2021 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio: Still the Sporty SUV Summit

I need to talk about the Stelvio Quadrifoglio’s shift paddles.

Lots of cars have some similar setup sprouting from behind their steering wheels. More often than not, they’re glorified buttons, with all the tactility of an ATM keypad. Not so with the elegantly curved aluminum paddles in the 2021 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio. Mounted instead to the steering column, these beauties stay in place as you wind on the lock. Hands will continually catch them en route to the signal or wiper stalks.

That’s the thing, though: Alfa very deliberately prioritized performance and interaction. The Stelvio Quadrifoglio is an abject lesson in that prioritization. Even as one of the elder statesmen of the compact performance crossover scene, the Stelvio QF is the unabashed enthusiast choice. The big question is how much you’re willing to sacrifice for that title.

What’s new?

For 2021, not a whole lot. Alfa gave its solo crossover a freshening up last year, including more intuitive cabin tech and a general material quality lift. The changes outside consist of darker taillights—and that’s pretty much it. Just as well, since the Alfa is still a sharp (if rare) sight on the road. The pointy headlights, triangular grille, and always-cool telephone-dial wheels are all still present. The rear hatch angle splits the difference between the regular and “coupe-over” versions of the Stelvio’s primary competition.

Thankfully, Alfa hasn’t tinkered with the basic four-leaf clover ingredients, either. A 2.9-liter V6 sits underhood, breathing through a pair of turbos to produce 505 horsepower—still more than you’ll find from a BMW X3 M (503 hp), Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 S (502 hp) or Porsche Macan GTS (434 hp, essentially replacing the Turbo for 2022). Maximum torque is 443 pound-feet. A rear-biased all-wheel drive system hooks up to an eight-speed automatic transmission.

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Driving experience is still red hot

Don’t for a minute think that the choice to leave the underpinnings alone suggests the Stelvio is over the hill. On the contrary: Alfa nailed the package right out the gate, and it can still show the new kids a thing or two about ride and handling.

The Stelvio is a relatively light crossover, but pour the QF into a corner and it feels lighter still. Never flighty, nor unsecured; it gets up on toes, swiftly making moves like Gretzky in his prime. That’s just in its Normal driving mode, too. Switch to Dynamic and the feelsome steering gains a little more heft; the throttle grows that much more eager; the body control resolute. A valve in the exhaust opens up to signify the switch, a crisp note pulsing out of the slightly angled quad exhausts. Help the needle to the Alfa-colored part of the tachometer and the 2.9-liter V6 changes its tune, equal parts angrier and louder. Each pull on those paddle shifters brings out another riiiiipppp pip pip, the Alfa’s closest way to tell you it’s smiling. Leave the transmission to its own logic and it’s quick to shift up in Normal, and holds gears for an appropriate amount of time in Dynamic.

What’s so impressive here is that passengers don’t pay the price for all the agility. Dial down the aggression and the Stelvio will happily tootle around town. The ride is firm, of course, but there’s nothing crashy about it—looking at you, X4 M. New window glazings keep it quieter than the initial QF, too. On the flip side, you can set the DNA selector to Race, which puts the Alfa in maximum attack mode, and essentially turns off the driving aids. Something best left for, yep you guessed it, the track.

SEE ALSO: 2021 BMW X4 M Competition Review: Impractically Imperfect

All this fun does add up at the pumps, but not as much as you’d expect—or as much as the competition. The EPA rates the Quadrifoglio at 17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, and 19 mpg combined. (Canadian equivalents are 13.9/10.3/12.3 L/100 km.) My week with the Stelvio resulted in a little more to drink than that, but not much.

Cabin ambiance

While the Stelvio QF’s driving experience rewards digging deeper, the interior is more about surface-level appeal. On first blush it’s an enticing space, all fine-feeling (and -smelling) leather in oh-so-Italian red and black. The twin-cowl instrument panel is evocative of the sports cars of old, as is the thin-rimmed steering wheel. Alcantara lines the inner rim, a soft touch from a vehicle that prefers the same from the driver. An elegant fillet of aluminum and carbon fiber bisects the dashboard. I know “aviation-inspired” gets tossed around a lot these days, but the thin spar plus rotary air vent really does do the trick.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Porsche Macan Turbo Review

Start poking and prodding and the initial sheen dulls. The matte plastic found on the climate controls and down is cheap and brittle. (Hey, at least it’s better than piano black.) Whomever was in charge of the shift paddle action evidently had no say on the various rotary dials on the center console. They move without the satisfying click and resistance. The switchgear is still clearly overflow from other, cheaper Stellantis models. I’m a fan of the classic-style dials, but technophiles will find the basic display between them disappointing in an age of digital instrument panels.

The Stelvio claws back some turf on the comfort front. The front seats not only look spectacular in black leather and Alcantara, but they’re more than up to the task of holding occupants secure during the feats the QF is capable of. What’s more, they remain comfortable on longer stints, with a firm seatback and adjustable under-thigh support. My biggest complaint? The wheel doesn’t come close enough for this short-legged writer’s ideal driving position. The rear seats will accommodate six-footers, but only just, and legroom (31.9 inches / 810 millimeters) is amongst the shortest in the segment. Once installed back there, it’s more comfy than those numbers suggest, with heated seats and a pair of USB ports. If you do stick three back there and the AC’s a-blowin’, someone is going to have icy knees.

The rejigged infotainment system is a big improvement simply because it’s a touchscreen now. Alfa has left the rotary dial in the center console however, so the driver can still flit between menus without having to poke around. It’s a little obtuse at first, but the learning curve is appreciably short. Still, it would have been nice to see Uconnect 5 here; probably a 2022 facelift situation. As is, the Alfa infotainment setup still feels a half-step behind the likes of Merc and BMW.

What’s the competition?

The aforementioned top-shelf versions of the X3, GLC, and Macan are the most obvious options. We haven’t driven the Macan GTS (yet), but liked the previous Macan Turbo well enough. It’s true to the brand’s reputation, but is a little down on power, not to mention tight in the back seat. The X3 M is a remarkably athletic SUV, as is its X4 M sibling, but the Bimmers can’t match the more involving drive of the Alfa.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 S Review: Muscle Utility Vehicle

The GLC has the V8 charm, though that’s gone for 2022—and all signs point to an augmented four-cylinder replacing it. If you want the soundtrack only eight cylinders can provide, you’re looking at the Jaguar F-Pace SVR and Maserati Levante Trofeo.

A Quadrifoglio will cost you, though. Alfa’s most expensive model starts at $82,845 ($102,185 CAD), and this particular tester runs richer still. The additional suite of driver aids—adaptive cruise control, blind-spot assist, lane-keep, traffic jam assist with sign recognition, and more—runs $2,200 in the US, but is included as standard in Canada. Same with the dual-panel sunroof, which runs an extra $1,350 south of the border. As equipped, this $89,890 ($105,930 CAD) Stelvio QF slightly undercuts the last X4 M and GLC 63 S we tested.

Verdict: 2021 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio Review

In Quadrifoglio form, the 2021 Alfa Romeo Stelvio remains an intoxicating blend of athleticism, practicality, and sense of occasion. Even knowing the brand’s long-standing quality issues, it’s hard to resist the call. There are hot hatches with less grace.

With the Tonale still in development purgatory, the Stelvio is the only Alfa out there to satisfy the market’s undying obsession with crossovers. It can’t match the Germans on tech or fit and finish, but the QF in particular has them all beat from behind the wheel. All it takes to know for sure is a tight corner and a few pulls on those shifter paddles.

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