Curbside Review: 2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio AWD – The Ferrari Of Crossovers

Spoiler alert – Nothing went wrong with this vehicle while I drove it 636 miles over a week’s time.  Some of you may find that surprising, the more cynical among you may figure just wait.  Whatever, I didn’t play it safe with the Stelvio while I had it and was informed that I was the last driver to sample this one before it was sent back so enjoy it to the fullest.  Between late night freeway runs, deep snow on remote mountain roads at around 10,000 feet, sub-freezing temperatures, or even a three hour traffic jam where I moved about a dozen miles in a snow storm it didn’t set a foot wrong, move a gauge needle alarmingly, or make a curious noise, let alone outright fail me in any way.  But a total love-fest it was not.  So read on.

Before going further though, if nothing else, I think we have to admire the chutzpah that Alfa Romeo (and more correctly, FCA) has shown by even selling this car and the sedan Giulia Quadrifoglio variant here in the United States.  From Car&Driver’s cursed long-term car to numerous online tales of woe from some of the other early buyers of these two cars with its exotic Ferrari-derived engine, it is somewhat surprising that they are sticking with it and continuing to offer it.  After all, how many buyers of these expensive variants can there really be as compared to the regular ones?  And how many casual observers can really tell the difference?

It’s more race car (ok, CUV) than street car with a phenomenal output per liter (505hp from 2.9 turbocharged liters for 174hp/l) that is surprisingly livable but also flawed for perhaps being TOO livable if that makes sense.  Alfa could have just as easily come back to the US by just offering the relatively normally powered Giulia like the one I tested and loved last summer and its Stelvio stablemade, but no, they decided to throw caution to the wind and give us the one everybody would have said they really wanted if they didn’t do so.

I’ve driven the Giulia Quadrifoglio as well (on a track, for not nearly long enough) and gave an impression of it here along with a bunch of other cars.  While endowed with the same drivetrain it’s bonkers as well, but everybody knows that sedans are dead (are they really?) and the CUV market is where the real action is.  So here we are with this beauty/beast draped in Rosso Competizione Tri-Coat exterior paint.

My only real regret is that it was snowy, wet, and/or icy for most of my week with it.  On dry roads this is no doubt an astonishingly fast vehicle.  On roads in other conditions, even the Pirelli winter tires it was fitted with couldn’t hold it back from trying to break out.

Oh, going around every corner with slightly more throttle than prudent (i.e. boring) and having the tail break out to about a 20 degree drift angle before the front wheels kicked in to pull it back into line every time (except for once, doh!  Tankslapper alert, don’t let off the throttle, it’ll come back in line…) was hugely entertaining all the time except when running a bit late to a snow driving event and having to pass slower traffic up a switch-backed road where if the rear kicked out it could put it across the center line.  In that instance it was a bit skatey but still wonderfully communicative and the near 50/50 weight distribution paid dividends in controllability.

Let’s talk about the AWD system for a minute. Basically it’s a RWD setup until the rear slips and then it can push up to 50% of the total power to the front wheels.  It seems to have a decent amount of lag built in for this process so that it really does behave more like a RWD vehicle until the car and driver pretty much agree that a little bit (or a lot) of help up front would be nice and then it does so.  The limited slip rear differential and the weight distribution along with the way the AWD is set up makes for a very well balanced vehicle that is more rewarding the faster it’s driven, as was the Giulia.

Still, the night prior to the event when I was also running very late to get to my overnight accommodations at the base of the mountain really saw this machine come into its own running down a sparsely occupied Colorado autostrada at speeds I won’t mention here on the open stretches without other traffic around.  Simply put, this vehicle seems to pull stronger from points beginning AT the speed limit than most other cars do from a stop in first gear and finding a point at which that starts to diminish is simply not possible on a public road by a sane person.

2.9 liters.  All-aluminum V-6 engine architecture.  Twin turbos.  505hp.  443lb-ft.  0-60 in 3.6 seconds.  Boy howdy!  When on the boil the engine is magnificent.  The exhaust absolutely rips when the throttle is floored and emits a startlingly loud blatting noise while shifts occur at full throttle.  Even around town power is right here, right now, all the time, any time.  There is no situation where more power is needed or desired.  It simply pins you in your seat and presses your head into the headrest.  And the engine looks magnificent as well although that’s not uncommon with Alfa Romeo.

