In the time since I began reviewing cars for Ars Technica, my reviews have settled into a routine. A fresh vehicle pulls into the alley behind my house on Tuesday morning with a full tank of gas and a soft limit of 500 miles of driving. After familiarizing myself with the infotainment system, safety features, and the other peculiarities, I take each car for a 60+ mile drive.
I include suburban neighborhoods, arterial streets, expressways, and winding country roads with actual hills and curves (a few of those actually exist around Chicagoland). Then for the rest of the week, I spend time doing the stuff I’d do with any other car: buying groceries, taking my son to rugby practice, driving to church… the usual stuff. It’s generally enough to give me a good picture of what a car is and is not capable of.
That said, there is always one question left unanswered at the end of a trip: “How would this car be on a family road trip?”
I reviewed the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Ti last year. Although it was my second review to be published, it was the first car I actually drove. And I liked it. . So when the 505hp, V6 Stelvio Quadrifoglio finally made it to dealers this spring, I had an idea for Alfa Romeo: instead of doing the usual one-week loan, how about letting me see how practical a high-performance, $84,000 SUV is for a family vacation? What it’s like to spend day after day in the racing seats? How does this vehicle handle on the winding Pacific Coast Highway?
Alfa Romeo said yes. So aside from being in California instead of suburban Chicago, and working without a mileage ceiling, this 11-day vehicle loan would be the same as any other. We paid our own way out to California, we paid for our own lodging, and we paid for gas after the full tank it came with was drained. I cashed in some credit card miles for our flights, booked some hotels and Airbnbs, and created an itinerary for the family (PDF). The great Bangeman road-test road trip was officially on.
All told, we racked up 1,165 miles. We started in Los Angeles, moved on for two days in Santa Barbara, and then spent two days in Monterey, two days in San Francisco, two days in Mariposa near Yosemite National Park, and a final night in a nondescript Embassy Suites right by LAX before flying out. We encountered both dirt roads where no GPS shall lead you and bumper-to-bumper stop-and-go on multi-lane highways. Some days had five hours of time behind the wheel, and every day bar one in San Francisco had at least some driving. If I hadn’t already put this SUV through its paces back in Chicago, the Quadrifoglio was truly about to run the gauntlet of travel scenarios.
I’ve heard the traffic in LA can be bad at times
Getting to LA was an ordeal involving two cancelled flights and our luggage being sent to a different airport. Wanting as much rest as possible in a new and unfamiliar setting, I downed a Lunesta (I use them exclusively when I travel) and went to bed with anticipation.
The four-cylinder Stelvio was a blast last go-round, so the thought of driving a souped-up version for a few days was that much more exciting. From the outside, the two models look very similar. You know you’re looking at a Stelvio Quadrifoglio by the six vents in the hood, triangular shamrock emblems on the front quarter panels, and the pair of twin exhaust pipes in the rear. On the inside, the Quadrifoglio has more leather and carbon-fibre, some leather-and-Alcantara front seats, and another shamrock badge on the instrument panel.
Unlike the Alfa Romeo of old, there’s not much of the engine to see—just a large cover with the logo on it. Underneath lays a 2.9-liter, six-cylinder, twin-turbo V6 capable of pumping out 505hp (376W) and 443lb-ft (600Nm) of torque. It’s the same engine we loved in the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, and it’s based on the current Ferrari V8 with two fewer cylinders. It sounds amazing, like a large swarm of deep-voiced bees that would urgently like to have a word with you about pesticides and colony collapses.
Alfa claims a top speed of 177mph (285km/h) for the Quadrifoglio with a zero-to-60 time of just 3.6 seconds, which is faster than the almost any other SUV, including the Porsche Cayenne and Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S. The Lamborghini Urus is also rated at 3.6 seconds, and a Tesla Model X P100 will go much faster, but that’s about it. The Stelvio Quadrifoglio even holds the current SUV lap record—7:51.7— at the Nurburgring Nordschleife.
It turns out the daily grind in Los Angeles—Whole Foods for breakfast, a stroll through Venice, lunch at In-N-Out—doesn’t really need a high-performance SUV. With all of the stop-and-go traffic the stop/start system got a workout; I appreciated how quickly the engine roared back to life when you needed it. The response from throttle and brake felt near-instantaneous and required a light touch to avoid a jerky ride in the heavy traffic. As the vacation went on, I acquired the required finesse for lurch-free city driving.
