At first, the course seems impossible. It’s a rippling grey ribbon of a road fading into the distant snowcaps. A terrifying ascent pinned up by stones, it looks simply too precarious to be navigable. But it is — and it’s breathtaking.
On an episode of Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson and gang declared Italy’s Passo dello Stelvio — the Stelvio Pass — the greatest drive in the world. They weren’t wrong. Carved into the northern Italian Alps to connect Bormio to South Tyrol and Switzerland, the Stelvio Pass is the highest paved mountain road in Italy and the second highest in Europe. It boasts 48 heart-pounding hairpin turns over nearly 20 kilometres, zigzagging to an elevation of more than 9,000 feet. No wonder it’s a bucket list trip for auto enthusiasts worldwide.
And while most arrive in sports cars or convertibles, I’m driving the only car named after the road itself — the 2018 Stelvio, Italian automaker Alfa Romeo’s first-ever SUV. True to its name, it proves more than up to the challenge of traversing the pass.
Of course, I’d rather be driving the high-performance, top-of-the-line beast dubbed the Stelvio Quadrifoglio, which has Alfa Romeo’s most powerful production engine: a 2.9-litre, twin-turbo intercooled V6 with 505 ponies and 443 pound-feet of torque. But it won’t be available in Canada for some time, so instead I get behind the wheel of a mid-level Stelvio Ti, powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder. Delivering 280 horsepower and 306 poundfeet of torque, it can reach 0 to 100 km/h in 5.4 seconds enroute to a top speed of 233 km/h. (For the record, the Quadrifoglio can do the same in only 3.9 seconds and has a top speed of 285 km/h.)
The pass is beautiful, but daunting. It grows more intimidating with each turn, awe increasing with altitude. These twists demand not power so much as stability, grip and a sense of ease. Rarely does the speed limit exceed 50 km/h. You can occasionally push harder, but the heavy, thick fog and intermittent blowing snow make it difficult. Factor in the pedestrians, cyclists, transport trucks, and narrow stretches barely wide enough for one vehicle, let alone two, and you have all the ingredients of a white-knuckle ride. Few guardrails, sharp cliffs, and makeshift memorials deliver constant reminders of the danger.
Up here, I understand why Alfa Romeo gave its SUV this name: the ride is sporty and well balanced enough to be entertaining, but its size and solidity keep me planted on the road. The Q4 all-wheel-drive system, which is standard, has a strong rear bias for a sportier ride, but it can transfer up to 60 per cent of the engine’s torque to the front axle for better control when needed. On this road, it’s a blessing. The Stelvio, it turns out, is named perfectly.