The transmission is a ZF 8-speed automatic with gorgeous aluminum shift paddles behind the wheel, or just leave it in Drive, it’s intelligent and will adjust to your driving.  If you accelerate hard it will hold the gear, will downshift, etc. but if you drive it gently it’ll shift gently too.  Changing the drive mode will exacerbate these traits even more to both extremes, and there are enough modes for every mood and situation just a simple twist of a dial away.

But what did I say earlier about it not being a love-fest?  Well, truth be told, when just moving about town, it doesn’t sound special at all; if anything, at small throttle openings, i.e. the normal commute, it sounds positively nasal and more like a boring naturally aspirated four that doesn’t have enough sound deadening.  Not that it has to pop and fizz constantly but some kind of positive aural stimulation would be welcome.  Or just total silence.  Sure it goes, turns, stops, yada yada yada, but not really any different than anything else around you on a normal road at normal speeds.

There is just not enough of a sense of occasion in this type of situation.  Not until there’s a bit of open road or you’re the first off the line or you’re not dead tired from a day at work.  A better way to describe it is that this vehicle is at its best (and in that case it’s really, really good) when taken by the scruff of its neck and used as much as it can be (and it enjoys that) but I think if I were spending as much as this is I’d really want to feel that sense of occasion even when driving it through an automated car wash.

Braking?  Simply superb with huge Brembo calipers and Alfa’s “intelligent brake system” which, like on the Giulia, is a brake-by-wire system.  While the calipers aren’t electrically operated, the rest of the system allows virtually instant response; coupled with the sheer size of the componentry stopping is a non-issue, even if the large wheels make the discs look small (they aren’t, the fronts are 14.2″ in diameter, rears are 13.8″).  Although if frequent track sessions are in an owner’s repertoire, a full carbon disk option is also available.

Inside it’s gorgeous and shocker for an Italian car everything falls to hand and is logically placed.  The roof with the panoramic sunroof is a bit low for me (6’1″ with 32″ inseam for reference) so that would have to stay at the factory, but the back seat is livable with enough legroom and the front is very comfortable.

Of course it is, how could it not be, draped as it was in black leather on seemingly every surface with green and white stitching and genuine carbon fiber trim panels, heated seats fore and aft (but not the wheel, natch) with manually extendable thigh bolsters but otherwise everything powered.

Truly a special place to be but in the end not all that different from the bog-standard normal Stelvio (which is really more a compliment for the regular one than a demerit here to be honest).

The Stelvio does see some minor improvements for 2020, not least of which is the infotainment system.  My 2019 still had the old version which I didn’t dislike in the Giulia but here, now, definitely started to feel old.  The voice commands had trouble understanding what I wanted and the selector wheel made everything just take too long, the screen could be larger and the navigation and backup camera resolution is not as good as it could/should be at this price point.  One point in its favor is that it is extremely well integrated into the interior, doesn’t look tacked on at all and doesn’t even look like a screen when it’s not on.

I don’t think the 2020 version will be as good as if they simply just integrated the corporate Uconnect system which really is excellent in almost every version that I’ve tried of it.  As I said, at least the screen is very well integrated but I’d give that up for better usability.  Since it does have Android Auto and Apple CarPlay I simply plugged my phone in and used it that way as I seem to do in more and more vehicles these days.  Immediate problem solved.

I took one of my boys snowboarding on his birthday, it was a snowy day and the first ski place we went to was already full half an hour prior to their opening time.  So we set off along the Peak-to-Peak highway above Boulder down to Idaho Springs and then followed the navigation system to Echo Mountain, a smaller place that ended up being wonderful.

Well, we ended up taking a route that took us up and over a mountain on thin switchbacky roads (likely dirt under a ton of snow) and the Alfa did phenomenally well here.

If anything it felt like I was in the Monte Carlo Rally and trying to peer around the switchbacks to be sure nobody was coming and then powering up the inclines around the hairpin turns with the tail out and power on in order not to lose momentum and get stuck.  Stuck we never got, not even close, but it was a fairly hairy drive that lasted over an hour on these tiny back roads.

Cargo room is decent for this size of vehicle although the back is fairly sloped and perhaps a bit on the skinny side, however the cargo bay is deep.  The back seats fold in multiple configurations and while we only had a snowboard and duffel bag, plenty more would have fit.  It’s not huge, but enough for a reasonable amount of luggage.  As expected this load area was trimmed out nicer than the front cabin of many less expensive vehicles.

Gas mileage?  I got 17.5mpg over the distance I drove it, however the weather and driving conditions sucked for much of it.  It takes premium unleaded and is rated at 17 city, 23 highway, and 19 combined which seems realistic and frankly is excellent for the power level.  The tank is a little on the small side at 16.9 gallons which caused me some serious concern when I got stuck in a traffic jam in a snowstorm and I was miles from an offramp with the estimated range figure plummeting faster than I preferred.

