IF I think of guaranteed disappointments which have caused no end of misery in my life, I can recall three key players responsible for continuously plastering a forlorn-looking expression on my face.
Firstly, two football teams: Leeds United and England. My love of the former began when I was a seven-year-old but since the heady, albeit debt-ridden days of the Champions League, I’ve been knocked down more times than a journeyman boxer by a host of dodgy owners, even dodgier managerial appointments and of course those soul-destroying defeats when it mattered the most, until their recent turnaround. England, on the other hand, don’t play as often but their major tournament history during my lifetime at least has been woeful to say the least, apart from last summer’s heroics. However, I’ll never forgive them for losing to Iceland and while both might be on somewhat of a renaissance at the minute, you always get the sense that either outfit could deliver another knockout blow whenever they see fit.
But what’s the third? That one’s car-related, and it comes in the form of Alfa Romeo. Beautiful bodies, typically stylish Italian interiors but ultimately they’re the makers of cars which unravel - a bit like Leeds United - when the going gets tough or they’re pitted against a German rival. For too long we’ve defended them purely because they’re different, a bit temperamental and after a host of gorgeous-yet-flawed GTAs, the stunning 8C and the catastrophically disappointing 4C, the motoring world simply needed an Alfa that had the substance to match its style and bloody the noses of M3s, RS4s and C63s.
Guess what? We’ve only gone and been given one. After decades of below-par vehicles, its two Quadrifoglio-named creations immediately got rid of the ear-splitting tyre screech of a 147 GTA’s understeer from my mind and the 4C’s wheezy engine, awful gearbox and frankly vile steering wheel.
Quadrifoglio - a name which has been placed onto Alfa’s big Stelvio and the pretty Giulia - signifies a 2.9-litre V6 with two turbos for good measure, creating 503bhp and a similar dose of torque. While both share this magnificent, Ferrari-derived unit, the Giulia goes without its bigger brother’s four-wheel-drive system and instead sends each and every one of its cavallos to its gargantuan rear tyres.
Starting at £64,900, the range-topping Giulia is pretty well-equipped as standard, but it’s always worth perusing a car’s spec sheet to see what I’d recommend. First up, the costly Sparco seats might be a £3,250 option but they’re absolutely brilliant; comfy, supportive, they look like a work of art and they’re backed in all-important carbon fibre. The 19-inch ‘telephone dial’ alloys are a snip at £695, Italian tricolour-style interior stitching costs £195 and the flat-bottomed carbon steering wheel is a very acceptable £495. I’d go without the £2,500 Competizione Red and the £950 Harmon Kardon sound system, though.
I can’t recall Alfa ever making an ugly car, so it’s not really surprising that the Giulia is a bit of a looker. The traditional front design remains - registration plate to the side, prominent triangular-shaped nose and gaping vents below - but the stance of the Quadrifoglio is what’s really special. There are two nostrils on the bulging bonnet, which is also carbon fibre, and the lightweight material continues on the front splitter, side skirts and the boot lip spoiler at the rear. It’s squat, it’s purposeful and its design is perfect - through my eyes it’s one of the best-looking four-door saloons ever made this side of an E39 M5.
Open the driver’s door and you’re met with an interior that’s dripping with more carbon which is fitted on the divide between the driver and passenger, the aforementioned optional seats and steering wheel, and the two door pulls’ housing. It feels plush and a refreshing change from the Germans’ undeniably top drawer efforts. Prod the Ferrari-like starter button, which is also housed on the perfect steering wheel, and the V6 fires into life with a purposeful thrum, although it’s not too intrusive on tickover. Slide into ‘D’ and the eight-speed automatic gearbox, sourced from ZF - a firm which provides transmission units to Bentley - will cause no drama. It’s quiet, refined and although there’s a quad-exit exhaust, its surprisingly mute tone is at first a disappointment.
However, the lack of aural theatre is remedied by twisting its ‘DNA’ toggle round to ‘Race’, which opens the exhaust system’s valves and transforms the whole car, but there’s a huge catch with this. Given it’s November, it’s rained just about every day for a month and the temperature’s barely above freezing, opting for Race means that while you unlock the car’s wonderful voice, you also disengage its essential stability control. So, in a nutshell, if you want the full-on theatrics of its exhaust, you’re left with 503bhp going to the rear wheels with no safety net to catch you.
When I say no safety catch, I mean it. The Quadrifoglio’s not one of these modern performance cars which my mum - whose driving ability is questionable to say the least - could get in and drive briskly from the off. The Alfa, even in its default setting, will bite without a moment’s hesitation and will light up its rear wheels at the drop of a hat. When it does it’s just you, it, a slippery surface and potential disaster and boy do I love it. Put your foot to the floor in first or second gear, maybe even third, and you’ll lose control if you’re not on the ball. It truly is that wild.
You’re left scratching your head why its engineers didn’t just follow other manufacturers and put a simple exhaust button on the dashboard, but then you remember it is an Alfa and therein lies the issue - they just don't do things like you'd expect.
Given the time of the year, you can only really access about half of its 503bhp and while it feels fast, you’re constantly searching for a window of opportunity to unleash the full extent of the power. When you get that break, it’s every bit as phenomenal as you’d expect: 60mph comes up in under four seconds and it has a 191mph top speed, but the real-world delivery is the most intriguing aspect as the engine just doesn’t have turbo lag or ever feel like it’s running out of puff at its top end.
