Is it just us, or has the automotive world gone crazy? Well, okay, crazier. As evidence, we offer the fact that manufacturers now not only routinely drag their high-performance cars to the fabled Nurburgring to break lap records, they’re now doing the same thing with their hyperactive SUVs. Two SUV protagonists currently vying for ’Ring lap-time supremacy and the brand cred that comes with it are Porsche—no surprise there—and little Alfa Romeo.
It’s a David-and-Goliath moment, and, as in the ancient parable, the little guy is winning: The new 505-hp Stelvio Quadrifoglio, with Alfa factory driver Fabio Francia at the wheel, recently seared the writhing 12.9-mile ribbon draped across the Eifel mountains in 7:51.7. It was the fastest-ever lap for a production SUV and beat the Porsche Cayenne Turbo S’s best effort by eight seconds. You want to know how quick that is? Back in 2008, Cadillac was jubilant when its supercharged, 556-hp CTS-V sedan managed a 7:59.3. A decade later, the Caddy and a lot of other hot cars have been smoked by a truck. So much for sanity.
The racetrack fun continued on this side of the Atlantic at Alfa’s Stelvio Quadrifoglio media launch. It was staged at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, which has been on the Formula 1 dance card since 2012. You can guess at the company’s objective. Luckily, the first half of our introductory day behind the wheel was on the road, where we expect almost all Stelvio QFs to spend their entire working lives.
Alfa is cognizant of that reality, says Stelvio QF chief engineer Andrea Zizak. Alfa points to the Porsche Macan Turbo with Performance package and the Mercedes-AMG GLC63 coupe as the Stelvio QF’s chief rivals; we’d also include the 707-hp Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. “We wanted to build the best high-performance SUV,” he said. “But we also wanted it to be good to drive on the road. We wanted it to have real Alfa personality.”
That the Stelvio has. Based on the same Giorgio architecture as the Giulia Quadrifoglio sedan, it borrows that car’s 505-hp twin-turbocharged 2.9-liter V-6, paddle-shifted eight-speed automatic, and cleverly named DNA Pro chassis-control system (with its Dynamic, Natural—which is normal—and Advanced Efficiency driving modes). As on the Giulia QF, there’s also a fourth mode labeled Race, which amounts to truth in advertising: It switches off all stability- and traction-control enforcement.
The big mechanical difference for the Stelvio QF from its sedan cousin is that it inherits the base SUV’s all-wheel-drive system, while the Giulia QF is rear-drive only. The Stelvio system defaults to sending 100 percent of the power to the rear wheels in most situations but can shuttle up to 60 percent of it to the fronts when rear slip is detected like in snow or rain. Or on a racecourse. The QF’s handling is also aided by a torque-vectoring rear differential that can send 100 percent of the torque to either rear wheel, as traction and driving modes dictate.
Like the muscled-up Giulia Quadrifoglio sedan, the Stelvio QF’s chassis is fortified with stiffer springs, larger anti-roll bars, and more powerful Brembo brakes—six-piston fronts and four-piston rears, versus the base car’s four-piston fronts and single-piston rears. Extra-large carbon-ceramic rotors are an $8000 option. Fat 20-inch Pirelli P Zero summer tires specially developed for the Stelvio QF, sized 255/45R-20 front and 285/40R-20 rear, wrap around spindly alloys inspired by vintage Alfa Romeo wheel designs. A host of thermal-management components, including an array of coolers, heat exchangers, and hood vents, keep the QF from self-immolating when pressed into track use.
Dressed and Ready
While the hardware promises racecourse capability, our 100-mile road drive northwest of Austin confirmed that this is no stripped-out, track-day special of an SUV. It’s a thoroughly equipped luxury SUV with everything from multi-adjustable power front seats to a standard 14-speaker Harman/Kardon sound system. It’s comfortable as well as capable, friendly as well as fiery.
The QF’s interior is significantly better dressed than in the base Stelvio—as it should be in a vehicle with a base price of $81,590—although that lesser model sets a fairly low bar. At least the workaday Stelvio’s chintzy plastic bits are less obvious here, and there are better coverings everywhere in the cabin, including smooth leather on the dash and doors, seat inserts of faux suede, and trim bits upgraded to real carbon fiber. An 8.8-inch infotainment screen operated by a rotary controller on the console is standard, and the system includes navigation, SiriusXM, and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay capability. While not as overtly luxurious as the best interiors from Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, the QF’s cabin is convincing enough for a sporting hauler whose impetus lies elsewhere.
The QF options list is short. Decorative bits range from a panoramic sunroof to a pair of but wholly unnecessary Sparco carbon-fiber-shelled racing seats. Adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warning are optional, but most other active-safety tech is standard. Choose between interior, exterior, and brake-caliper colors and you’re pretty much done. Clearly, this is not a Porsche.
It’s All about the Journey
As we made our way through the clots of morning Austin metro traffic, the QF was well behaved, although it pulses with an undercurrent of athleticism and raw power waiting to be unleashed, like an NFL lineman ambling down a sidewalk. The exhaust note is an angry snarl, and the eight-speed automatic shifts seamlessly. Response from the large column-mounted aluminum paddles is swift and is accompanied by a satisfying chorus of braps and pops.
Acceleration comes in turbocharged torrents. Alfa claims the Stelvio QF is a tenth of a second quicker to 60 mph than the Giulia QF even though it’s about 550 pounds heavier. Thank the all-wheel-drive system, which provides more grip at launch. If that advantage holds true in our testing, expect a zero-to-60-mph time of about 3.6 seconds. Top speed is a claimed 176 mph. On Texas Route 45, which has an 80-mph limit, the QF loped along half asleep well above the posted speed, but a solid prod of the throttle made it take off like a startled gazelle.
Besides raw speed, the Stelvio QF offers a measure of on-road finesse. This is a driver’s car—did we just say car? Yes, it felt that confident on the smooth Texas two-lane roads, slick as they were with rain and fog during our morning jaunt. It cornered with unwavering stability, seemingly stuck to the shiny, wet tarmac, and displayed scalpel-sharp steering and little body roll. On the tighter sections of our drive route, the steering effort felt wispy and the feel was a bit distant; switching to Dynamic mode added some badly needed heft. The only demerits we can give the QF in daily driving were the engine’s tendency to emit a bovine-like moan during low-rpm cruising and the brake-by-wire system’s touchy low-speed response.
Track Rat in a Tux
But no demerits accrue to it as a track weapon, only gold stars. We ran about 20 laps on the magnificent COTA course, flinging the Stelvio QF around at racing speeds, easily hitting 135 mph on the back straight with the active exhaust wide open and emitting a demented howl. Switched into Race mode, the QF’s steering effort and feel amped up considerably and became satisfyingly communicative. Pressed to its limits, the hot-rod Stelvio handled much like a mid-size rear-drive sports sedan, roaring out of tight corners with its tail slithering sideways, always easy to rein in. Its well-balanced chassis forgave our ham-fisted control inputs as we learned the track, and its brakes—with the optional carbon-ceramics on the track cars—were faithful, powerful, and fade free. It was a bravura performance.
That few Stelvio Quadrifoglio owners will ever experience their SUVs so vividly is both expected and a disappointing waste of automotive talent. But remember, this is a vehicle with practical capabilities and, with the rear seats folded, 57 cubic feet of cargo space. It will reach dealers in the second quarter of 2018, after which we expect more than a few runs to IKEA and trips to pick up the kids at school will be carried out in great haste in SUVs wearing the four-leaf-clover badge on their flanks. And by drivers wearing a broad smile.