Alfa Romeo looks to climb luxury SUV ranks with Stelvio

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Los Angeles — – Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Alfa Romeo luxury brand, working to expand its significance in the U.S., on Wednedsay unveilied the stylish and curvy Stelvio SUV at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

Alfa Romeo CEO Reid Bigland on Wednesday opened the Los Angeles Auto Show by unveiling the midsize 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio SUV, which is expected to arrive in dealerships in 2017.

Head of Alfa Romeo Reid Bigland touted the all-new midsize SUV as “the fastest SUV ever,” with a zero-to-60-miles-per-hour time of 3.9 seconds and a top speed of 177 mph thanks to a Ferrari-derived 2.9-liter, bi-turbo V-6 powering the vehicle’s top-trim Quadrifoglio.

“The all-new Stelvio sets an entirely new benchmark for the SUV segment,” he said during the unveiling, adding the vehicle was “uniquely engineered to challenge two-door sports cars on the track.”

The new 2018 Stelvio is expected to be available beginning early next year in Europe, followed by the United States in the second quarter. It’s the second of eight all-new vehicles planned for the Italian make that is re-entering the U.S. market after a two-decade absence. The first was the midsize Giulia sedan, which is expected to arrive stateside next month.

The SUV is named after one of the greatest driving roads in the world — the Stelvio pass in the Italian Alps.

“You might say Alfa Romeo is the opposite of the autonomous driving movement. At Alfa Romeo we want people to become actively, physically and emotionally engaged,” Bigland said. “At a time when the thrill of owning a luxury car seems to be fading, we believe Alfa Romeo offers a welcomed alternative.”

The Alfa Romeo brand is important to Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne’s growth plans. Fiat Chrysler in 2014 pledged to introduce eight new Alfa vehicles by 2018 through a 5 billion euro ($5.36 billion) investment. The goal was to grow sales from about 74,000 in 2013 to 400,000 by 2018. That figure included about 150,000 in North America.

But earlier this year in its most recent update, Fiat Chrysler backed off the Alfa timeline, saying the products would be done by mid-2020. Sales expectations weren’t provided.

IHS Markit senior analyst Stephanie Brinley said as Alfa aims to re-establish itself here, it needs product. The Giulia sedan, which begins launching next month, and the Stelvio give them volume in the compact luxury sedan segment and growing luxury SUV space, she said.

“They’re both critical, the Giulia and Stelvio are critical to Alfa’s success here, almost equally critical,” Brinley said.

Industry forecaster IHS Markit expects the Giulia and Stelvio will account for about 72,000 sales globally by 2019. The U.S. market would be about 30 percent or 21,600, according to IHS.

The Stelvio is expected to compete with the sporty, up-market Jaguar F-Pace and Porsche Macan. Stelvio pricing has not been announced and Fiat Chrysler did not provide fuel economy estimates.

Available in three trims, the base Stelvio and next-level-up Stelvio Ti models have a new, 2-liter turbocharged aluminum engine mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. The engine delivers 280 horsepower and 306 foot-pounds of torque, allowing a top speed of 144 mph.

“There is no mistaking the rich Alfa Romeo DNA in the Stelvio’s seductive Italian design,” Bigland said.

All Stelvio models get a Q4 all-wheel-drive system. Much of the SUV’s body is made from aluminum, including front and rear frames, brakes, doors and fenders.

Alfa says the SUV is designed for driving performance. Adjustable driving modes include a race mode for the Quadrifoglio.

Safety technology includes forward-collision warning-plus, which will bring the Stelvio to a full stop when a front crash appears imminent; adaptive cruise control-plus with full stop; and lane-departure warning. It also offers blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-path detection.

The premium Stelvio Quadrifoglio comes equipped with a performance suspension. Special leather front seats have 12-way power adjustable thigh support. A premium audio system has 14 speakers.

Stelvio and Ti trim models have leather seats, backup camera with rear parking sensors, power liftgate and pushbutton start.

Buyers will be able to customize their Stelvio by choosing from 13 exterior colors, seven types of wheels ranging from 18 inches to 21 inches, and different interior colors.

Brinley said it will be several years before the verdict is in on Alfa’s success in the U.S. More than 150 U.S. dealers sell Alfa Romeos.

“American drivers are still getting to know the Alfa Romeo brand, and the introduction of the Stelvio is the best way to gain exposure to consumers in the bustling premium utility segment,” said Eric Lyman, chief analyst and vice president of industry insights at TrueCar Inc. “Luxury utilities are less about functionality than styling and on-road dynamics, both of which Alfa Romeo can deliver due to a rich heritage in performance racing.”

The 4C roadster was the first model the brand offered when it re-entered the U.S. It went on sale in limited numbers in 2014. Sales of the 4C have been slow in the U.S., with the just 434 sold through October this year.

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