For dinner, we went to Petit Trois, a bistro owned by French chef Ludo Lefebvre. I’d gotten reservations for 7:15, in hopes of avoiding the worst the 405 had to offer. No such luck. The steak frites with cognac pepper sauce was to die for, but the drive there was not. One of the best things about today’s vehicles, compared to the trio of decade-old autos sitting in my garage, is adaptive cruise control paired with forward collision warning. It’s a case where good technology makes traffic jams much less annoying. Unfortunately, the our Quadrifoglio was delivered with the adaptive cruise non-operational. I’ve experienced FCA’s version in the Maserati Levante, a pair of minivans, and the Stelvio Ti, and it works great. But without those parts of the $1,500 Driver Assist Dynamic Plus Package working for me, the stop-and-go traffic on the 405 had me looking forward to the next leg of our trip.
Driving one of the most scenic highways in the world
A concern for any family trip is the amount of luggage and how well it can fit in your vehicle. The Stelvio’s 18.5 (524L) cubic feet of cargo space with the back seats in use is not a lot, but we got all our stuff in there. I was pleasantly surprised to have an almost-clear view out of my rear-view mirror—the angle of the rear window is such that I had at least 80 percent visibility.
With the luggage in the car and everyone buckled in, it was time to head northwest to Santa Barbara, and the Quadrifoglio began to shine. I went back and forth between Natural and Dynamic modes, settling into Natural for a calmer, smoother ride on Highway 101. The drive from LA to Santa Barbara itself was uneventful but beautiful, with little to test the Alfa other than the occasional overtaking of a slower vehicle when a passing lane opened up.
Santa Barbara is a beautiful town of just under 100,000 about a two-hour drive from LA. We had two things on our mind here: the beach and a tri-tip sandwich from the Cold Spring Tavern about a half-hour up from our hotel in the Santa Ynez Mountains. Cold Spring Tavern began life in 1868 as a stagecoach stop near the top of the San Marcos Pass, and it’s a gorgeous drive up Highway 154 to get there. Once you leave Santa Barbara proper, you’re on a two-lane highway with a steady climb from sea level to about 2,000 feet. There was nothing challenging about the drive, just the joy of being behind the wheel of a car that wanted to show off.
After two days in Santa Barbara, it was time for the trek up the coast to Monterey. I had long dreamed of driving California Highway 1, but a section of mountain near Mud Creek had deposited an estimated 5 million cubic yards of rocks, mud, and other detritus onto the highway in May 2017, forcing everyone to detour to the inland US Highway 101 for the trek between Santa Barbara and Monterey. The repairs would only be done and the road reopened on July 21—two days late for our purposes. I resigned myself to missing out on the drive and we headed out on 101. With an open highway, a landscape painted with irrigated fields and gold-hued hills, and traffic flowing at a steady 80mph, there wasn’t much to complain about.
As we passed through San Luis Obispo, I saw the sign for the Highway 1 exit and felt a tinge of sadness. I had to ask: “Honey, would you check to see if Highway 1 opened early by some miracle?” A quick search brought us the best possible news—the Pacific Coast Highway had reopened two days ahead of schedule.
For an inland petrolhead, the Pacific Coast Highway was all I’d dreamed of. We stopped several times to take in the beauty, and in one case, we even watched male elephant seals throwing down. Nature documentaries don’t do the scene justice—the sight of half-ton bulls crashing into each other on a beach 50 meters away while barking is amazing. And they sound like… an eruption of damp flatulence reverberating through an immense PVC pipe.
Driving the Quadrifoglio for the four hours or so it took us to traverse Highway 1 between San Luis Obispo and Carmel-by-the-Sea was one of my all-time driving highlights. It’s mostly curves with a couple of switchbacks thrown in for good measure, and I kept the Alfa in Dynamic mode. To my delight, the car hugged the road the entire way. With its low center of gravity, 12:1 steering ratio, and double-wishbone suspension, the Alfa handled the highway like a boss. It’s no sports car, but it didn’t feel like an SUV either.
We spent two days in Monterey—be sure to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium and cruise the 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach if you make it up there—and continued our trek with a two-hour drive to San Francisco. Again, we chose scenic over the most direct route into the Golden Gate City. The Quadrifoglio is rated at 19mpg: 17mpg in the city and 23mpg on the highway. Mileage in and around LA was understandably lousy with the style of driving, but I got 21.8mpg on our second tank and averaged 19.8mpg for the entire trip.