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Alfa Romeo Stelvio’s toughest test

We head on an epic road trip to the north of Scotland in Alfa Romeo’s updated Stelvio SUV to find out if it’s still made of the right stuff

The plan was simple: take Alfa Romeo’s updated 2020 Stelvio – the brand’s first SUV – to the road that its second off-roader will be named after: the Tonale pass.

This was going to be a test of the Stelvio in its home country to prove that it was still a proper Alfa, but also a modern car that came at the right time for the brand, bringing it into a new era. And then things changed.

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By the time our scheduled trip to Italy arrived, Covid-19 had already gripped the nation and, while the UK wasn’t suffering anywhere nearly as badly by that point, still weeks away from lockdown, it was safe and sensible to re-evaluate – which is what we did.

We wanted to test the car in typically uncompromising, wintry Alpine conditions on one of the toughest roads in Europe. So with northern Italy out of the equation, where better to put the Stelvio through a similarly gruelling examination than the Highlands of Scotland?

The Tonale pass wends its way up into the mountains north of Brescia and Verona, and spans both the Lombardy and Trento-Alto Adige regions, so anything these territories could have thrown at the car, the Highlands could surely replicate. Our plan was to head north from Auto Express HQ in central London, up the A1 towards the border, with a quick stop on the Northumberland coast, and then on to Inverness for our overnight stop.

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The following day, we’d track across towards Ullapool before turning north to take in some of the North Coast 500, then head south (with a few stops), steaming back to Glasgow for our final overnight stay before the relentless slog back down the M6 and M1 to London on day three. This should put every area of the Stelvio through its paces. Comfort, refinement and tech on the motorway – not least the updated infotainment on the MY20 car. Space and practicality would be thoroughly examined as well, with photographer Pete Gibson loading the Stelvio with all the clobber we’d need for a full three-day shoot.

It’d be the Stelvio’s powertrain and chassis that would be tested in the Highlands by some incredibly challenging tarmac, not to mention the security of its Q4 four-wheel-drive system, given the time of year and the weather forecast.

Escaping the smoke

As I arrive at our car park, a gleaming Misano Blue Stelvio Veloce is waiting in the row of almost deserted bays. The shrill beep of the central locking pierces the silence as the indicators illuminate the nearby vans and tired London runabouts with an orange glow. I jump in and put the Stelvio through its first challenge: the sat-nav test.

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The updated multimedia is an improvement. It’s easy enough to programme in the postcode for Pete’s house in Chelmsford, so I’m on my way in no time. But it’s a case of hurry up and wait, as I crawl through the congestion to make my way east and eventually up the M11. The traffic evaporates as the motorway changes to the national speed limit, allowing me to get a brief taste of the Veloce’s 276bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine for the first time.

It picks up quickly and revs with a rasp. Even a short burst of acceleration highlights that there’s plenty of performance, which bodes well for later in our trip. But, for the moment, I have to lift off as I’m met by a wall of tail-lights, the traffic thickening and thinning in waves.

It’s for this reason we choose the A1 to head north after leaving Pete’s – hopefully it’ll not be as busy as the M1, but even if it is, it’s a more picturesque route. Packed up with his camera bags, tripods, a portable pressure washer, cleaning kit, including spare water, a camera clamp rig loaded through the Stelvio’s ski hatch and plenty of food and drink for the journey, the car’s full, but not bursting. We’ve made the most of the 525 litres of boot space, that’s for sure.

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Even so, the car doesn’t feel heavy. It’s supple over rough sections, its dampers smoothing out the 20-inch alloys’ reactions to the grainier, pockmarked tarmac without losing any composure. There’s not much tyre roar even on those big wheels and tyres, so the Stelvio is relatively soothing. Engine noise is kept at bay, and economy is surprisingly good, hovering in the mid-30s at a motorway-speed clip.

We have a solid five hours of this before we stretch our legs to a view of the Angel of the North. Not long after we have to stop for fuel, because the Alfa has drained the majority of its 64-litre fuel tank, which is not bad at all given that we have covered around 400 miles, a significant portion of it in stop-start or slow-moving traffic.

