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RAS AL KHAIMAH, Dubai – We travel to the Emirates to sample Alfa Romeo’s much-talked-about performance SUV...

Hang on … Dubai? Alfa Romeo launches its first-ever SUV – one named after the legendary mountain pass in the Italian Alps – in a country characterised by a flat, desert topography. What?

That’s exactly what I thought (it’s like you can read my mind sometimes). That is, until the words “Jebel Jais” popped up on our itinerary. Jebel Jais is a mountain in the northern Ras Al Khaimah region with an elevation of 1 934 metres and a road that is pretty much automotive heaven: billiard-table smooth, pleasingly wide, traffic-free and a brilliant combination of fast, sweeping corners and tight hairpins.

Okay, that sounds better. The Stelvio Quadrifoglio, then: I know you guys like the standard version ... what’s this one about?

We do indeed. The cooking Stelvio is imbued with all the characteristics we loved about the Giulia sedan. They share the same Giorgio platform and drivetrains, and that results in a wonderfully supple ride quality, sharp steering and suitably enthusiastic engines.

This flagship Stelvio steps it up a level or three with that jewel of 2,9-litre V6 twin-turbo petrol engine that retains the Giulia QV’s peak outputs of 375 kW at 6 500 r/min and 600 N.m between 2 500 and 5 000 r/min. This is managed through a revised version of the Giulia’s ZF-sourced, eight-speed automatic gearbox and it comes with huge alloy paddles that, in typical Italian style, are affixed to the steering column and not the steering wheel.

So, it’s quick?

A tenth quicker than the Giulia Quadrifoglio to a 100 km/h, claims Alfa (at 3,8 seconds), with a top speed just north of 280 km/h. This Stelvio is, of course, all-wheel drive, whereas the Giulia is rear only, giving the former an advantage off the line. So yes, plenty quick … but claiming the Nürburgring Nordschleife lap record for an SUV (at 7 min 51,7 secs) is evidence of abilities beyond straight-line acceleration, too.

I take it you had fun on the Jebel Jais then?

That we did. The Stelvio’s torque-vectoring system means it’s only all-wheel drive when the Pirelli P Zeros up front start to request assistance. The rest of the time, power is fed to the rear wheels only, allowing a degree of joie de vivre purism (especially in Race mode) that one is simply not accustomed to in an SUV.

I heard some complaints that it tended toward understeer when loaded up through tighter corners, but that’s going to happen to any heavy SUV. Delay your throttle inputs a little, time the turn-in, get the Stelvio balanced mid-corner before you feed in the power, and it’s a confidence-inspiring delight to pilot. Gentle drifts are well telegraphed and easily moderated, allowing us to really throw it around the upper reaches of the pass that, for this launch, was closed to regular traffic.

Having driven a Porsche Macan GTS in similar circumstances in Tenerife last year, I’d say this Alfa doesn’t just come uncomfortably close to matching the Teuton’s benchmark-setting dynamic abilities, but it clearly trumps it in the way Italian creativity and emotion can have the measure of German efficiency … be it on the football field or in a pair of performance SUVs. Either of this vehicles will get you to the top of the mountain blindingly quickly, but one will win your head-nodding respect and the other your whoops of unbridled joy bouncing of the cliff walls.

Are you saying it’s better than a Macan? Don’t let Toby hear that…

No, I’m not. They have different characteristics and I do think Porsche build-quality (and resale value) is the best there is, but along with that wonderful engine and nimble handling, there is more fun to be had behind the wheel of a Stelvio.

Look, at 1 830 kg, it’s still a heavy vehicle but, thanks to some weight-saving tech that includes extensive use of aluminium in the chassis sub-frames and a carbon-fibre propshaft, it is 80 to 100 kg lighter than the Macan Turbo and upcoming Mercedes-AMG GLC63. It’s also a tad longer and lower than those rivals and, along with that significant weight saving, the Stelvio gives the impression its centre of gravity is lower, making it feel more nimble and neutrally balanced.

And the brakes? The Giulia’s brake-by-wire system did cop some flak for being somewhat like an on-off switch. Is it any better in the Stelvio?

It is … a bit. The standard steel brakes still require little more than some gentle pressure from your big toe to operate, but there clearly has been some work done to the software in the Stelvio.

One of the Stelvio QVs on launch came with the optional ceramic brakes and this would definitely be one option box I would tick. As all ceramic discs do, they take a few pedal applications to warm up, but once up to temperature, they are far more progressive and allow a degree of modulation that inspires a whole lot more confidence when diving into a hairpin. Though yet to be confirmed, it's likely ceramics will be standard on the limited-run “First Edition” Stelvio Quadrifoglio models and an option thereafter (likely to cost in the region of R160 000, at a guess).

Final question, then: what’s it going to cost and will it be worth it?

Final pricing has yet to be confirmed, but I reckon you’ll be looking at around R1,8-million for the standard Stelvio Quadrifoglio. That is on the high side when compared to the Macan Turbo Performance (which comes in at just over R1,5-million) but then again, Alfa Romeo SA assures us that the hottest Stelvio will be pretty much an all-in spec (ceramic brakes aside) … and that you’d need to spend a little more on the German to reach the same levels of kit.

That said, as with the Giulia, the Stelvio’s interior isn’t quite up to the Macan’s and certainly nowhere near that of the Audi Q5’s – particularly when it comes to infotainment tech. And these are important qualities in an SUV.

Is it worth it, then? My head says no, but my heart screams “every bloody cent”. The Alfa Romeo engineering team that created the Giulia and Stelvio should be feted as national heroes in Italy. In just 26 months from design sketches to production, they have created two vehicles that have astounded us. Remember that this is Alfa’s first attempt at a performance SUV … and given its impressive abilities, that is a remarkable achievement.


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