Taking an Alfa Romeo Stelvio for a Picnic of a Drive
By Keith Morgan
Growing up in the UK, back in the distant 1960s, we used to have to drive four hours just to have a family picnic.
And that was on a good day and only if we got up and hit the road an hour before we went to bed.
This is starting to read like a script for Monty Python’s Flying Circus (kids, ask your dad or grandpa what that is). And to make it more so, I should add that a typical jaunt should only have taken an hour and a half on paper, you know, according to a map (kids, the paper version of Google maps).
We would head out on a semi-warm spring day to the Lakes (abbreviation of what’s now known as the Lake District National Park), barely 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Blackpool our hometown in the northwest. The 1,343-square-kilometre park includes some of the country's largest lakes, tallest peaks and captivating scenery.
Seemingly everybody always had exactly the same idea at the same time. Uncanny. Maybe because it was the first sight of the sun most had in the rain-sodden region we called home.
Then my dad bought a red, two-door, AlfaSud that he referred to as a “poky little motor”. I think that description was earned by the 1.3-litre engine’s ability to launch it to 100 km/h in a breathtaking 14.9 seconds. So impressed was he that he had one of those white stripes painted on its side, and extending over the trunk. It resembled the design on Ford Gran Torino featured in the hit TV series “Starsky and Hutch” (kids, oh you know the drill by now). The paint job didn’t shorten the journey.
Fast forward decades to late last year and I finally got my chance to beat my dad’s speed record in a 2020 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Milano Edizione AWD (Ti Sport in Canada), thanks to FCA UK (Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles). Named for the famous Stelvio Pass in the Italian Alps, this five-seat, all-wheel drive, sport-ute was perfect to take on the wonderful winding roads and mountain passes of the Lake District.
Got to the Lakes gateway - Windermere - in a little over an hour with ease, along pleasant rural A roads and a short stretch of the md6 Motorway. The 2.0-litre, 280-horsepower, direct-injection turbocharged engine, undoubtedly made this a “poky little motor” too. The md6 would give me a chance to match my dad’s zero-to-100 klicks in 15-seconds. Leaving the slip road near Lancaster, I swear I heard that throaty exhaust note, reminiscent of the Sud and the inspiration for the flashy stripe.
Torque was definitely an improvement as the Stelvio slipped effortlessly between two heavy truck-trailer combos - articulated lorries, as they are known there. That was one record broken immediately - reached The Ton (kids, 100 km/h) in a little over six seconds.
It’s a busy highway route to Scotland so there was a lot of traffic but it was fast-moving. The various standard passive safety systems, such as lane-keep assist and active blind spot assist got a true workout. The forward collision warning flickered a few times but not to the point of emergency breaking. The driver attention alert was surplus to requirements!
Yes, the technology helps and the power plant was somewhat superior but to be fair I think the biggest clue to the dramatic journey time improvement was more likely due to the fact I was doing the trip in early winter when people were battening down the hatches for the monsoon!
With a sticker price of $55,345 for the version I was driving, the base model is $53,345, is likely a bit more than dad paid for the Sud and with a few more bells and whistles.
On the navigation I’d set my first destination as Hill Top, the 17th-century farmhouse bought by children’s author Beatrix Potter in 1905 with proceeds from her first book, the Tale of Peter Rabbit. That would require a cable ferry trip across Lake Windermere, the longest lake in the UK at 16-kilometres. Been there, done that, many times.
Pulled to the roadside, reached over to the 8.8-inch centre touchscreen and tapped in Keswick, a market town that dad considered way too far to explore in a day - a mere 58 kilometres north. I could have voiced the instructions but worried “she” might not understand my acquired mid-Atlantic accent.
The main road chops and changes from narrow lanes, ill-suited to today’s larger vehicles, to four lanes and those infamous suicide-three-lane stretches. Not easy to drive and admire the scenery that has inspired writers, poets, and artists of great historical note.
For the literary-minded, Rydal Mount & Gardens is a must-visit along the way. Poet William Wordsworth lived there from 1813 to his death in 1850, at the age of 80. This home overlooks Lake Windermere and Rydal Water. He wrote some of his best-loved works there, including his best-known poem ‘Daffodils” (kids, you may have to consult your great, great grandparents on that one).
Bill, if I may be so familiar, moved there from his first family home, Dove Cottage, a few minutes away in Grasmere. Memorable to me for the night I spent there some years ago working my way along the selection of single malt whisky perched on a shelf above the Grasmere Hotel bar.
Before reaching Keswick, a little side trip to the fascinating Castlerigg Stone Circle. It’s one of more than 300 stone circles in England. It features 38 stones, built around 3000 BC, predating the next oldest by around 1,000 years.
Bustling little Keswick became widely known for its association with the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey. I desperately wanted to take a photo of the Alfa at the side of Derwentwater, to show mum back home. She would be impressed by how far north I had ventured in just one day. No decent vehicle access to a picturesque spot along this five-kilometre stretch of water. Maybe that’s the way it should be.
I settled for a hike - in the Stelvio - up into the neighbouring peaks. Bumpy, roads barely wide enough to accommodate two cars side by side.
The vehicle scaled the steep ascents as easily as the Herdwick sheep that frequently blocked my path! Bit faster though.
The egg butty (sandwich) went down well at the top, washed down by some locally brewed ginger beer (non-alcoholic, honest). Time to head back to Blackpool, past the beautiful Ullswater Lake, in the shadow of the Helvellyn Mountain.
Back onto the md6, over the summit of Shap fell and rapidly downhill along a spectacular stretch of freeway, the south and northbound carriageways frequently separated by medians wide enough to house sheep farms.
Did it dad. Sorry, you’re not around to hear my boast.