Once we’re off the A1 to refuel, we don’t fancy re-joining the monotony of the dual carriageway – besides, not far north of Newcastle it slims down to two-way traffic, so we’re better making our way towards the coast on twisty B-roads.

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This is where the Stelvio comes alive. We’re chasing the sunset to claw back time, and catch the dying rays for a picturesque shot of the Veloce at Bamburgh Castle, both basking in the sun’s last photons for the day.

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It’s early March, though, so as the sun descends towards the horizon, the temperature plummets and the sea breeze picks up. It’s cold – very cold – and it’s only going to get chillier as we pack up and proceed towards the border, so I’m grateful for the heated seats and steering wheel that thaw me out as we get back under way.

Crossing the divide

The A1 is the fastest way now that the inky night has engulfed us, the Alfa’s xenon beams shining through the gloom. It’s pitch black by the time we reach the border, yet we’ve still got another 220 miles to travel and at least another four hours driving time ahead of us.

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Pete and I swap seats so I can catch up on some work before grabbing a little rest between Edinburgh and Perth.

As we pass Perth, it feels like the landscape is changing. This happens slowly at first, but soon it’s clear we’ve crossed an invisible divide by the imposing shadows of snow-capped peaks cast in the moonlight as we skirt round the Cairngorms National Park to the west, up through Aviemore on the A9.

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The road is clear but covered in a grimy-grey film of salt. The Alfa’s digital instrument readout confirms the need for grit as the temperature display hovers just below zero; the ranging poles at the side of the road highlight just how deep the snow can get when it’s bad up here.

We’ve got to stay vigilant for black ice, then, but also because the A9 is covered by average speed cameras – one stretch lasts for 136 miles. We’re watching for weather, wildlife and for the speedo needle passing through the limit.

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After another quick splash and dash – not for the car, but its occupants – I take the wheel for the final stint to Inverness. We arrive just in time to dump our bags at the B&B and, after more than 12 hours in the car, stretch our legs in the hunt for some grub, grabbing a pizza at the last spot in town serving food. It’s something more nutritious than Haribo and coffee, anyway, and it’ll help fuel us for the following day.

As I’m chomping on my crusts in the restaurant, planning day two, both Pete and I remark on how the Alfa hasn’t missed a beat. It’s been quiet, refined, comfortable and efficient, with the tech helping get us through the journey. But SUV or not, to prove it’s a real Alfa Romeo – a driver’s car – the next day is where its mettle will truly be tested.

Stelvio’s Scottish success

We’re out of Inverness by 7am, picking up breakfast on the road. It’s busy with commuters flocking towards the town, but we’re heading in the opposite direction, and as soon as we turn onto the A835 to Ullapool, the road is quiet.

There’s a thick blanket of fog hanging in the tight confines of the valleys we’re weaving through, the densely wooded areas of spruce stopping the sun’s rays penetrating the fluffy grey veil and burning off the vapour. Even when driving to the conditions, I’m already having too much fun in the Stelvio to worry. Straight away the chassis feels alive and agile, helped by the superbly quick steering ratio for a 4x4.

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It doesn’t upset the car’s balance or make it feel nervous, though. In fact, it gives me confidence, because the speed of the steering is matched by a precision in the car’s responses. The dampers (combined with the anti-roll bars) control roll well and find grip on the greasy but well surfaced tarmac, feeding back information on the road conditions – how much grip there is, and when you’re approaching the limit, but also when you can push harder.

I can sense Pete’s pulse rising, however – hopefully not because of my driving. Instead, I know he’s worrying we’re not going to get the shots we need. But as we emerge from the forest on to more rolling moorland, we’re treated to the most magnificent view. It’s enough to temper my enthusiasm for the car and the road briefly, so we slow down to admire the wispy snow frosting on the top of the mountains that’s clearly been blown into drifts by the wind.

