Clashing dogmas, identical results
It seems a lifetime ago, but as a mere stripling way back in ‘86, I made a pilgrimage to the Mille Miglia to witness Italy at its absolute finest. Wide-eyed I soon learned about the passion, the confusion and the noise of Italy.
That trip was possible because I had to fly direct to Germany after those wild weeks, for a month at my then employer’s head office, to learn the ropes. One thing that stuck with me as much as that incredible Mille Miglia experience, was that short flight from Milan to Stuttgart.
A mind-blowing difference
I so well remember peering out of the window after it took flight and still feeling the vibe and the chaos of Milan before it faded away as the 737 caressed the clouds. Half an hour later, the difference was pretty mind-blowing as the Boeing descended.
Even from the air, the order, the precision and the relative clam of Germany was patently evident and all that became far more evident as that month continued. They may just be a 30-minute flight apart, but the national void each side of the Alps is tangible, palpable, and it runs through everything Italian and German.
It was that aspect that struck me so as a lad, rather than the incredible affect the Mille Miglia had on both Alfa Romeo, BMW and me, that came back at me as we considered this incredible couple of cars.
The 4x4 has also come a hell of a long way and means so much more to so many people than just approach, departure and break-over angles, ride height and the low range. There’s a growing number of SUV owners who these days worry more about 0-100km/h, the quarter mile and the car’s Nürburgring lap time than its ability to summit Everest, cross the Amazon or traverse the Sahara and this duo is all about those former abilities.
Both are brand new
They are also both brand new – Stelvio is not just the Milanese carmaker’s first-ever four-by-four in over 100 years of building cars, but this Quadrifoglio (Italian for cloverleaf – that traditional four-leafed Alfa Romeo racing badge) also its also its first ever super-SUV.
BMW’s X4 is certainly nothing new – especially if you consider its combined history with its boxier X3 sibling, but this is the first ever pukka M version either way on that now well established Munich platform and this is a pair of cars we have itched to get together for a while already. And here they are….
The Alfa Romeo of course arrives carrying the kudos of Stelvio QV lapping the Nürburgring in an all-time SUV record 7 minutes 51.7 seconds, while its maker promises that its first SUV proudly carries state-of-the art Italian style as it marries everything from perfect fifty-fifty weight distribution through both class-leading power-to-weight ratio and torsional rigidity with the passion of Sophia Loren, craftsmanship borrowed from Ferrari and da Vinci-like innovation. Never mind the lightweight quest stretches from carbon fibre driveshaft to racy Sparco seats shelled in that exotic weave.
The Alfa Romeo is propelled by a compact 375kW 600Nm Ferrari-derived all-aluminium direct petrol injection 2.9-litre 24-valve intercooled biturbo 90-degree V6 to ensure a low centre of gravity within the chassis, while the bent six also gets cylinder deactivation for best fuel efficiency. In essence Alfa’s six is a Ferrari V8 with two pots lopped off, which sings an aria of sophistication borne out by a splendid staccato exhaust note.
The Germans have stuck with the tried and trusted straight six since the cows came home – or long enough for among their home town and other rivals to rush off to a V6 a couple of decades ago and now finally return tail between the legs to the good old in-line six that Munich has bever wavered from. This one is of coursed endowed with 24 valves and its own intercooled biturbos
The newly developed high-revving biturbo 3-litre M lump churns out an identical 375kW and 600Nm to the albeit 100cc smaller Italian V6 in this Competition get-up – or what we used to call 500 horsepower back in the day. It sounds quite similar to the Alfa on the road, albeit a tad mute in comparison.
Keep it simple, stupid
Alfa Romeo has however kept it quite simple from the flywheel back. Packing a similar lightning-quick eight-speed automatic to the BMW, it turns Stelvio’s standard Q4 all-wheel-drive with a torque vectoring rear differential, while braking is taken care of by ‘ultra-high-performance’ Brembo performance disc brakes and each corner is controlled by Quadrifoglio-tuned adaptive suspension.
X4 M counters that with BMW M’s new rear-biased xDrive all-wheel-drive with an Active M rear Differential for 'sublime dynamics,’ backed by sophisticated chassis tech via the M-specific suspension’s electronically controlled dampers, double-joint spring strut front and five-link rear axles; M-specific steering with Servotronic and variable ratio and powerful compound M brakes.
Either way, both these cars thrust you straight into driving heaven as they deliver mind-warping performance – so much so that you tend to forget that they’re supposed to be SUVs.
Splendid Alfa simplicity
The real beauty of the Alfa is however its simplicity of operation. There’s just a four-mode Alfa DNA Pro selector with Race mode, so if you want to go fast, all you do is twist the DNA to Race and expunge the traction control. No headaches, no need to drive yourself dilly trying to figure which of a dazzling variety of set-up options is best, unlike the dithering Bavarians, the Italians do it all for you.
What’s more, is you don’t need to fidget around sitting at the side of the road trying to find that bloody BMW launch mode. In the Alfa, once you have Race on and ESC off, you just stand on the brakes on full power, judge the best point to do so as the revs rise, and slip the left foot off the brake pedal. And Stelvio rockets off the line.
Driver choices are a far bigger task in the infinitely adjustable BMW, which needs you to study a full menu of M xDrive modes, let alone myriad choices of engine and transmission, steering and damper settings, all of which you can pick by fingering a dizzying array of buttons or a whole lot of other means that will thrill the more tech savvy. The DSC allows controlled wheel slip in M Dynamic Mode or it can be switched off completely, while the Heads-Up Display can be specified via the iDrive menu and …and, and, and…
Sophisticated BMW solution
Happily, the you can also store two of your favourite set-up options in the iDrive menu and select them via the red two steering wheel M buttons. But be sure to get those set-ups right as with them you can achieve whatever you want.
