Some cars are the stuff of dreams: exotics that are fun to imagine but nearly impossible to obtain. Italian luxury brands like Ferrari and Lamborghini make up a big part of such lists.
But one of their countrymen is much more attainable, and few people are noticing. This brand sells an exotic aura for less money than the Audis and BMWs we all see every day in Montgomery County.
Nor are the cars mere eye candy. These are stellar-driving vehicles with sharp-edged handling yet an agreeably civil disposition. And they include a useful sedan and crossover SUV, not just a fast two-seat sports car.
We are talking about Alfa Romeo, having spent a week this fall in the 2019 Stelvio crossover. The Stelvio competes with such models as the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Acura RDX. Its elegantly sculpted body and signature triangle grille — plus the idea of pricey Italian luxury cars — make it seem entirely out of reach.
To be precise, the 2019 Stelvio starts at $41,480. That does not make it the least expensive compact luxury crossover, but it’s enough to undercut its German competitors.
No competitor drives like the Stelvio, either. Even though it’s an SUV, the Stelvio feels like a great sports sedan from behind the wheel. That’s more than many modern sports sedans can claim, but it is not surprising given that the Stelvio is derived from Alfa Romeo’s award-winning Giulia sedan.
The Stelvio’s steering is lightning-quick, and the suspension is fully capable of executing on these responses. Yet, it also stays pleasantly composed over bumps in the road. You do not have to drive the Stelvio like a sports car, but it is always eager if you do.
Its standard engine is also impressive, a 280-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder. The Stelvio is both lighter and more powerful than most of its competitors, which makes it zestily quick without being a gas guzzler. The EPA estimates 25 mpg in mixed driving with the standard rear-wheel-drive or 24 mpg with the optional all-wheel-drive. (If you don’t mind doubling the base price, you can upgrade to a whopping 505-horsepower turbo V6.)
Meanwhile, the Alfa Romeo does not forget about practicality, either. While it doesn’t have quite as much rear legroom or cargo capacity as the roomiest compact crossovers like the RDX and X3, the Stelvio holds its own. And unlike many sport-themed crossovers, you still get a high SUV-like seating position.
The Stelvio’s weakest point is perhaps its interior decor, whose austerity is at odds with the Alfa’s eye-catching exterior and its more posh competition. Its infotainment system is particularly weak, with clumsy controls and graphics that render slowly. A replacement system is making its way to dealers now for the 2020 model year, but you still will have to accept some lesser-quality interior trim compared to the class average.
Another critical concern we cannot ignore: although your luck will vary, the Stelvio has scored below average in some reliability surveys. That’s not exactly unusual for a European luxury car. Given Italian cars’ longstanding reputation for finicky behavior, the Alfa Romeo brand — reintroduced to the U.S. market just a few years ago — is not off to a flying start.
Then again, true devotees will suck up any glitches in exchange for the stellar driving experience — just like Lamborghini owners do. The key difference is that the Lamborghini owners have paid a lot more than $40,000.
We will close by contrasting the Stelvio with another Italian luxury SUV: the Maserati Levante, which is part of the same Fiat-Chrysler automotive conglomerate as Alfa Romeo.
Where Alfa’s cars are lithe and sprightly, Maserati’s vehicles are big and powerful. They have ferocious engines and high handling limits. However, based on quick preview drives at media events, they do not put the same grin on your face in everyday driving. Until you’re able to push them toward those high limits, they feel bulky and stiff-riding without the instant gratification of driving an Alfa Romeo.
What’s more, the Levante starts well above $70,000 and quickly exceeds six figures — the sort of price tag that some folks will wrongly assume of the Stelvio.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.