So for the non-Alfisti amongst you, you may be wondering what’s the deal with the four-leafed clover on this Alfa’s flanks?  Well, it dates back to 1920 when a driver named Ugo Sivocci started racing for Alfa Romeo.  Frustrated by a bunch of second place finishes he decided to paint a clover on his race car backed by a white square.  Sure enough, he won the next race so it stuck and became Alfa’s good luck token.

After he passed away a few years later in a testing accident, Alfa removed one corner thus making the background a triangle and now only uses it for their Formula One cars as well as the ultimate editions of their street going machinery.  Many of us can perhaps recall the Alfa Spider Quadrifoglio of the ’80’s and ’90’s but in that case it was merely a trim level and didn’t denote any serious mechanical differentiation.  The Milano (75 in other markets) Quadrifoglio (known as the Verde in the US) did get a larger engine than the other trim levels and the 164 also had a very small batch of Quadrifoglio trimmed ones.  Then the lights went out over here and it was “the period of great darkness and despair” without Alfa, perhaps Europe got some others with their forbidden fruits.

What else?  Oh, yeah, the DNA system wherein with a knob you can alter the characteristics of the power, exhaust, suspension (active), etc just like in the Giulia but with the Quadrifoglio you also get a “Race” mode in addition to the other three.  Switch to that and first the instrument panel lights up like a christmas tree as all the nannies get turned completely off and the warning light for each one illuminates so you know what you are getting into.

The exhaust note deepens and the overboost function for the turbos kicks in.  I only tried it once on a semi-dry road and then gave up, it was just too risky for the conditions but the potential for real greatness is there for sure.  I may have been the last driver for this car, but I still needed to give it back in one piece.

Anyway, so on to the nitty-gritty.  For 2019 this version started at a fiver short of $80k, the 2020 version is a couple of hundred more.  The stunning paint which was clean for maybe the first two minutes I had it adds $2,200.  As far as colors go, the only color included at no extra charge is red.  Every other color costs an additional $600 and the special red this car carries as well as a special pearl white is $2,200.  I do love the fact that bright red is the only standard no charge color, that’s just so Alfa.

This one was a “Nero Edizione” which pulls $350 of green from the wallet in exchange for a dark grille, badging, and mirror caps.  The Convenience Package for $200 provides a set of sturdy inset cargo rails and movable cleats, a 115V outlet and a cargo net in back, and the driver assistance package (ACC, LDW, auto highbeams) costs another $1,20o.

The heated rear seat commands $350, the Dual-Pane sunroof that I’d avoid calls for $1,350, the carbon fiber and alcantara steering wheel goes for $400 (and is backed by the same solid metal shifter paddles as in lesser versions) and lastly the stunning staggered 20″ wheels in 9″ and 10″ widths front and rear, respectively, round out the options list at a further $500 (a steal) for a grand total of US$88,140 once the $1,595 destination charge is included.

Big numbers to be sure, but not overpriced.  It’s in line with the competition, more or less, and let’s be real, nobody who is plunking down the cash for this is in the least concerned about depreciation, it’s not being cross-shopped against a CR-V. It’s not a Consumer Reports special so let’s be big boys and girls and not treat it like Brutus treated Julius.

The target market has money to spare, this price is a pittance for that market, and part of what that money buys is exclusivity; you will likely not be parking next to anything remotely the same every day and if something does go wrong, the service department will probably take a bit longer than normal to figure it out, it’s just not common enough, at least it’ll be on their dime for the first  four years and/or 50k miles, whichever comes first.  But I’m still baffled (and pleased) that they offer it, the (my?) world was a sadder place without Alfa Romeo on our shores.

So my verdict?  To be as brutally honest as this is fast, I believe it’s probably far better at 120mph than at 20mph, which was presumably part of its design brief.  And likely gets even better the faster one takes it.  From a pure “driver’s” perspective it’s exceptional but being able to actually use all that it offers would be precisely BE the exception, in this country at least.  For an everyday vehicle (and assuming that it’s not part of a large fleet as it may well be for many actual owners) I believe that the regular Stelvio with the still very powerful 2.0l turbo 4 may be the better choice.

That being said, I have not driven a regular Stelvio (yet) but having driven a regular Giulia and this being based on the same chassis with more similarities than differences (bar the body style) that would likely be my own personal choice.  But if you are in the market, I would encourage you to drive them all.  None of them are humdrum.