So, to get to the double click solution to arrive in Race with DSC off in the Alfa, you would have to first have completed a thesis on how to set the BMW with your preferred info stored in the computer to finally enable you to just prod the red preferred M paddle on the steering.
Never mind that you’d need to have gone into some dark chat rooms to learn a special trick to launch the Beemer in such a way that makes it ready to compete with the simple twist of the dial and the prod of a button to get the Alfa to the same point.
And guess what? The good old line-lock sees Stelvio off the line significantly quicker too, to ensure that it not only jumps ahead of the tin brain launch controlled BMW off the mark, but it’s still a little ahead at 100km/h too and it only starts getting even around 400m.
So much for launch control and all the gizmos then. And you don’t have the headache of trying to figure it out to get the Alfa going either.
Coupled at the tote
To be true, from a performance point of view, these two really are coupled at the tote – you can basically throw a blanket over them at any point in their performance envelopes, but the Alfa is not only far simpler to operate, but it is quicker, or at least as fast in all the performance factors you would already have checked out below.
Being a performance shootout, that makes the Alfa the winner here, no?
Both are also impressive on fuel when not pushed – but not pushing these cars far easier said than done. Still, the BMW has a claimed average 10.5 litres per 100km and 239 g/km CO2, while the Alfa is even better, they say, at 9.8 l/100km and 227 g/km. All of which seems fair enough compared to our more docile moments with each.
On the road, the Alfa is without doubt the edgier car – it’s rowdier and more guttural to start with, especially toggled to Race, its steering is livelier, and you feel and sense more urgency from it. Which makes it more fun to drive in Race mode than the BMW in bareback. Of course, it’s a swing of the dial or a prod that damper button to make it more comfortable in the Alfa. And a whole rigmarole in the Beemer.
That Italo-German thing
It’s not that the BMW is any worse a car – it’s just that Italo-German thing I told you about up top – the German car does it like a German – no fuss, not bother, mesmeric and metronomic, but with enough rules and controls to drive you dilly. The Italian is expressive and wild, free-spirited and boundless. And rules? What are they again…?
There’s however more to winning buyers in this neck of the woods than just delivering the quickest, edgiest and most fun car to drive, and while Alfa Romeo does an incredible job in its first ever power SUV effort, BMW’s experience and superiority in this neck of the woods rescues it overall.
As I said, the Alfa is as passionate as Sophia Loren and its interior style carries that over, but it certainly lacks when it comes to those all-important systems and while it has it all, none of it comes near the BMW. Still, many of you may prefer the good old analogue needles sweeping over the Alfa’s dials to the space-age BMW’s jazzy TV set.
The centre dash aspects of the Alfa fall a long way short though and have not at all improved since they first appeared on Giulia some years back, when they were already well short of BMW’s three-generation prior infotainment. The Bavarians, like the rest of the Hun, are pedantic about infotainment and it shows. Even if the Alfa’s pretty little system better fits its cooler fascia.
Horses for courses
For the rest of the cockpits it’s a matter of horses for courses and the same old passion versus control thing applies. The more clinical BMW gets Merino leather power sport seats in an M-specific cockpit behind an M leather multifunction steering wheel. Its typically BMW angular and all quite perfectly executed in there too.
The voluptuous Alfa offers much of the same fare in its own inimitable way, it’s well finished and sporty with the blend of carbon and metallic trim and leather and while they lack the ambit and power adjustment of those M seats, those sporty Sparco pews are excellent. I really dig the red start-stop button on the Alfa steering, but the wheel also lacks the level of adjustment the BMW possesses.
There is of course an elephant in the room – we never had the Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S on hand to make this a triple test, but that car is also a couple of years old now and while it set an all-time 3.96-second Auto SUV road test record at the time, for the record, these two 3-litre biturbo V6s hand that 4-litre biturbo V8 a sizeable carrot, so maybe it’s better that car is not here.
It’s absence also makes for a far closer call between these two. Yes, they may very well take completely different routes to achieve the same ends, but these two could not have ended up closer matched overall if you’d set out to achieve it.
Run your thumb down those figures – it gives cliches like coupled at the tote, or joined by the hip, totally new meaning. It’s so close in fact, that we’re not going to call this one because two different people will inevitably have two different opinions on this one.
Which is why we’d rather leave choosing the better of these cars completely up to you – enjoy the honour! – Michele Lupini
SHOOTOUT: Alfa Romeo Stelvio BMW X4 M
Quadrifoglio Q4 Competition
Output: 375kW 600Nm 375kW 600Nm
Capacity 2.9-litre 3-litre
Engine Biturbo petrol V6 Biturbo petrol I6
Drive: 8-speed auto AWD 8-speed auto AWD
0-60km/h: 1.61 sec 1.77 sec
0-100km/h: 3.59 sec 3.66 sec
0-160km/h: 8.77 sec 8.03 sec
400m: 11.8 sec @ 185km/h 11.7 sec @ 193km/h
80-120km/h: 2.41 sec 2.29 sec
120-160km/h: 3.81 sec 3.13 sec
VMax: 283km/h 285km/h
Fuel: 9.8 l/100km 10.5 l/100km
CO2: 227 g/km 239 g/km
Warranty/Service: 3y100k/6y100Kkm 5y 100K/2y unl
LIST PRICE: R1.67M R 1.74M
RATED: 9 9