2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio First Drive

Bold styling, a powerful engine and a name taken from a winding road in the Alps. What else <br /> would you expect from an SUV?

The 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio represents the third salvo of the storied Italian brand's return to the United States. While the names of the 4C sports car and Giulia sedan (salvos one and two, respectively) have historical origins within Alfa Romeo, this five-seat compact luxury SUV takes its title from a mountain road in the Alps seemingly modeled after a wet spaghetti noodle.

It may sound like a curious fit for an SUV, but the Stelvio name is indicative of its focus on driving enjoyment. The thing is, you could say the same about some of its competitors such as the Jaguar F-Pace and Porsche Macan, not to mention the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Mercedes-Benz GLC. The compact luxury SUV segment is immensely competitive and growing fast, so new entrants need to stand out.

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio

How It Stands Out
Being able to say "Made in Italy" is a good start. Bold styling that backs up that fact is even better. To this end, the Stelvio's fascia proudly bears the company's tribolo grille design and distinctive LED running lights. It also offers a striking array of optional 19- and 20-inch wheels along with red or yellow brake calipers. Clearly, the Stelvio is not about blending in.

Beyond the front end, the design resembles the Giulia sedan because the Stelvio is essentially a taller version of that vehicle. It shares the same suspension, engines and so on. They share similar trim levels, too, from an undesignated base model ($42,990) to a premium Ti trim ($44,990). A high-performance Quadrifoglio variant will be available early next year.

Both base and Ti variants offer a Sport package that adds the aforementioned cool-as-all-heck wheels, paddle shifters, separate suspension tuning and a few cosmetic upgrades. A Lusso package for the Ti trim dresses up the interior with 12-way power-adjustable seats and additional interior trim options.

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio

Power Down Low
While the Quadrifoglio variant will get a high-revving, Ferrari-derived 505-horsepower twin-turbo V6, all other Stelvios pack a grunty turbo 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder that's connected to an eight-speed automatic and all-wheel drive. Peak engine output of 280 hp and 306 lb-ft of torque is among the highest of its competitors, and the Stelvio delivers each remarkably early in its powerband (5,200 rpm and 2,000 rpm, respectively).

That kind of low-rpm power delivery should make it feel quick around town, yet the Stelvio's engine can take a beat or two to get moving from a dead stop, a feeling that's compounded by the stop-start system. Achieving acceleration near Alfa Romeo's 5.4-second zero-to-60-mph claim requires holding the Stelvio in place with your left foot on the brake while mashing the gas with your right — not something you'd do at every stoplight.

Once underway, the Stelvio's strong acceleration means that getting up to speed isn't much of a problem. The engine is vocal but not operatic, making a sound that has more grit than melody. And despite the power, the Stelvio's EPA-rated 24 mpg combined (22 city/28 highway) falls right in line with the competition.

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio

The Stelvio's intent on driving fun is obvious from the driver's seat. The Sport package's novelty-size shift paddles poke out like elephant ears behind the steering wheel, which itself hosts a large start button. Once underway, small inputs to the wheel translate to immediate action from the front tires. The responses convey agility and eagerness, but not the nervousness sometimes associated with quick-reacting steering systems.

The transmission behavior also shows how focused the Stelvio is on performance. When left to its own devices, it lets the engine slowly ramp up to speed in each gear instead of quickly shifting to higher gears to conserve fuel. Put the gear selector in manual mode and the engine will bang off its rev limiter until you ask for an upshift. Tugging on the shift paddles is satisfying but requires an eye on the tachometer as that 6,200-rpm fuel cut can sneak up on you.

Alfa Romeo's Q4 all-wheel-drive system biases power rearward for more natural handling, but it's capable of routing 60 percent of power to the front when needed. Most drivers probably won't notice the changes, but they might catch themselves taking corners a little faster than normal. Those who like to drive aggressively will enjoy the three drive mode settings that adjust shift timing, level of steering assist and stability control, as well as the response of the gas and brake pedals. If you need another indication of the Stelvio's focus, the Performance package available later this year adds driver-adjustable suspension and a helical locking rear differential, the latter being a rarity even among some sports cars.

In terms of handling prowess, only the costlier Porsche Macan or performance variants of the Stelvio's competitors come to mind. If we have one complaint, it's with an occasional inconsistency from the brake-by-wire system. Electronically controlled brakes mean the pedal feedback has to be simulated, and in the Stelvio it sometimes felt different from what we expected, requiring a short learning curve to stop smoothly.

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio

It's About Priorities
Considering the Stelvio's outward flamboyance, the simplicity of the interior might come as a surprise. The design is clean and bolstered by an array of optional wood and aluminum trims, but the interiors of other compact luxury SUVs convey a greater sense of luxury. Fortunately, the entertainment system's straightforward graphics and rotary controller make it generally easy to read and use. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support arrives this fall, but Stelvios sold before then will not be able to upgrade — be warned, shoppers.

Also note that the Stelvio is not big on the utility side of the equation. Its 3,000-pound tow capacity is among the lowest of its group, and its second-row accommodations and cargo area fall on the smaller side of the compact SUV spectrum. While children and average-size adults will fit without their knees touching the front seats, larger folk might complain on longer drives.

But you shouldn't expect class-leading utility from an Italian vehicle named after a winding road in the Alps. The Stelvio instead pegs the fun-factor needle, making the thought of each drive appealing on a purely emotional level. That doesn't happen very often with SUVs, so the Stelvio is well positioned to make a big impression on the compact luxury utility segment.