Is the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Veloce as fun as the V6 Quadrifoglio version?
Will cut his teeth as a designer on Evo magazine, before slinging a U-ey and writing for them instead. So if it has four wheels and an engine then there's a chance he's drifted it in front of a camera and then written about it. When he's not writing he can be found trying to stop Wagtails defecating on his old Range Rover.
The Audi RS4 has the S4. The BMW M2 the M240i. The Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 has the GLC 43. Until now it didn’t seem as though the Alfa Romeo Stelvio had an introductory model before the full-blooded Quadrifoglio version. But thanks to a rejig in the Stelvio line-up (so that it matches the 2020 model year Giulia), there’s now a Veloce version of the Italian SUV. And just as it is in the saloon, the Veloce is the sportiest of the non-V6 models.
In reality, the Stelvio Veloce already existed, it just wasn’t called that. The same 2-litre petrol engine with 276bhp and 295lb ft of torque that’s in the 2020 Veloce was previously available in the old Stelvio. The car’s four-wheel drive system, eight-speed automatic and adaptive dampers are also the same as before and so is its 0-62mph time of 5.7 sec and 142mph top speed. There's also a diesel Stelvio Veloce with 207bhp and 347lb ft from its 2.2-litre diesel engine, but it’s the petrol version that we drove so we’ll stick to talking about that.
It’s not just the Veloce’s name and its status in the range that’s new, the entire Stelvio range gets a refresh. That includes a new steering wheel with controls for active cruise control and lane-keep assist (both also new), touchscreen infotainment with new graphics, a leather-wrapped gear selector and a more quality feel to the entire interior.
I’m not entirely sold on the new steering wheel. It looks a lot like the old one, only with an extra set of buttons for the new cruise control elements, but the plastic spokes protrude a little further and you can feel it in your palms. The other changes are more successful. The leather on the gear selector is smooth and tactile, and it replaces plastics that had sharp and tangible manufacturing marks. Everything now has a satisfying solidity to it too; no brittle or hollow bits of trim.
This more premium feel is matched by the new satnav screen that looks one part iPhone and one part Porsche infotainment system. Although it isn’t as quick to react to your prods and swipes as a smartphone, it does look fresh and is easy enough to use. The old rotary knob has also been helpfully retained, should playing with the touchscreen be a little too distracting.
The new cruise control and lane-keep assist bring the Stelvio up to level 2 autonomy and, although they work well together, they have completely opposing personalities. The radar-guided cruise can be abrupt and waits to the last minute to adjust the car’s speed. This is no bad thing; if you anticipate and choose your route through traffic, not getting too close to another vehicle, it never changes your speed.
On the other end of the spectrum is the lane assist that’s incredibly subtle. So nuanced is its influence that you’re not sure if its actually guiding the car or, in some Charles Xavier-like telepathic way, that it’s somehow influenced you to move the steering wheel involuntarily. It also never gets close to a white line before it reacts, so the car just follows the carriageway rather than pin-balling from one edge of the road to other. It’s remarkably impressive.
The Stelvio’s real ace has always been how enjoyable it is to drive. And, as nothing about its setup or drivetrain has really changed, the new car is still just as enjoyable. I’m no fan of SUVs, generally. An estate is just as practical as an SUV, but thanks to a lower centre of gravity and lower weight, they have a much broader range of skills.
But the Stelvio has such a playful and joyful persona that it's easy to look past any dynamic deficiencies that could be blamed on its ride height and 1660kg kerb weight. Not that there are many, I have to admit.
Like its saloon sibling, the Stelvio’s steering is fast and direct. But unlike the Giulia, the SUV’s body (especially over the rear axle) can feel a bit wayward if you don’t tone-down your inputs. Fiddle with the car's drive modes, of which there are three (Dynamic, Natural and Advanced Efficiency), select the sportiest one and the dampers shift into their firmer mode noticeably tightening the body control. A button in the middle of the drive mode dial allows you to slacken the suspension back off while still retaining the more aggressive throttle map, if you wish. The stiffer suspension, however, allows you to be much bolder behind the steering and a more boisterous attitude is one the Stelvio thrives under.
Get a bit tough with it and the Alfa scampers down the road, each wheel pulling and tugging at the tarmac, exhibiting conspicuous four-wheel drive behaviour. The Stelvio doesn’t have the go-anywhere ruggedness of a proper off-roader, but the distinct feeling of all four tyres clawing at the road encourages you to drive flat out, even when the surface is wet, dirty, broken up or gravelly.
The whole car responds instantly to the throttle when you’re in Dynamic mode, and the engine feels strong. It might be a long way from being the sonorous tantalising motor you’d expect from an Alfa, but the speed with which it reacts makes the Veloce feel fast enough. This abruptness can stun the Stelvio into a different character; out of a corner, its previously overtly four-wheel drive nature goes out of the window. The Stelvio becomes solely rear-wheel drive as the back-end twitches and squirms until you feel the unmistakable sensation of the front axle engaging and pulling the car straight.
Occasionally, the traction control will cut in to help too, but the quick steering is all you really need to keep it under control. It’s not the most seamless or sophisticated cornering technique, but in typical Stelvio fashion, it turns even the mundane into something hilariously fun.
This propensity for amusement is something the Veloce shares with its 503bhp stablemate, the Stelvio Qaudrifoglio. Alfa hasn’t made the same mistake as with the Giulia version; the Veloce saloon doesn’t act as a gateway to the big-boy Qaudrifoglio version, it's simply too meek. Whereas the Stelvio Veloce has the same wild and unhinged manner that’s evident in the V6 Stelvio.
Now don’t get me wrong, the Giulia is a more accomplished car than the Stelvio. The four-cylinder Veloce is so well-rounded and is truly enjoyable, while the Quadrifolgio is the sports saloon to beat. Still, no matter how much more talented they might be, neither of the fast Alfa saloons can match the giggling absurdity of Alfa’s sporty SUVs.