As we climb, the air gets clearer, too, the roads and the scenery more open and the radius of the corners sweeping and wide, not tight and confined like in the pine forests. By the time we’re running alongside Loch Glascarnoch, it’s all too much for Pete and he proclaims it’s time to stop to take some static shots of the Stelvio.

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It’s a great call, because the light is wonderfully diffuse, highlighting the soft lines and muscular shapes of the car’s body. Despite it being Alfa’s first SUV, with no template to follow, there are clear links to the Italian brand’s heritage.

The famous Alfa ‘trilobo’ grille, the shallow headlight clusters, the high shoulder and tapering rooflines, plus the raked hatch and subtle creases and curves all give the Stelvio a tension that make it reminiscent of some Alfas past and present. There’s no doubt it’s an attractive car.

With a moment for reflection, the detailing leaps out. The Tricolore flag behind the gear selector, the cool aluminium shift paddles that sweep a large arc behind the sculpted leather steering wheel, the gloss black exhaust tips, grille and window surrounds, plus the panoramic roof that fills the cocooning interior with light, all set the Veloce off perfectly.

The striking styling and blue hue are enhanced by the earthy greens and browns of the vast landscape the Stelvio is ploughing through for photographic purposes, the white snow caps adding even more contrast to frame the car.

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As much as I like the looks, I’m more keen to experience how the Stelvio handles the route ahead of us, which is only going to get harder. So I herd Pete and his kit back into the car and we press on towards Ullapool on some of the most wonderfully flowing roads in the UK.

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We don’t lift for crests, I have that much confidence in the car. The body floats only marginally as we pass these kickers in the road – some rolling, some more aggressive – the Veloce’s rebound damping tying the body down well, and the suspension soaking up the compression as its mass moves back to Earth as gracefully as an SUV can.

The quick steering means there’s little lock required to guide the Alfa down these roads, jinking around the odd rock or torn patch of tarmac with an agility that disguises the Stelvio’s size and the practicality it offers.

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In no time the bright, whitewashed buildings of Ullapool reflecting the morning sun hove into view. We’re now on the west coast down at sea level, watching the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Stornaway belch clouds of sooty black smoke into the pure atmosphere as it sets sail.

We weave through the small but bustling village, rising up and out the other side, gaining height then plunging back down towards the water, weaving through inlets as they come and go, before finally turning away from the sea and heading north to our next stop: Kylesku.

The toughest test

I’ve been in Dynamic mode up to this point, one of the Stelvio’s three settings that adjusts the engine and gearbox mapping, as well as the adaptive dampers’ parameters, when fitted. Our car doesn’t have the switchable suspension, but all Stelvio Veloces feature Frequency Selective Damping as standard. It’s clever tech that uses a hydraulic valve inside each damper to alter the suspension’s characteristics according to the road inputs and your driving style.

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The ride has been impressively quiet on the slate-smooth surface from Inverness, but on the other side of Ullapool the road gets gnarly. I can feel the Alfa’s reactions to the tarmac change subtly as the dampers are now giving a little more compliance to absorb mid-corner bumps, keeping the body stable and the wheels in contact with the tarmac to maximise grip. My inputs with the wheel, brakes and throttle are also more energetic now, and the Stelvio’s chassis meets them.

There’s no need for the Advanced Efficiency mode today, or an all-weather set-up. That’s because, while there’s some snow around, none of it is on the road, and the Q4 all-wheel-drive system means not once has the traction control had to intervene. Grip has been resolute despite some cambered surfaces having torrents of meltwater running across them in places.

With this safety net of traction combining with the stable, planted and flickable feel of the chassis, the Veloce encourages you to explore its engine.

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The 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol unit produces 276bhp and 400Nm of torque, which means the Stelvio takes 5.7 seconds to accelerate from 0-62mph, and can hit 143mph flat out. That’s more than enough to rival hot hatchbacks or sporty saloons for performance, yet those cars can’t compete with the Stelvio’s style or image.

