DESPITE THE FACT that ‘SUV’ stands for sport utility vehicle, not many manufacturers actually put the ‘sport’ into these cars. However, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio looks to buck that trend by promising to be every bit as fun to drive as the engaging Giulia saloon on which it’s based. The Stelvio’s specification certainly sounds good, with light weight, good balance and strong engines on its side. There’s also the promise of plenty of room for passengers and a boot capacity that’s in line with rivals such as the Porsche Macan and Audi Q5. All Stelvios get an eight-speed automatic gearbox and four-wheel drive as standard, apart from an entry-level diesel model that will be offered with rear-wheel drive only. Even the top-end 2.2-litre diesel we’re testing here has competitively low CO2 emissions, giving the Stelvio low company car tax rates. Four trim levels will be offered in the UK: Stelvio, Super, Tecnica and the Quadrifoglio performance spec.

Lively performance
This 207bhp 2.2-litre diesel engine gives the Stelvio performance capable of surprising a few hot hatches; it’s 0.3sec quicker from 0-62mph than our favourite such car, the Ford Fiesta ST. Plus, the Stelvio’s engine has lots of torque from low revs, so you don’t have to put your foot down too hard to get up to speed quickly.

The automatic gearbox helps, too, shifting smoothly in normal driving and always keeping the engine on the boil. Switch to Dynamic mode and use the optional manual shift paddles behind the steering wheel and it changes gear much quicker, and only when you tell it to.

Get to a corner and you might be surprised by how fast the steering is. More so than most of its rivals, the Stelvio dives into corners without you having to turn the wheel much at all. You’ll soon get used to this, though, with a decent amount of steering weight ensuring it doesn’t feel too nervous. This makes the Stelvio feel rather agile, helped by suspension that resists lean very well. With lots of grip and the surefootedness of fourwheel drive, you can drive crosscountry quickly and enjoyably.

The penalty for this agility is a ride that is firmer than that of many of its rivals. Although the Stelvio never crashes or bangs over rough roads, you certainly feel every bump and dip that you drive over at low speeds. Things settle down when you go a bit faster, but the Stelvio still follows the road’s surface very closely. We suspect the standard 17in alloys would improve the ride; our car had large 19in ones. More of a letdown is how noisy the engine is. Refinement is some way off that of the Q5’s 2.0-litre diesel engine, and even more so its 3.0-litre diesel. At any speed, there’s a coarseness to the Stelvio’s engine note, and there’s plenty of vibration upon start-up. This is particularly noticeable when the automatic engine stop-start system is at work in queues.

Inconsistent quality
If you’re spending more than Ј35,000 on a premium SUV, you’d expect it to feel worth every one of those pounds inside. But while the Stelvio certainly has some attractive metal trims, soft leather and dense plastics, it also has too many harder and cheaper-feeling surfaces. The dashboard and the tops of the doors are pleasant to touch, but there are much harder and cheaperfeeling materials slightly lower down that could have come out of a budget hatchback. Likewise, some of the switches aren’t anywhere near being of a high enough quality. The infotainment system is a bit of a mixed bag, too. While its rotary dial controller is much easier to use than a touchscreen and its menus are intuitive enough, some of the on-screen menus look dated and some of the text ought to be bigger. It’s easy to get comfortable in the driver’s seat and there’s a good few storage areas up front. In the rear seats, kids will have plenty of room, although lofty adults may want for some leg room if someone similarly tall is sitting in front of them. The rear seats split-fold 40/20/40 but don’t slide or recline like those of rivals such as the Q5 and (optionally) Jaguar F-Pace. The Stelvio’s boot is a very competitive size and benefits from having no internal loading lip and an electric tailgate as standard.

What takes priority?
If you really enjoy driving, the Stelvio is well worth considering for its keen handling and potent engine. Very few SUVs are this agile or combine such brisk performance with low running costs. Trouble is, most owners won’t be cornering their Stelvio on its door handles regularly. We suspect most people would rather have a quiet engine, cushioned ride and classy interior over speed and agility. Put simply, the Stelvio trails its rivals in those regards in normal driving. The Q5 is the more appealing car for the daily grind.