On Autos: Volvo, Alfa Romeo offer varied crossover qualities

The 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio is a performance-focused premium crossover. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Volvo was once considered the premier purveyor of family cars — and it still is, in some circles. Known for safety and practicality, the Swedish automaker has also amped up its style, luxury and technology. The redesigned 2018 XC60, a premium compact crossover, benefits from Volvo’s latest advances to become a more formidable player in this important market segment.

The redesigned 2018 Volvo XC60 upgrades this premium compact crossover’s aesthetics and substance alike. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The original XC60 was among the first vehicles in its class when it debuted eight years ago, but nearly every luxury brand has since followed suit. These models blend the high seating position and spacious interior of an SUV with the premium experience of similarly sized sedans, with prices typically starting in the low $40,000s.

But just as Volvo’s sedans are differentiated from Lexuses, Jaguars or BMWs, so too are its crossovers. Though pleasant to drive, the redesigned XC60 doesn’t place a high priority on driving excitement. To fill that niche, Italy’s Alfa Romeo is launching its first crossover: the 2018 Stelvio, which is based on the critically acclaimed Giulia sports sedan. While less posh and spacious than the XC60, the Stelvio combines zesty performance with respectable everyday utility. The Current briefly sampled both the Stelvio and XC60 at a recent media event.

The 2018 Volvo XC60 prioritizes comfort and technology over sporty performance. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The XC60 reflects the design aesthetic of Volvo’s award-winning XC90, a larger seven-passenger crossover that was last redesigned in 2015. Both have clean, minimalistic exteriors with the tall vertically oriented taillights that became a Volvo station wagon fixture in the 1990s.

Inside, the similarities are even closer: Their dashboards are designed around an extra-large touch screen infotainment system, with just a handful of physical buttons and knobs. Aesthetically, it’s a clear step up from last year’s model, which had a small screen surrounded by a sea of little buttons; not everyone will love having to use the touch screen for so many functions, but it’s intuitive to use once you’ve learned which controls are where.

The 2018 Volvo XC60 has a lavishly finished interior with a large touch screen. (Brady Holt/The Current)

As a family car, the 2018 XC60 has also made significant strides. The old version had an unexpectedly stiff ride and somewhat tight rear seat, but the redesign addresses both complaints. Moreover, Volvo has improved its safety ratings and reduced its fuel consumption, and the 2018 XC60 has added a new plug-in hybrid version.

The EPA says this version, called the T8, can travel up to 18 miles in electric mode before the gas engine is needed. Then, it’s rated for 26 mpg on premium fuel — which may sound unimpressive until you realize that the XC60 T8 boasts a whopping 400 horsepower. Less-powerful gas-only XC60s are rated for between 23 and 26 mpg in mixed driving, depending on the size of their respective four-cylinder engines and on whether they’re front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive.

The 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio is essentially a roomier version of a sports sedan. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Despite its sporty character, its standard 280-horsepower engine and its standard all-wheel-drive system, the Alfa Romeo delivers competitive EPA fuel economy ratings of 24 mpg in mixed driving. But the Stelvio’s four-cylinder engine isn’t what makes this crossover fun to drive. It’s the handling — the Alfa seems to shake off its crossover bulk to hug the road like a good compact car. Quick steering responses keep things lively, and high limits inspire confidence. (Lovers of straight-line performance will want the upcoming Quadrifoglio version’s 505-horsepower V6 engine.)

The Stelvio also has more character than the average crossover. The Alfa Romeo brand, newly reintroduced to the U.S. after a couple of decades’ absence, is notable for its narrow vertical grille — which the Stelvio wears with pride. This crossover’s hunkered-down profile is also more similar to the Porsche Macan than the usefully boxy XC60.

The 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio interior is more austere than some of its luxury competitors. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Interior space isn’t a strong point, but it’s not terrible, either. The sloping roofline cuts into the total cargo room behind the rear seat, to be sure, but the Stelvio remains big enough to be functional. Similarly, passenger accommodations are acceptable for four adults, or even five in a pinch. The Jaguar F-Pace offers substantially more room, though the Macan is tighter still.

Perhaps the biggest downside to the Stelvio is its dashboard, which features drab plastics that feel out of place in a luxury car. But buyers who don’t fall in love with the Alfa Romeo’s styling or performance have no reason to accept any of its drawbacks, and would most likely prefer the roomier, posher XC60 or Audi Q5. For similar interior space and maximum comfort and opulence, buyers can also consider the Mercedes-Benz GLC.