While our car’s not as powerful as the 503bhp Quadrifoglio range-topper, much of that car’s ethos is present here, including the focus on fun, and it’s instilled by many of the lightweight components. There’s double-wishbone suspension at the front and a multi-link arrangement at the rear, with much of the componentry made from aluminium to help keep weight down. The bonnet, wings, doors and tailgate are all made from lightweight alloy, too, while the Stelvio’s propshaft is constructed from carbon fibre.

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These measures mean the Veloce weighs in at 1,660kg. That’s not far off the weight of a family saloon, which for a premium SUV like the Stelvio is an impressive achievement.

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We need all of that advanced engineering for this section of the run up to Kylesku, because the roads are among the most challenging I’ve driven and, in their own way, easily a match for the tarmac from which the car takes its name.

The surface is cracked and scarred, and bucks and writhes into and out of view. The corners come thick and fast, some tight that then tighten further, some that open on exit, but all of them test the Alfa’s handling, poise and control. The Stelvio feels like it has reserves in all three areas.

It reacts like few other SUVs to your inputs. Lift the throttle or brush the brakes in a turn and the Veloce’s nose nudges intuitively towards the apex as I instinctively wind on just a hint more steering lock to get the car’s front tyres keyed into the road.

As bends open out and you spot your exit, burying the throttle, the engine picks up sweetly. There’s barely any turbo lag as the revvy motor climbs on boost quickly and deploys its 400Nm to all four wheels. You can feel the Q4 system subtly shifting the drive around, biasing torque towards the front or rear depending on what’s needed to find traction and alter the cornering balance.

While there’s lots of low-down grunt (that maximum torque figure is delivered from 2,250rpm) the engine loves to rev. Peak power comes at 5,250rpm and it’s accompanied by a characterful bark that’s punctuated by staccato-slick gearshifts as I take manual control of the eight-speed automatic box by pulling those lovely aluminium paddles.

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The Stelvio keeps on building pace, romping down straights between complexes of bends, wiping off speed at the end of them with as much stability as it corners.

The brake pedal needs a firm push, but there’s impressive stopping power for a big machine – plus this trait means you can modulate them nicely on the way into and through a bend, depending on your style.

It’s clear that despite it being a premium family SUV, the Stelvio Veloce has been engineered by drivers, for drivers. Such is the Stelvio’s ability to gobble up ground cross-country, carrying a consistent pace over the last 30 winding miles from Ullapool, that we’re almost at the next location.

As we crest a rise on a tight, 180-degree bend where the road traces the outline of a rocky outcrop, the sea loch the famous Kylesku Bridge spans presents itself, its mottled greeny-blue surface glinting among the oranges and browns of the landscape that looms large around it.

A bridge too far?

We’re well into the North Coast 500 up here, but we wanted to get to Kylesku for two reasons. One, for the stunning photo opportunities it provides – especially given we’ve been fortunate with the chilly but bright weather. Two, because the roads up here and back down to Dornie, where we’re heading for our final photo call, provide the toughest of tests for the Alfa, which it’s risen to admirably up to now.

But it could be literally a bridge too far, because we need to be back in Glasgow this evening, so we’ve got our work cut out when it comes to shooting and driving. For now, it’s Pete’s turn to relish the surroundings as I pig out on lunch and he sets up the shots we want. Little did we know that imposed isolation was to envelop the UK in the coming weeks after our trip, but up here in the Highlands, with not much more of the British land mass left to travel to the north, the feeling of isolation – and that we’ve chosen it, for now – is wonderful, especially if you love driving.

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We’ve seen only a few cars in the last couple of hours. As a driver, I’ve had the roads to myself, revelling in the Alfa’s ability to thrill and entertain, to shrink around you and shrug off its size and weight, but also to serve up the comfort and refinement you want from an SUV, too.

With the shot list rattled off in only a few hours, we’re back on the road, retracing our steps before hanging a right at Loch Luichart towards Achnasheen and Strathcarron. This section is wide and open, flat and smooth, with long, well sighted bends that track alongside the railway.

