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2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio First Drive

Go big or go home. That's the message Alfa Romeo is sending with the 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio.

The carmaker is attempting to stake out performance leadership with its Quadrifoglio billing. A moniker with a long history, it was most recently reprised for the Giulia sedan and has now been applied to its first-ever SUV, the Stelvio. (You can get a broader report on it by reading our Stelvio First Drive article.) The idea behind the company's modern Quadrifoglio-badged offerings is simple: Go faster and be more engaging than the other guys.

As first efforts go, this one will cause some sleepless nights among the establishment.

The First Quadrifoglio With AWD
To that end, the Stelvio Quadrifoglio receives a host of performance-oriented upgrades to the engine, suspension, brakes, cabin and body. Many of these are shared with the Giulia, which is no surprise considering that both vehicles are underpinned by the same platform.

Where the Stelvio Quadrifoglio (for "four-leaf clover"; hence the hand-painted clovers on the fenders) differs from its sedan-shaped stablemate is in the number of driven wheels — the Stelvio Quadrifoglio is all-wheel drive. In normal driving, power is directed to the rear wheels only. Up to 50 percent of the grunt can be rerouted to the front wheels when the rears slip or when the system deems appropriate as a means to influence handling. The rear differential is of the electronically controlled variety, providing another knob with which the chassis control system can manipulate the Stelvio's attitude.

High-Personality, High-Power V6
Motivation is provided by a twin-turbocharged, liquid-to-air intercooled 2.9-liter V6. It's essentially the V8 that Ferrari drops into its 488, just with two cylinders sliced off. This overachieving V6 develops 505 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque. Despite its 90-degree cylinder bank angle, which typically results in a shaky engine, the engine in the Stelvio Quadrifoglio is smooth and characterful, belching out a rorty exhaust note when valves at the muffler click open in Dynamic or Race mode.

In routine urban driving, the eight-speed automatic transmission, which is the only gearbox Alfa offers with this SUV, keeps revs low in the interests of fuel economy. Rolling into the accelerator builds boost progressively but not abruptly. Keep your foot in it and the Stelvio Quadrifoglio punts down the road with authority, especially once the tach swings past 3,000 rpm. Yet it's a deceptively drama-free experience since the torque curve is mesa-flat over the entire midrange. Its potency extends all the way to the redline, so you find yourself traveling at alarming speeds in short order. Alfa Romeo pegs the sprint to 60 mph in a scant 3.6 seconds, which is at the pointy end of anything in its class and many other classes, for that matter.

Big Power Needs Big Tires
Quadrifoglio models receive a unique body treatment including revised front and rear fascias, quad tailpipe tips and a vented hood. Fender lip extensions provide cover for 255/40 front and 285/40 rear Pirelli P Zero summer tires that were developed specifically for the 2018 Stelvio Quadrifoglio (the "AR" molded into their sidewalls is proof). Wheels grow to 20 inches to cover bigger brakes. It all looks properly aggressive without being overly shouty.

The driving position is commanding, with heavily bolstered seats that position your rump securely and a steering wheel with suggestive grips at 9 and 3 that simply feel right. There are a few pieces in the cabin that appear a bit downmarket among the lively contrast stitching, carbon fiber and faux suede splattered throughout the cabin.

No matter, though, because this Alfa is all about the driving experience. The fast-ratio steering provides loads of on-center feel and intuitive weighting, lending the SUV with a confidence-inspiring disposition. The driver simply feels in control.

Let the Stelvio Quadrifoglio loose on a racetrack and it lives up to Alfa's promises of segment-challenging performance. It's sharp, agile and capable, and corners with little roll. Grip levels, according to the seat of our pants, are suitably high if not eyeball-straining, but it's the tires' breakaway characteristics that really distinguish this trucklet.

The grip clings tenaciously even in big slides in the dry, bleeding away oh-so-progressively as the tires relinquish their bite on the pavement. This characteristic makes for very forgiving max-attack handling, so even Race mode is suitable for track neophytes. It puts down power well and pivots smartly at turn-in if you're attentive toward not overwhelming the tires' grip at the front end. Trail braking into corners is essential to get the Stelvio down to the apex since the grip at the front axle is ultimately its limiting factor in track driving. Despite this, it's a genuinely entertaining thing on a hard drive, and really shrinks around the driver at speed. It's 4,360 pounds with a tallish seating position, but drives more like a hot hatch. A very hot hatch. Among midsize, performance-oriented SUVs, the Stelvio Quadrifoglio leads the pack, dynamically.

Powerful Brakes
All Stelvios are equipped with a drive-by-wire braking system, which means there is no mechanical connection between the pedal and the rest of the gubbins that do the slowing. Instead, the action at the business end of your foot is simply a request that is received by a black box, which then interprets the request and commands the hydraulic system electronically. Alfa Romeo says this system was chosen to save weight, to eliminate ABS judder and to improve modulation.

On the track, the brakes are brilliant. Pedal effort is consistent and linear, and modulation is nuanced enough to make threshold braking a cinch. Unfortunately, on the street the modulation at light pressures is not very good. Instead the brakes are overzealous at the top of the pedal travel, making experienced drivers appear as though they've just got their licenses. This is the case whether you choose the standard steel brakes (14.2-inch front rotors, 13.8-inch rears) or the optional carbon-ceramic jobs (15.4-inch front rotors, 14.2-inch rears). The latter add $8,000 to the bottom line but deliver gobsmacking fade resistance and shave 55 pounds of unsprung mass.

Graceful Violence
As you'd expect in something of this flavor, the ride quality is very firm. It's not punishing, though — despite its sporting demeanor, the multimode dampers allow enough compliance that the hard edges are rounded off of impacts. Elsewhere the unique-to-Quadrifoglio suspension tuning is conventional, with steel springs and stabilizer bars working in concert with a double-wishbone front and multilink rear suspension geometry.

The drive mode selector on the console allows the driver to switch between Advanced Efficiency, Natural, Dynamic,
and Race modes. Advanced Efficiency enables one bank of cylinders to be shut down in light-load driving to save fuel, while Dynamic mode firms up the suspension dampers, quickens throttle and transmission programming, and loosens the leash of stability control. Race mode does all of those parameters one tick more aggressively, provides quicker shifts and fully disables stability control.

Shifts can be commanded manually via long, gorgeous aluminum paddle shifters that are mounted to the steering column rather than the steering wheel. If you've ever struggled to locate a steering-wheel-mounted paddle when the wheel's turned, now you know the advantage of column-mounted ones — they're always in the same place. Left to its own devices, the eight-speeder makes good decisions and is plenty smooth, but — like every other transmission currently in existence — can't quite eclipse the talents of Porsche's PDK dual-clutch box.

Swinging for the Fences
Major options include the carbon-ceramic brakes and carbon-fiber Sparco seats with manual adjustments, which are surprisingly livable in everyday driving and 15 pounds lighter than the standard 14-way power seats. Other optional extras: a 900-watt Harman Kardon sound system, a panoramic sunroof, and a suite of driver assistance features, including adaptive cruise and lane departure warning.

Reaching dealers this spring, the 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio stickers for $79,995, plus $1,595 destination. In its sights are the Porsche Macan Turbo and the Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 S Coupe. Heady stuff indeed. Speedwise, the Alfa more than holds its own against those rivals. Overall, though, it's not the Stelvio Quadrifoglio's speed that impresses most. It's the cohesiveness. This is a well-sorted package, with very good control feel, electronics that operate seamlessly, and a willingness to party.

OK, yeah — it's really fast, too.