Thursday, September 6, 2018

Letter From The UK: English Heritage, Italian Style

  • Alfa Romeo cars of the past gave their owners both pride and pain. 
  • Sometimes it was more pain than pride, but is this still the case today?  
  • Geoff Maxted conducts an extensive drive with an Alfa Romeo Stelvio but with one small detail.
  • That drive involves a trip into the heart of English history, albeit with horses of a different breed.

English Heritage, Italian Style

And so we travelled to Kelmscott Manor. This was once the country retreat of the artist and designer William Morris, founder of the Arts & Craft movement in the UK and friend to the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Approached through verdant, remote Oxfordshire country, along the lanes to the village, where grass and weeds grow through the cracks and crevices of neglect, the route becomes increasingly narrow, requiring vehicular passing-places.

We imagine what it must have been like then, near the end of the Victorian era, when the journey was accomplished with a coach-and-four. On this day our horses were of a different kind, found under the hood of a gorgeous blue Alfa Romeo Stelvio.

Sometimes a place simply resonates with you. For this writer it is Kelmscott Manor. I walk in the footsteps of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burn-Jones, and Morris himself. I mount the narrow stairs, holding on to the worn bannister rail where artistic hands have been before. This place has a unique and inspiring atmosphere.

Did I see a ghost?

The Alfa Romeo Stelvio

Equally inspiring but for an entirely different reason, the Stelvio is an SUV. Now, the sport utility vehicle craze has spread across the industry and the land like a plague of triffids, so any addition to the ranks needs to be right on its game. The problem with Alfa Romeo is one of legacy.

Ask Alfa Romeo owners of even a few years standing and they will tell you the cars of yore were uniformly lovely, great to drive but fraught with gremlins, intent on destruction. If your old Alfa just stops and shuts down and you ask it why, it will just shrug and say, “batteria.” When you change the battery and a few miles later all the lights come on at once and you ask the Alfa what’s wrong; it just shrugs and says, “batteria.”

This once was the Alfa Romeo way of ownership. Those wishing to buy into the latest models will admire their grace and beauty, but should they approach with caution?

Gremlins Attack?

No, well, not at first sight. This scribe spent a very happy week with the featured car and all was well. It even returned over 38 miles for our expensive golden gallon, although the company reckons you could get more; as ever this is not possible in the real world. This reasonable frugality was courtesy of the decision to opt not for the desirable and fast Quadrifolglio version, but rather a more family-orientated model with a 2.0 Liter diesel engine.

There are alternative engines available but, if you can overlook the current unwarranted global hatred of diesel, this 210 bhp motor is the one to choose, even if your heart prefers the idea of the 503 bhp 2.9L twin-turbo V6.

Nevertheless, it is still, at its core an Alfa Romeo. With acceleration to 62 mph in just 6.6 seconds, even this appealing and attractive version of the Italian motor is no slouch. Further, and despite being an SUV, the Stelvio makes for a great drive.

Photo: DriveWrite Automotive.

And Speaking of Driving …

A pleasant surprise was the performance of this four-cylinder engine. It’s really quiet for a diesel; in fact it doesn’t feel like a diesel at all unless you push it to the outer limits, which of course, serves no purpose. The quality of the drive is enhanced by the “as standard” ZF eight-speed automatic. It’s very well matched to the motor, delivering crisp changes depending on driver inputs. There are a pair of big, racy paddles for manual operation but, although they work well, don’t bring much more to the diesel engine party as they would to the V6.

I soon tired of using them and let the superb ZF box get on with it.

The tested “Super” UK version was a Q4 all-wheel drive model (2WD is standard) with bias to the rear until extra grip is required, yet did not feel at all cumbersome. It feels light and poised with minimal body roll. The steering, although inevitably lacking in old-school feel, remains crisp and direct. Despite the physical size, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio felt more like a saloon. Terrific. Especially when it’s so comfortable …

Photo: DriveWrite Automotive.

Common Themes

In the same way Kelmscott Manor is to art and design, so Alfa Romeo is to automotive design. When it comes to shaping metal those Italians know their business. They probably sleep in Armani. I approve of the minimalist approach to the dashboard. It is smart and modern with some of the controls on the now obligatory flat-bottomed steering wheel.

The 8.8-inch infotainment/navigation screen differs from the norm in that it offers split screen options. So used am I to these units being mostly uniform, it took a while to get to grips with it. It all works well though and, in any event, when it comes to technology, as long as it does the job, I’m not all that bothered. If you want to know how not bothered I am, look out for my next Letter From The UK in two weeks time.

For me, it’s the driving that counts.

Interior Treatments

The cabin is big and roomy and comfortable although, in my opinion, a little bit of legroom in the back has been sacrificed for the capacious trunk. That’s really useful for the family motorist. The interior was attractively covered in black leather and the standard of finish was generally very good. The large areas of black make the inside a little gloomy, so a glass roof would be nice to lighten things up.

However, I still prefer that to the alternatives of “Mocha” or the dreaded beige. You may have alternative choices in your United States. Not sure I’m too keen on the porthole-like exhaust outlets though. A bit OTT?

Photo: DriveWrite Automotive.

Should You Buy The Alfa Romeo Stelvio?

My heart says “like a shot,” but my head reminds me that, like a spurned lover, I have been burned by these inconstant Italian beauties before. That said, although older models from the past still cause owners to wail, rend their clothes, and gnash their teeth, the latest choices seem much improved.

If there’s an issue it is one of competition and the Stelvio is up against some quality opposition in the prestige sector. The tested car with added options costs £44k ($57,000) here in Great Britain. There are a lot of highly-regarded SUV’s in the mainstream that can undercut that.

If, however, you want a classy, sexy, head-turning alternative to the prim and proper German mob, then look no further. Especially if you like to add that frisson of excitement every time you press the start button.

Ask me where in the world I would want to stay, I will say Kelmscott Manor; despite the English weather. If you ask me what I would like to drive I will say Alfa Romeo every time. For me, it’s English heritage and Italian style. When something special happens, we should make the most of it.

Geoff Maxted is a motoring writer, photographer, and author of our Letter From The UK series. Follow his work on Twitter: @DriveWrite



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