At one point the Stelvio streaks past the trundling two-carriage train that’s following the path of the river on the valley floor, weaving to meet the road in sections before it meanders back in the other direction.

The weather has closed in and turned. The bright blue above us and the pillowy white clouds have been ousted by a heavy, dark grey stormy sky that’s emptying a deluge onto the hills below. If anything, it only augments the scenery, adding a moody edge to a breathtaking landscape.

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Lochs come and go, forests come and go, precipitous climbs and flat plains all come and go. Thankfully, too, just as the weather came it’s now gone again as we arrive at Eilan Donan Castle to capture the Stelvio at sunset.

It’s another chance for reflection on the car’s performance over the last section of road and, yet again, on rough, uncompromising tarmac that’s been weathered and ravaged over many tough winters, the Alfa was soothing where it needed to be. But it was also alert, engaging and confidence-inspiring in the bad conditions when the chance was there to gain some time back for our early-evening shoot.

It’s a fantastic pictorial end to our trip and a celebration of what the Stelvio has achieved already in nearly two full days. But for me – and little did I know it – the best leg of the journey was just about to unfold.

The long road home

Sometimes it’s the impromptu drives that stick in your memory. I’d expected the run from Inverness to Kylesku and back down to Dornie to be great. The experience lived up to my expectations. But having finished our shoot, I also expected to trundle back down to Glasgow to find our digs for the evening. I was wrong.

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After we’ve caught the sun’s dying embers for the day, we pack up and make our way towards Fort William down one of the most sinuous roads I’ve ever driven. It’s not that easy to see in the twilight, but the Stelvio is giving me confidence and comfort in equal measure, and we cruise along at a brisk 70 per cent pace – I’m keeping an eye on fuel and manage to eke the rest of this tank out until we hit Fort William, where the car takes a glug of unleaded and Pete and I a coffee each.

The sky is now fully black, bar the silvery moonlight that’s illuminating things as we skulk out of the town under the silhouette of Ben Nevis. It’s a dull trudge until we turn the corner into Glencoe. By now the Alfa’s xenon lights are once again piercing the gloom, and I need all the illumination I can get.

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The U-shaped valley is dusted in snow – it’s easy to see why there’s a ski centre up here. The road is long and straight, but the brooding scenery I can just make out through the Stelvio’s side windows is just as imposing at night as it is during the day.

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There’s a section of tighter downhill bends heading south not long before we hit the northern tip of Loch Lomond. I’m tired so take them gently, but in the last few proper turns before the final run to Glasgow, I’m reminded of how the Alfa has really provided exactly what we needed a car like this to deliver.

It’s met every challenge and exceeded my expectations of what a sporty SUV with a relatively modest power output can and should deliver. Its breadth of ability is fantastic.

We make Glasgow late, and after a feed and a good night’s kip, we’re not exactly fresh the next morning. But we’re rested enough for the schlep back to London, where more of the car’s tech comes to the fore. Google Maps through Android Auto cleverly helps us avoid some traffic, while I’ve taken to using the Alfa’s semi-autonomous driver assistance systems when the unavoidable snarl-ups around the M6’s hotspots, near the M62 and around Birmingham, get sticky.

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I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest fan of these features in general, and only used the speed limiter on the way up to Scotland. But unlike some rivals, the Alfa’s tech spots cars early and doesn’t react too aggressively, so it makes for more natural and comfortable progress on the motorway.

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After three days in each other’s company, conversation isn’t too hard to come by, but it is more of an effort in our sleep-deprived state, so Pete and I are happy to listen to the rich tone from the Harman/Kardon stereo instead.

We hit home 1,457 miles after we started out. It’s been an incredible trip and I’ve developed a soft spot for the Stelvio Veloce. Its looks, interior and the way it rides are all very nice indeed, but it’s the way it drives for an SUV that has really impressed me; just how well executed it is.

The Stelvio might be an SUV, but it’s a proper Alfa Romeo. And that’s a very important distinction to make.

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