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Guess it should come as no surprise that legendary Italian roadster-maker Alfa Romeo would target driving enthusiasts with its first entry into the highly competitive premium-crossover segment. Leave the practical stuff and elegant niceties for the other guys.

Alfa's 2018 Stelvio planted the start button right on the racy flat-bottom leather wheel. Flip it into Dynamic mode and watch this compact crossover sprint to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds, then cruise through the S curves like a cobra on steroids. Does this thing know it's not a roadster?

The Stelvio, named for a long and winding road in the Italian Alps, is blessed with Alfa's iconic triangular grille and two side air intakes, it has nicely sculpted side panels and a cut-off tail that pays homage to the maker's roots in racing.

Under the hood of the Stelvio Sport is an aluminum 2.0-liter inline-4-cylinder engine that gets 280 hp and 306 pound-feet of torque. It's mated to a sometimes quirky 8-speed automatic transmission with manual mode - operated by two amusingly large paddle shifters.

It is likely the quickest 4-banger in its class and will hit the quarter-mile marker in 14 seconds. And it's arguably one of the best handling crossovers on the road, aided by Alfa's Q4 all-wheel-drive system that is rear-biased but can transfer up to 60 percent of the power to the front when needed. It hugs curves with little body lean and scampers out of them with cat-like grace.

Monitoring and adjusting throttle and stiffness are separate driving modes Alfa calls DNA - Dynamic, Natural and Advanced Efficiency. A fourth mode, Race, speaks for itself. There are no off-road modes, however.

Steering is light and quick to respond, helping to make the two-ton crossover feel leaner. And standard on all Stelvios are gloss-red Brembo brakes: 4-piston front calipers with 13-inch rotors up front, single-piston with 12.5-inch rotors in the rear.

One issue around town is the sluggish stop-start function; better to turn it off although that would affect mileage slightly. Stelvio scores high in fuel economy, earning an EPA-rated 22 mpg city, 28 highway, better than average for this class.

Inside, Stelvio Sport has a clean and simple design and can be appointed with walnut trim and leather-wrapped door panels and accent stitching. Seats are comfortable and adjusted with 10-way power which should accommodate the needs of most.

An optional 3D navigation system an 8.8-inch display ($1,550) is sharp and bright but can be frustrating in its function. It's controlled with a rotary dial, rather than touchscreen, and feels outdated. Check with your dealer to make sure Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available since they were not earlier in the production year but were expected later.

The standard sound system is OK but an upgraded 14-speaker Harman Kardon system is worth the extra $900 bucks if you can swing it.

Cargo space, accessed through an available hands-free liftgate, is below average for the segment but most will find it adequate. With 18.5 cubic feet of space, there's plenty of space for two sets of golf clubs or beach chairs and a cooler. Drop the rear seats and it opens up 56 cubic feet of space.

Advanced safety features cost extra on the Sport trim, including a "Static" package ($800) for parking sensors and blind-spot monitors, and a "Dynamic" package ($1,500) that gets the good stuff: adaptive cruise with full-stop, forward collision warning with auto braking and lane departure warning.

While Stelvio may lag among its German foes (i.e., Audi Q5 and Mercedes GLC) in premium features and interior space, it makes up for it with dashing looks and performance. And if it's even higher performance you seek, check out Quadrifoglio version: It has a twin-turbo, 505-hp V-6 and races to 60 in under four seconds.

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2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Sport

Base MSRP: $43,795

As tested: $53,585 (includes Static and Dynamic safety packages, $2,300; 3D navigation and 8.8-inch display, $1,550; Harmon Kardon sound system, $900; dual-pane sunroof, $1,350)

What's all the excitement about? Alfa Romeo's new Stelvio looks like a compact crossover but it drives like a sports car

Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbo inline 4-cylinder, mated to 8-speed automatic transmission

How's the performance? 0-60 mph in 5.4 seconds, quarter mile in 14 ticks

What about fuel economy? Better than average for the segment: EPA-rated at 22 mpg city, 28 highway, for 24 mpg combined

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Barry Spyker was the automotive columnist for The Miami Herald and editor of its Wheels & Waves section. Readers may send him email at spy2351@yahoo.com.

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