While the intimidation and power remain key parts of the experience, there’s some other-worldly traits which shine even brighter. The brake pedal, for example, is perfectly modulated: there’s bite right at the top of the travel and the stopping power - even without the optional £5,500 carbon ceramic discs which aren’t needed - is immense. The steering is equally great, with excellent feel and a hyper-alert aspect which adds to the ‘four-door Ferrari’ billing that’s been bandied about in the motoring press.
Although my missus wasn’t too enthralled by its willingness to kill you at every junction, cars like the Giulia Quadrifoglio are rarer-by-the-day throwbacks, things which should be celebrated while they’re here. They focus your mind, they make you concentrate on driving and when you find a rare dry patch of road in November, primed in third, it makes you giggle like a youngster on Christmas morning. It’s a full-blooded, no-nonsense hit of pure adrenaline and I absolutely love it.
But how does it all feel when it's in a hiked-up, four-wheel-drive package? I must admit something before we get into the thick of just what the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio is really like, because I’ve penned numerous articles about my hatred of fast SUVs in the past.
I voiced my disgust at them being pointless, vast expressions of wealth. I said they served little purpose other than being a vulgar status symbol to impress other pretentious snobs. I also said they were usually driven by women with impossibly wrinkle-free foreheads and plumped-up lips who like to ‘brunch’ and pay a tenner for avocado on malted toast at an equally pretentious vegan-friendly cafe.
However, I feel I must eat a giant slice of humble pie because I now don’t mind admitting that the pumped-up, 503bhp Stelvio is arguably one of the most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed. The much-maligned Italian marque - famed for its beautiful-but-rubbish cars - has been on a roll since the disappointing, two-seat 4C left our thoughts and was instead replaced by the brilliant, BMW M3-beating Giulia Quadrifoglio saloon.
That car shares the big Stelvio’s engine, a 2.9-litre, Ferrari-derived V6 which has two turbos bolted on for good measure and it’s quite possibly the most intriguing unit I’ve ever come across thanks to its Jekyll and Hyde character, but we’ll get to that later.
It’s clear within an instant that it’s the sportier version and with its optional pearlescent white paint and 20-inch ‘telephone dial’ wheels, it absolutely looks the part. The quad exhaust pipes, the bonnet vents and the gaping front grilles all help towards creating a car that manages to tread the fine line between class and crass very well.
Open the driver’s door and you’re met with an interior that’s dripping with evocative carbon fibre weave. The seats, which are optional Sparco items costing £3,250, are cocooned in carbon and although their price is hard to justify, they help create a nigh-on perfect driving position. Ahead is one of the best steering wheels in the business. It is part-leather, alcantara and carbon and feels perfect in your hands, while the elongated paddleshifters nestle behind. The infotainment system works very well and is easy to understand, although the screen should be bigger in a car of this size.
Prod the Ferrari-like starter button, which is also housed on the steering wheel, and the V6 fires into life with a purposeful thrum, although it’s not too intrusive on tickover. Slide into ‘D’ and the eight-speed automatic gearbox, sourced from ZF - a firm which provides transmission units to Bentley - will cause no drama. Acceleration in its default setting is rapid, but the engine remains somewhat mute. However, the lack of aural theatre is remedied by twisting its ‘DNA’ toggle round to ‘RACE’, which opens the exhaust system’s valves and transforms the whole car.
The adaptive dampers, which are remarkably comfortable, show a stiffer edge in the car’s optimum setting but it never turns into a hard-riding, unbearable companion on even the worst-surfaced roads. Take control of the paddleshifters, which feel fantastic, and crack the window before getting on the throttle. It’s one of the most other-worldly experiences in the motoring world, barrelling along in a near two-tonne SUV which somehow does the 60mph sprint in 3.8 seconds.
Strangely it’s not its speed that stands out - you expect a car with 503bhp to feel muscular - but the noise you get is laugh-out-loud brilliant. Your ears pick up the pops, bangs and gunfire-like cracking on upshifts and downshifts, but the biggest compliment I can pay the Stelvio Quadrifoglio is the fact it doesn’t feel huge when you’re pushing on. It feels like a big hot hatch, albeit with monumental pace, and only ever reveals its undeniable weight when you’re heavily using its admittedly massive brakes to shave off speed.
There’s a price to pay, however. It’ll never register more than 25mpg and it starts at £69,510, but tick a few boxes on the options list including the seats, the fancy materials on its steering wheel and the kids’ favourite - a panoramic sunroof - and you’re looking at the thick end of £80,000. Given it’s an Alfa it’ll depreciate hugely, and it goes into a head-on battle with the Porsche Macan Turbo.
Which would I have? Before I’d have taken the Porsche every single time - you know what you’re getting and that’s a classy, fast car with a beautiful interior - but a week with the big, bad Stelvio is all it took to sway my mind because it truly is that good. There’s just no way the Porsche can match the Alfa’s character - it’s the crazy, absinthe-shotting one at the party where the strait-laced, cordial-sipping Macan is the antithesis.
Alfas of old were like a faithful old dog. They would cost you an arm and a leg in the long run and it wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box, but you loved them because of how they went about their business in their truly unique - if somewhat mad - Italian way. New cars, in my opinion at least, are more diluted than ever. Their hugely intelligent systems rob you of involvement but I dare anyone to try a Stelvio Quadrifoglio and not fall head over heels with it - it’s a modern-day throwback with a gobsmacking engine, a beautiful exterior, one of the best interiors in the game and masses of personality.
It’s a breath of fresh air and yes, I am talking about a SUV... It took me about 12 seconds to be won over by its charm. Long live big, daft, fast cars - they make the world a better place.