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The 2022 Alfa Romeo Stelvio VeloceMark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

There aren’t many Alfa Romeos on the roads in Canada. In the week in which I drove the Stelvio, the luxury car brand’s compact SUV, I didn’t see another Alfa.

The numbers back me up. Last year, Alfa Romeo was the second-lowest-selling mass-market car brand in Canada, ahead only of Fiat, another Stellantis-owned brand. So much for the appeal of Italian vehicles in this country. Alfa sold about 50,000 vehicles around the world in 2021, of which fewer than 1,000 were in Canada.

“We kind of took our eye off the ball,” Larry Dominique, the head of Alfa Romeo and Fiat in North America, told me late last year. “There were a lot of stops and starts with the brand, previous to the Stellantis merger [of Fiat Chrysler and PSA Group in 2021]. The new philosophy of Alfa Romeo as a brand is about quality, customer satisfaction and profitability. It’s not about volume.”

Dominique said Alfa’s vehicles were generally priced too low to be considered competitive with its German targets, with too much emphasis on leasing. “Why should we [charge] less than BMW or Mercedes?” he said. “Our vehicles are just as good; in fact, I think they’re better. If you sell a better product and a brand experience, customers will pay for that.”

Which brings us back to the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, now available at five different trim levels. The most basic edition, called the Sprint, begins at $57,795. Next, there’s the TI ($60,595), and the Veloce that I drove ($65,595). Those are the 2022 prices; for 2023, they each cost an extra $200. And now there’s the Estrema ($69,295), with larger, 21-inch wheels and adaptive suspension.

Finally, there’s the $101,295 Stelvio Quadrifoglio, which has a 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 developed by Ferrari. That’s in a class of its own, so let’s just leave it there for this review.

Any Alfa is all about performance, and the performance does not disappoint. The Stelvio’s 280-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine claims an acceleration to 100 kilometres an hour in 5.7 seconds. That’s about as good as it gets for a gas-powered compact SUV. In comparison with electric vehicles, however, that time is relatively sluggish. Just for example, I saw sub-four-second accelerations with the Genesis GV60.

Alfa Romeo is well aware of the potential of electric vehicles. Dominique says the brand will be fully electric in North America by 2028.

A car like the Stelvio is not about burning away from the traffic lights. It’s about whipping through corners with just your fingertips on the steering wheel, and letting the eight-speed automatic transmission select just the right gear for the ideal amount of pull. In this, the well-balanced Stelvio excels. Unfortunately for Alfa, so do the BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche.

The paddle shifters are fixed to the shaft of the steering wheel, but other manufacturers moved their paddles long ago to more effective positioning on the wheel itself.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

This is where the cabin of the Stelvio should make the difference for the driver, by emphasizing its Italian heritage and flair. But it doesn’t. It’s nice enough, and the quality of the materials cannot be faulted, but the interior was just a little too blah for me. Where’s the colourful contrast stitching? The shiny Italian bling? The clever technology of a fully digital display? This was the more costly Veloce, don’t forget, with 20-inch wheels and sport seats, but the dark grey oak-wood accents looked like more muted plastic.

There are, at least, a couple of quirky touches to remind you of the car’s character. The start-stop button is on the left of the steering wheel, and after a week of driving, I still automatically searched for the button with my right hand. The paddle shifters, too, are fixed to the shaft of the steering wheel; they’re large, so they’re usually close to your hands, but other manufacturers moved their paddles long ago to more effective positioning on the wheel itself.

I don’t know about Dominique’s claim that Alfa is better than its direct competition, but it’s not worse. In the end, it all comes down to personal taste. Do you want the guaranteed satisfaction of a Porsche Macan, or a hot BMW X3, or do you place a greater value on the Alfa Romeo badge?

Tech specs

2022 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Veloce

  • Base price/as tested: $57,795/$68,815
  • Engine: Two-litre turbocharged inline-four; 280 horsepower/306 lb-ft of torque
  • Transmission/drive: Eight-speed automatic/all-wheel drive
  • Fuel consumption (litres per 100 kilometres, premium recommended): 10.8 city, 8.1 highway, 9.3 combined
  • Alternatives: Porsche Macan, BMW X3, Audi Q5, Mercedes-Benz GLC, Genesis GV70, Acura RDX

The attractive Ocra GT Junior colour on the test model costs an additional $2,700.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Looks

The Stelvio is a distinctive vehicle at the front, with a deep and narrow V-shaped grille. The grille is really split into three, with horizontal intakes down low that draw in much of the cooling air. From the side and the back, it’s less memorable. It helped for finding the tester in parking lots that it was painted in an attractive “Ocra GT Junior” colour, which I’d call yellowy-gold and cost an additional $2,700.

The cabin is busy but efficient and mostly forgettable.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Interior

Not unattractive, but mostly forgettable. In fairness, the optional red leather-faced sport seats would jazz up the cabin for an extra $695, but they’d probably clash with the exterior paint.

The cabin is busy but efficient. A relatively small digital touch-screen display is nicely incorporated into the fascia, and there are still analogue buttons and dials for the climate control. Heated seats are standard both front and rear, while vented seats aren’t available, and there’s reasonable space for two adults in the back. Not generous, but reasonable.

The two-litre turbocharged inline-four engine has 280 horsepower and 306 lbs.-ft of torque.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Performance

This is the Stelvio’s forte. It’s comparatively quick and enjoyable to drive without being ridiculously powerful (cue the Quadrifoglio option). The Veloce also includes a limited-slip differential that helped control the corners with only the slightest oversteer. Perhaps it was the snug feel of the sport seats that came with the Veloce, but the car always felt ready to go. Or maybe it was just the left-side positioning of the start-stop button that caught me out every single time, reminding me this was an Alfa.

There are three drive modes, which Alfa labels DNA: D is “dynamic,” N is “natural” and A is “advanced efficiency.” It’s a bit of a stretch in wordplay and perhaps it works better in Italian, but the modes themselves do exactly what you want, adjusting the torque limit, rear-wheel-drive bias, and the sensitivity of throttle, steering and shifting. I would have liked to customize the settings to my own preference, but that was not possible.

Technology

All the usual stuff is here, including blind-spot assistance and active lane-departure warning as standard. Spend extra for the other trims and you’ll get more, including active blind-spot assistance and traffic-jam assistance, which will stop and accelerate the car in traffic on cruise control. The active lane-departure assistance, however, kept turning off, or telling me to put my hands on the wheel when they were already on the wheel, so I turned it off.

One time, the car alarm went off when I opened the car door in my driveway, with the key in my pocket, and I couldn’t shut it off even when I started the car and slipped it into gear. The display told me a break-in was detected. I was thinking about driving to my local Chrysler dealer and leaving it there for a while, when the horn finally went silent. My neighbour, who owns a Fiat, wasn’t the least bit surprised.

The trunk has 1,600 litres of space with the back seats down and 523 litres with them up.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Cargo

Fold all the seats down and there’s 1,600 litres of space; leave the second row in place and there’s 523 litres. That’s on the small side for this segment, and the narrow hatch door adds an extra challenge.

The verdict

It’s a little quirky, but it’s fun to drive. A sensible person looking for a sporting compact SUV will probably buy a Porsche Macan, but they’re everywhere.

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