelvio back-to-back with the Giulia

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Regular drivers in regular cars doing regular things in their regular lives. If you ask most people, they don’t aspire to be just regular, yet, overall, most of us wind up doing regular shit day in and day out. Life defaults to being excruciatingly routine if you let it. The “good enough” mindset sets in, and one day you wake up just another average Joe or Jill. It’s a fact of life. We all make sacrifices in the name of convenience and practicality because to do otherwise usually causes more struggle than necessary. That makes everything work smoothly, but it also totally dulls your life experience, and frankly, it’s depressing.

Compromise is the reality, though. The fact is, most genuinely remarkable things in life are exceedingly impractical and don’t really fit into the lives of most people. In our minds, we’d all love to be that stylish and interesting person who’s always going on adventures, seemingly without a care in the world… or a budget, for that matter. That idealistic perception can never really be fulfilled, but what we all can do is make our compromises intelligent. Okay, maybe you can’t really be the guy who daily drives a sexy classic Italian sports car. Even if you can afford one, if you have a family it doesn’t really work out that well, and that’s not even counting the car’s functional lack of reliability. The dream doesn’t have to die with a boring minivan or nameless sedan, though. There is a very real middle ground that can give you most of the experiences you’re yearning for while also satisfying your practical needs.

Car enthusiasts, like myself, are well aware of this, but the average consumer may not be as turned on to it. I’ve seen a lot of more casual car people go from driving something genuinely fun to something awful like a Minivan or a mundane SUV. It’s sad, and it’s not necessary. Meet Alfa Romeo, a company that makes sports cars of different sizes and shapes.

If you’ve never driven an Italian car you need to throw all of your assumptions out the window until you’ve been behind the wheel and driven like you mean it. They all have a very special sauce, something that cars from other countries never grasp in quite the same way, and you can’t imagine it until you’ve actually experienced it firsthand.

If I had to try to sum it up, it’s like an Italian car connects with its driver at a deeper level within the brain than other cars. While driving, the car becomes like an extension of you, and you basically just think your way down the road. It gets more and more noticeable the faster your drive. Because of this deeper connection with its driver, an Italian car never feels like “just” a machine. It has a very tangible sense of being alive, like your noble steed that’s always ready to ride.

Don’t believe me? Go drive one. If you still don’t believe me, you didn’t drive fast enough.

I’ve driven all types of Italian cars, everything from Fiats to Ferraris, and the sport-focused ones all have this deep connection with the driver. I don’t know why I was in doubt about the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, but it was just hard to picture this SUV, which sort of looks like a Mazda CX5, as being anything special. Surely there had to be some serious compromises compared to the Giulia sport sedan, right?

Wrong!

I was able to drive this white Stelvio Ti back-to-back with this black Giulia Ti, and I could not believe the sheer lack of compromise in the SUV. The speed was similar, the handling was similar, the connected feel was the same. The only slight differences were the Stelvio’s higher ride height and slightly larger size, but the differences are slight, and you really wouldn’t notice unless you drive them back-to-back like I did. It’s astounding how satisfying the Stelvio drives from an enthusiast standpoint. Especially if you’re expecting a typical SUV experience, you will be totally blown away. This is a sport sedan disguised as an SUV, and it loves to be driven as such.

You need to understand that in Alfa Romeo’s viewpoint, they only make enthusiast cars. There are no “regular” options. If it has an Alfa badge you can bank on it being a blast to drive. In market terms, the “normal” Alfa models are better to drive than all of their competition that doesn’t wear a high-performance badge. For example, this Stelvio Ti directly competes with the BMW X3 30i, but I can attest that it offers the same level of driving satisfaction as the X3 M40i that I drove recently… a car in a much higher class for around $20,000 more. The Alfa gives you the full-on, rally-car-style high-performance experience in a class of crossovers that are considered the base models. I’m talking to the extent that it would make me wonder if spending the extra money was even worth it. It’s that satisfying behind the wheel.

These Alfas just loved to be pushed hard on the road, and the faster you go the more they reward you with speed and the feeling of telepathic connection between you, the car and the road. I was able to take some corners at a pace that would have been illegal on the highway in both the Stelvio and the Giulia, and they both just begged for more and more. It was intoxicating. There are many actual “sports cars” out there that don’t do the job even half as well. And now you can have that experience, uncompromised, in a reasonably priced luxury SUV!!!

I think what I find most incredible about these Alfas is I’m saying all of these things having never even driven the Quadrifoglio models – the actual high-performance versions with Ferrari engines in them. These are just the basic 2.0L Turbo models with “280hp” (actual tests show it’s more like 320hp), and they’re this good. The paddle shift gearbox is also far better and more engaging for the driver than every one of the Stelvio’s competitors. In function and operation, it feels much more like the paddle shifts in actual exotic cars, rather than like just pushing a little button. It adds a lot to the “special” feeling of the Alfa, especially when driving quickly.

I have very high standards for how my own cars drive, and I can tell you I’d happily drive a Stelvio Ti every day.

How about the reliability, though?

Ah yes, the Achilles Heel of every Alfa argument. My own opinion, from what I’ve seen of the issues the new Aflas have had, is that it’s mostly software issues that are being fixed with updates. Over time, they should go away. Fiat-Chrysler has had pretty consistent issues with their cars in the first year on the road, but keep the car updated and you should be okay.

Also, keep in mind who we’re comparing the Stelvio to, BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and Jaguar, each of which is hardly a model for reliability and low running costs. In the context of European luxury cars, I don’t even think the Alfa’s issues have been that bad.

If you’re concerned, lease one, or buy the extended warranty, but the issues I’ve seen the Alfas having pale in comparison to some of the catastrophic issues seen in many other European luxury cars… things like VW/Audi’s timing chain tensioners failing at 70k miles, destroying the whole engine, for example. I’ll take a few software glitches any day of the week over that.

You can’t expect 100% perfect reliability or build quality from any Italian car, but the trade-off you get is a car with so much more personality than anything else like it. It will enrich your life every single day, and for many people, that’s worth it.

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Summing it up

An Alfa Romeo is a car you’ll buy with your heart more than your head, although I think the Stelvio has enough practical appeal to satisfy much of the brain as well. As I said in my Giulia review before, Alfas aren’t for everyone. If you always play it safe in life, this is likely not the SUV for you (although, it might do you some good). Alfas appeal to people who are a bit more daring, willing to gamble a little to really live life to the fullest. If you find yourself playing it safe, but yearning to make life more interesting, I’d urge you to at least go test drive an Alfa. It might just change your life.

As a young man who loves fun cars, but who is finding myself more and more strapped down with adult responsibilities, I love that cars like the Alfa Stelvio exist. The mix of legit sports car dynamics in a genuinely practical crossover package gives me comfort because I know I’ll never “have” to be the guy who gave it all up for a shitty minivan.

The burgeoning segment of fun and fast crossovers are like the hot-hatches of our modern automotive trends. If we really are going toward a world of SUVs, at least many of them are going to be fun. Crossovers like the Alfa Stelvio definitely help me embrace the changes we are seeing in the industry.

Seriously, just go drive one!

-Nick Walker

MoM Score: Alfa Romeo Stelvio Ti
Primary Function: Driving Experience: 2
Secondary Functions: Luxury(2) Practicality(2) MPG(2): 2
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 1
Value for Money: 2

Final Score: 9 /10

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