Three words readily pop into your mind when you hear the name Alfa Romeo – passion, performance and pleasure.

Combining those qualities in a lightweight sports car or sleek saloon might seem straightforward enough, but can that be achieved in a whopping great high-riding sports utility vehicle?

Happily, the Stelvio, the Italian manufacturer’s first SUV, captures all the emotion and sensations that make the marque unique.

Named after Italy's highest mountain pass – a 12-mile route with more than 75 hairpins – it delivers remarkably sharp handling, a quiet ride and some serious comfort.

From the second you slide behind the small, leather-trimmed, button-covered steering wheel, the strikingly-styled Stelvio offers a direct, almost sports car-like, connection and sense of control quite unlike most SUVs.

Much of that can be credited to an advanced suspension system and the use of lightweight materials such as carbon fibre for the drive shaft and aluminium for the engines, suspension systems, bonnet, wings, doors and tailgate.

But Alfa Romeo has also been careful to maintain its tradition of distributing weight precisely between the two axles, including adjusting the car's layout by placing the heaviest units in the most central positions, to achieve a 50/50 weight distribution.

Add to that an all-wheel drive system which in normal conditions acts like a rear-wheel-drive vehicle and you have the reassuring precision and lightweight feel of a sports car cloaked in SUV clothing.

The car driven here, in Speciale trim, accentuates the sports car feel with 19-inch, 10-spoke alloy wheels with red brake callipers, a chrome window surround, and bi-xenon headlights.

Inside the cabin, the Speciale has aluminium shift paddles on the steering column, metal pedals and heated front leather seats with six-way adjustment and dedicated four-way power lumbar controls.

While the driver gets special treatment, the interior is a rather nice place to be for everyone on board, thanks to large, comfortable leather seats, loads of legroom and dual-zone climate control. An eight-speaker audio system, eight-inch display infotainment system with DAB plus Bluetooth/AUX multimedia connectivity and two front and two rear USB ports help keep passengers content.

Power on the rest car came from a 2.0-litre, 280 horsepower petrol engine capable of going from zero to 62mph in just 5.7 seconds, while potentially returning 40mpg in day-to-day driving. All versions come with an eight-speed automatic transmission.

A selector dial between the front seats allows you to choose between three driving modes – dynamic for more performance and sharper handling; natural which is best for day-to-day driving and tailored for comfort and fuel economy and advanced efficiency which maximises energy saving and minimises emissions levels.

A host of safety systems are standard on the Alfa Romeo Stelvio including forward collision warning with autonomous emergency brake, lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-path detection and active cruise control.

Like all SUVs, the high driving position of the Stelvio gives a commanding view of the road while the wraparound seats add to the cossetted driving experience.

Practicality is guaranteed, with plenty of cabin space, a large boot and an electrically-powered tailgate that can be operated remotely from the key fob.

With SUVs becoming increasingly popular, the Stelvio offers all the advantages of a spacious, family-friendly load lugger, with the smile-inducing character of a sports car.

Auto facts

Model: Alfa Romeo Stelvio 2.0 280 Q4 AWD Speciale

Price: £48,490 as tested

Insurance group: 36 (1-50)

Fuel consumption (combined): 40.4mpg

Top speed: 143mph

Length: 468.7cm/184in

Width: 190.3cm/74.7in

Luggage capacity: 18.5 cu ft

Fuel tank capacity: 12.7 gallons/58 litres

CO2 emissions: 161 g/km

Warranty: Five years/ 75,000 miles