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A home run on home turf

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio.

The Alfa Romeo Stelvio aims to strike gold around the world

Around the halfway-point on the drive along the infamous Stelvio Pass, we encounter a meteorological metaphor.

In Bormio, the town where we start the drive, the weather is clear and sunny. At the summit, some 20 kilometres up the highest paved road in the Alps, the sky is bright again. In between these two altitudinal extremes, we discover a thick layer of midmorning mist and fog that refuses to burn off.

For the time being, the 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio is mired in the mist. There's a degree of uncertainty over what lies around the bend for this first-ever SUV from a storied purveyor of Italian sports cars. In fact, there's a degree of uncertainty over the Alfa Romeo brand itself.

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The very idea of Alfa Romeo is still new to customers in North America. The brand has a rich, continuous history at home, 107 years and counting. But it only just returned to these shores in late 2014 and the Stelvio joins the fleet at a critical juncture.

Alfa Romeo has a century-long history at home, but it only returned to North America in 2014.

"A brand cannot have too many SUVs in its lineup these days," says Robert Karwel, senior manager at J.D. Power & Associates, in the Toronto office. "So the addition of this body style will have a significant impact on Alfa's volumes in Canada … and bring a lot of customers to the showroom."

Sales for Alfa Romeo in the United States are up more than 1,000 per cent year to date, powered mainly by the Giulia sedan that was introduced in 2016. However, this is just a sliver of what the major luxury manufacturers move off their respective lots. For Canada and the United States combined, year-to-date sales ring in at 6,509; contrast that with Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz, which sold more than 25 times as many vehicles over the same period (Audi: 166,281; BMW: 219,427; Mercedes: 248,045).

This reveals the scale of the challenge for Alfa Romeo. On the other hand, the German auto makers have many more models to choose from, whereas Alfa only has three models. The FCA-owned company chose the sporty Stelvio as its gauntlet.

Alfa Romeo’s combined sales in the United States and Canada amount to a sliver of what luxury manufacturers are moving off their lots.

"Other than the premium mid-size sedan, the premium mid-size SUV segment is the fastest-growing segment in the premium space," says Pieter Hogeveen, director of Alfa Romeo North America.

"What I think makes the Stelvio unique is that we know a lot of people are looking for the capability of a utility vehicle, but [it] will stand out from a design, performance and driving-dynamics perspective."

This is no empty statement. The Stelvio was developed in parallel with the Giulia – same platform, suspension system and engine range. The focus from the start of development has been on the driver.

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In the process, the engineers in Italy benchmarked the competitive set and sought to go one better. The modern mid-size crossover is a better driver's car than ever before; the Stelvio makes a strong claim to being the best of the bunch.

The steering, at first blush, is overlight. But it's also remarkably direct and that lightness is soon appreciated as speeds rise and the number of hairpin turns attacked on the Stelvio Pass rises into the 40s.

The Stelvio has a robust braking system and remarkably direct steering.

The turbocharged four-cylinder engine, with 280 horsepower and 306 lb-ft of torque, outshines the immediate competition from a sheer numbers perspective. The Stelvio is also quicker to reach 100 kilometres an hour (by about a half-second) and faster over all (top speed is 232 km/h) than comparably priced mid-size SUVS from Audi, BMW or Porsche.

There are three drive modes to choose from: dynamic, natural and advanced efficiency (the acronym: DNA).

The transmission, a single-clutch eight-speed automatic, is exceedingly quick to respond and the oversized metallic paddle shifters invite engagement. Redline is low at 6,200 rotations a minute, but the torque kicks in early and, so long as you keep shifting gears, momentum is uninterrupted, even when mountain-climbing. The braking system is surprisingly robust and fade-free, qualities that come into sharp focus during the 2,757-metre descent.

Most impressive about the Stelvio is its handling prowess.

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The Alfa Romeo lays claim to being the lightest mid-size SUV currently on the market. With a near 50/50 weight distribution and an all-wheel-drive system that diverts up to 50 per cent of engine torque to the front wheels, the Stelvio always seems to be in the right place with the right power at the correct wheel at the right time.

The Stelvio has the responsiveness to deal with the unexpected on the hairpin turns of the Stelvio Pass.

There are moments when the stability control and torque-vectoring systems cut power to the wheels, times when the onboard computers may be predicting imminent doom. But this lithe SUV can actually be pushed toward its natural limits without going into panic mode.

Around hairpin turn after hairpin turn, through the more wide-open sections of the pass and over ripples with the capacity to bounce the average SUV over the edge, the Alfa proves it has the underpinnings of a true performance car. Even when we pass through that murky midpoint, the Stelvio proves it has the responsiveness to deal with the unexpected. As oncoming trucks, buses and cyclists emerge from the mist with startling regularity, the Alfa remains unperturbed throughout the ordeal.

"When you come back to North America with a historic brand like Alfa Romeo, it's important to make a strong, positive first impression," Hogeveen says. "Our customers will be 100-per-cent conquest if you're being realistic and they're used to a premium experience. We've got the Giulia and the Stelvio and with just those two vehicles, we're already competing in nearly 50 per cent of the premium-automotive industry. We feel we've got the right products for the right time."

The design brief for the Stelvio included a guiding principle called belezza necessaria: necessary beauty. Given how important SUVs are to a manufacturer's overall financial health, it may be impossible to overstate how necessary the Stelvio will be for Alfa Romeo.

"We have seen other historically car-based brands execute very good product in this body style, such as Jaguar and Porsche, and both have enjoyed commercial success," Karwel says. "As long as Alfa delivers on its core brand promises to the customer, there is no reason to think it won't be successful."

The 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio has a base price of $54,995, putting it right in the mix with the competitive set and making shopping decisions for crossover fans even tougher. The Stelvio Quadrifoglio, a high-performance version powered by the same engine found in the Giulia Quadrifoglio, arrives in the early part of 2018.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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