Payne: Alfa Stelvio sport ute vs. Cadillac ATS sport sedan

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The age of the performance SUV is upon us. Porsche, Jaguar, Alfa — even Lamborghini! — put the “sport” in sport utility vehicle. They come with heavy-breathing marketing materials claiming these five-door rhinos bring sedan-like moves to the ute class.

Don’t you believe it.

I recently speed-dated a similarly spec’d five-door Alfa Romeo Stelvio SUV and a Cadillac ATS sedan. Both had turbo-4 power. Sculpted lines. Eight-speed transmissions. Electronic accessories. The works.

The razor-sharp, toned ATS danced rings around the Alfa. The Cadillac begs to be spun around the rumba studio. The Italian ute? Slow the music down a bit, please.

Yet, when I step back from these two luxury partners, the SUV’s overall benefits are hard to deny. Driving-obsessed motorheads like me aside, we are ute nation. It’s no wonder that Alfa — that legendary crafter of the T33 Stradale Prototipo and V8 Montreal — chose to introduce its second U.S. volume vehicle as an SUV. And it’s no wonder that Cadillac is scrambling to complement its lone crossover entry, the XT-5, with s new XT-4 and XT-6 this year.

I was honestly surprised at how pedestrian the Alfa felt next to the ATS. The Stelvio, after all, is based on the same Giorgio architecture as the Giulia sedan which is neck-and-neck with the ATS for best compact athlete. The Alfa siblings share engines, gearboxes, even independent, multi-link suspensions. And the Stelvio costs 10 grand more than the ATS with similar amenities.

The Stelvio is as good as it gets in compact SUVs. Like the Porsche Macan and Jaguar F-Sport and BMW X2 (and, while we’re at it, the terrific, premium-wannabe Mazda CX-5) it is fun to drive, balanced on corner turn-in.

But the ATS is an Olympian.

You know this is a different animal as soon as you turn the wheel. The ATS fits like a tennis shoe, changing directions as quickly as Seth Curry. Heading north on Telegraph Road, I take the long way home through Oakland County’s twisty lake country. I push the Sport mode button for a throatier soundtrack to match my mood, stomp the throttle, and enjoy the quick, buttery, eight-speed tranny.

It reminds me of the first time I drove the Cadillac in rural Connecticut, sprinting over hills and never putting a foot wrong.

Its Alpha chassis (that’s Alpha with a “ph”) was bred to compete against Germany’s finest at the highest levels. Drop in a twin-turbo V-6, slap on some Michelin Super Sports, and the ATS-V performance model can go toe-to-toe against a BMW M3 around any track. It was part of Cadillac’s rebirth as a performance brand as it threw an army at the Teutons: Cadillac CTS-V, CT6 large sedans, CT6 plug-in hybrid.

So good is the Alpha chassis that GM also built the Chevy Camaro on it, which not only gave the Camaro bragging rights over the Ford Mustang — but made the Camaro competitive with BMW’s M4 coupe, for goodness sake.

Trouble is, customers wanted SUVs.

“People want to ride up high for better visibility. And SUVs also give them all-wheel drive and five-door utility,” says IHS senior analyst Steph Brinley.

Cadillac only offered one — the XT5 — and the Germans offered dozens. Alfa watched, learned and introduced Stelvio within a year of the Giulia. Stelvio sales have been slow out of the box, selling two-thirds as many units as the sedan. But give it time. Caddy’s lone XT5 outsells the ATS 5-to-1 — and it’s not even based on the same rear-wheel drive skeleton (it shares its bones with the front-wheel-drive GMC Acadia).

Jump in the Stelvio and it’s not immediately obvious why an SUV would outsell a sedan. Like its compact car counterparts, the backseat is small and its coupe-like styling negates the fundamental hatchback design advantage by squashing my 6-foot-5 frame into the ceiling.

Then it started to snow.

The white stuff negated all of the handling advantages of the ATS. My rear-wheel drive ATS couldn’t make it up my driveway. The Alfa climbed it like Sir Edmund Hillary.

The Stelvio comes standard with all-wheel drive — but four-wheelin’ is an option on the ATS which would bring its price to $52,000 (and make it even quicker to 60 mph with the added traction). That’s still $4,000 shy of the Alfa. But the average consumer has already signed the sedan divorce papers.

The standard all-wheel drive Stelvio rides higher for better visibility. It has nearly double the rear cargo space (18 cubic feet) compared to the Caddy’s 10. And then there’s the Alfa engine.

Most drivers don’t know an apex from a cortex — but they know how to mash a throttle out of a stoplight. Here the Alfa shines. Its 280-horsepower turbo-4 had just five more horsepower and 10 more pound-feet of torque than the Cadillac, but it feels like more. The Stelvio also feels smoother in the high-rev ranges where the Caddy shouts, sounding more like a mainstream four-banger than a luxury chariot.

More telling, fuel efficiency is almost identical despite the Alfa weighing some 500 pounds more than the sedan and lugging around all-wheel drive. That’s impressive — and also indicative of the leap that SUVs have made to become more competitive with cars. These aren’t your grandad’s gas-guzzling light trucks.

“Customers want it all,” says Brinley. “They expect utility and fuel economy.”

The more I drove the ATS and Stelvio back-to-back, the more I wanted to combine their strengths into one vehicle.

From the ATS: lower center of gravity for better handling, lighter weight, touchscreen infotainment. From the Stelvio: hatchback utility, all-wheel drive, beefier turbo-4.

Now that would be the perfect car. Call it the Alfallac ATStelvio.

Or call it the VW Golf R, one of my favorite hot hatches that combines the best of the sedan/ute worlds: hatchback (with 4 more cubic feet of cargo room than the Stelvio), a 2.0-liter turbo-4 (with 12 more horsepower than the Alfa), low center of gravity, monster brakes, lightweight (700 pounds lighter than Stelvio), all-wheel drive for snow and grip (a half-second quicker to 60 mph than the luxe twins), 25 mpg (same as the ATS), plus standard leather and safety systems.

And a loaded Golf R costs just $41,000 — 5,000 grand south of an ATS and $15,000 cheaper than the Stelvio. It’s a bargain.

Just thought you’d like to know.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Cadillac ATS

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, five-passenger sports sedan

Price: $36, 490 base ($47,255 RWD as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged, 4-cylinder

Power: 272 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.7 seconds (Motor Trend); top speed, 150 mph

Weight: 3,373 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway/25 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Slot-car handling; unique styling

Lows: Cramped backseat; shouty four-banger


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger sports SUV

Price: $43,190 base ($54,090 Sport Ti AWD as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged, 4-cylinder

Power: 280 horsepower, 306 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.4 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 144 mph

Weight: 4,044 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway/24 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Quick engine-tranny combo; sedan-like mpg despite added girth

Lows: Cramped backseat; high CUV stance compromises handling


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★