Payne: Which SUV is more Italian? Maserati Levante vs. Alfa Stelvio

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The marriage of Italy and Detroit is producing some interesting DNA. All you have to do is look at the dashing Maserati Levante and Alfa Romeo Stelvio SUVs I'm hanging out with this week.

That’s right, Detroit, I said Maserati and Alfa SUVs.

Since the Italians bought Chrysler, the Auburn Hills family dinner table has gotten a lot bigger. Christmas dinner would be worthy of a "Saturday Night Live" sketch with Fiat Chrysler papa Mike Manley presiding.

There’s huuuuge Ram 3500 sitting next to a tiny Fiat 500: Yo, tiny, pass the cornbread.

The Chrysler minivan compares notes with the Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio: OK, OK, so you can fit 505 horses under your hood, but can you fit six kids in your back seats?

Alfa and Jeep swap war stories: Mama mia, was I happy to see your great-grandfather Willys liberating Italy in ’43!

There would be ham and meatballs and potatoes and pasta and beer and wine. There would be Italian mixing with English and arguments about which cultural traditions were richer as the spirits flowed.

But for all the differences, everyone loves a five-door ute. Take the Maserati brand: The house of the Trident. The chariot raced by Fangio. The sultan of style. Its storied racing and luxury past put it in the same league as Italian brands Gucci, Prada and Versace.

Italian stallions: The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio (left) and Maserati Levante have become their brand's best-selling vehicles. But the Levante's big V-8 makes it feel more like an American muscle car than the fine-tuned Alfa.

Together with its old racing sibling Alfa Romeo — newly introduced to America as a luxury brand in 2014 — it now makes SUVs just like Jeep. In fact, the best-selling vehicles from the Maserati and Alfa stables aren’t slinky sports cars, but utes.

More fun facts? The Levante SUV originally was to share a chassis with the good ol’ Jeep Grand Cherokee assembled in Detroit. The prospect of spending $1 billion on a new architecture forces such conversations.

Of course, saner heads prevailed. The late company chief Sergio Marchionne intervened. Engineers tore up the Jeep Levante plans and developed it off the Ghibli large sedan’s rear-wheel drive platform. Costs be damned, it must be a Maserati!

But after spending a week with the Doge of Modena, I’m struck with how American the Maserati Levante feels. Interesting, because the Alfa Stelvio feels more Italian.

Yes, this Italian-American marriage is making some interesting siblings.

While Maserati flirted with Jeep-platform cost-saving, the Alfa purposely ignored its American family from the get-go. Without Maserati’s premium brand cache in the U.S. market, the Alfa had to make a splash for its first-ever U.S. luxe-mobiles. There was no talk of chassis sharing, no parts-bin mixing. The Alfa even eschews Chrysler’s best-in-autodom touch screen for an inferior, remote-operated Italian rotary dial.

Taking the stage after Alfa’s opening act — the brilliant, rambunctious, exhaust-farting 4C sports car — the Giulia compact sedan and Stelvio SUV were introduced off the same stiff Giorgio platform and were instantly hailed as the best-handling cars in class.

I first tested the 505-horsepower Stelvio Quadrifoglio at Circuit of the America’s Formula One track in Austin, Texas — proof the world has gone completely mad for SUVs.

There I was in the Stelvio — an Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio on stilts (the two vehicles are nearly identical under the skin) — doing banzai laps on the continent’s most epic race track. Madness, I tell you. But if you’re a performance brand selling SUVs, you have to have performance versions like the Quadrifoglio. The Stelvio is no Giulia (which I first tested on California's Sonoma Raceway), but with its nimble, quick-ratio steering it’s the best-handling premium compact ute.

The Alfa’s engine speaks with a husky Italian accent. Basically a Ferrari V-12 sawed in half, the twin-turbo V-6 barks and farts with a personality all its own. The acceleration is insane, its 3.4 seconds zero-60 quicker than a Corvette Grand Sport.

“Whoa! That’s too fast” said my motorhead friend Caroline as she mashed the Stelvio’s throttle out of a Southfield stoplight. The red whale gulped traffic like it was plankton.

You think that’s madness? Behold the bigger, mid-size Levante GTS with 550 horsepower, 538-pound feet of torque, and V-8 accent. BRAAGHAGHAGH!

I would walk out of my house and remote-start the Levante in my driveway just to hear the V-8 clear its throat like King Kong. Even muffled by twin-turbos, the V-8 baritone is so irresistible. So naughty. So ... American.

Though half-a-second slower to 60 mph than the Alfa at 4.0 seconds, the Maserati felt faster. Perhaps because of its heavier 4,738-pound girth. This time Caroline deferred to me, taking the passenger seat like a soldier bracing for a cannon round.

“Do a zero-60 run!” she said.

Simulating launch-control (only the top-line Trofeo edition, not my GTS, has true electronic launch-control), I floored the brake and accelerator at the same time. Revs bounced to 3,000 rpms, then I released the Kraken. The beast exploded forward like a bullet from a Beretta. BRAGGHHHHHHHH!

The satisfying twin-turbo V-8 is actually made by Ferrari. It's mated to a silky eight-speed transmission that fires off shifts as effortlessly as Klay Thompson fires three-balls.

Merging with authority onto interstates around town, I found it nearly impossible to keep the car at legal speeds. It’s an Italian with a Hellcat heart.

Which begs the question, why drop $121,475 for a Maserati Levante when a Hellcat-engine 707-horsepower, 3.5-second zero-60 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk (which I first tested at New Hampshire’s Club Motorsports race track, natch) costs $36,000 less?

The Maserati’s interior pales compared to, say, the corner-office-crisp, $100,000 Audi A8 I recently drove. The Levante’s cabin is more Jeep-like, sharing the Grand Cherokee's windshield-wiper control stalk and Uconnect screen.

Buy the smoldering Italian because trident-badged grilles are irresistible. But that begs another question: If it’s an Italian-American SUV you want, what about Signore Quadrifoglio?

As a compact SUV, the $81,590 Alfa Stelvio Quadrifoglio is smaller than the mid-sized Levante (and Grand Cherokee for that matter), but not uncomfortable. I could still sit easily behind myself in the back seat. And it gives up only one cubic foot in cargo space.

The rotary controller is more continental. The handling tighter. The accent more Italian.

Pass the Quadrifoglio pasta, please.

Side hood vents and big rear haunches define the side view of the Maserati Levante GTS ute, Maserati's first entry in the SUV market.

2019 Maserati Levante GTS

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

Price: $77,475 base price for V-6 Levante, including $1,495 destination fee ($138,285 V-8 GTS as tested) 

Powerplant: Twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V-8 

Power: 542 horsepower, 548 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.1 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 181 mph

Weight: 4,738 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA: 14 city/18 highway/15 combined (GTS as tested)

Report card

Highs: Maserati face; V-8 fury

Lows: Feels like a Jeep inside; megabuck price tag

Overall: 3 stars

The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio is the Italian brand's first five-door SUV.

2019 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio

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

Price: $41,590 base Stelvio turbo-4, including $1,595 destination fee ($84,390 Quadrifoglio as tested) 

Powerplant: Twin-turbocharged 2.9-liter V-6

Power: 505 horsepower; 443 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.4 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 176 mph

Weight: 4,360 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA: 17 city/23 highway/19 combined 

Report card

Highs: Giulia handling on stilts, Italian vibe inside and out

Lows: Jeep has a better infotainment system; awkward paddle shifters

Overall: 4 stars

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-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.