Stellantis’ first Alfa Romeo all-new car challenges the fiercely competitive crossover SUV class
We’ve been there before. The Alfa Romeo Tonale, the latest model from the brand, is the one that will turn around its fortunes and bring it back to the attention of mainstream car buyers.
Although that’s the basic idea, it’s not the first time Alfa Romeo has found itself in this position. Although the Alfa Romeo Giulietta was a modest success in the 90s the Alfa Romeo159 couldn’t maintain it despite its beautiful looks. Although the Alfa Romeo Giulietta was a success, the Stelvio and Alfa Romeo Giulia were a commercial disaster as well as a critical success. The Alfa Romeo 4C is a classic Alfa Romeo design, with its two round dials. However, they have been reinterpreted with a customizable gauge cluster that’s modern and clear, while still being a little retro.
We love the Giulia but it was not the right car for this era. It is a classic saloon with great driving dynamics, but an awful interior and informationtainment. Alfa seems to be moving in the right direction this time. It is hard to imagine a premium-flavoured crossover SUV that uses exclusively hybrid powertrains and has an electric version in the works. It is actually even more 2022 because it comes with a NFT (non-fungible token). Yes, really.
However, the downside to trying to crack this segment is that Tonale will face a lot of competition and will need to find a way of standing out. Every car manufacturer, except Caterham and Ferrari, has a horse in the race. The BMW X1, Mercedes GLA and Audi Q3, Volvo XC40, Range Rover Evoque and BMW X1 are the most obvious competitors. However, you can argue that posh cars such as the Hyundai Tucson or Peugeot 3008 could be valid alternatives.
It is not encouraging to see the Tonale battling with an architecture that is an evolution of the Fiat Punto from 2005. Hybrid power was a niche eco fad back then. But no one is laughing now. We suspect that Alfa’s engineers were trying to make room for the hybrid plug-in version’s battery pack. It was easier for the regular hybrid, with its 0.8kWh battery being small enough to fit in the tunnel.
Jeep has done the groundwork. The Tonale is largely based upon the Jeep Compass. It is also available with different powertrains. This is slightly concerning, as the car has been described as somewhat rough and ready in many aspects.
The Tonale was notoriously delayed for 12 weeks due to Jean-Philippe Imparato, the new CEO, not being impressed by the quality of the prototypes. First UK deliveries are scheduled for September. Let’s hope this extra time allows us to refine things.
Today’s car is the 158bhp Hybrid. It could be described as a more beefy mild hybrid than as a full-hybrid, since the electric motor that lives in the gearbox has only 20 bhp to increase the 1.5-litre engine’s low-end torque. Although it can drive the car on its own, the electric motor only has so much power that it is limited to manoeuvring in traffic or pushing forward. The 130bhp version is also available, which we have tested in the Jeep Renegade. However, the UK will only be able to get the Alfa-specific 158bhp tune.
A plug-in hybrid will be the other option for powertrain, which is a stronger version of Jeep’s 4xe powertrain. The 1.3-litre engine produces 271bhp in the Italian car while the electric motor makes 237bhp in the Jeep. This is due to the larger electric motor and 15.5kWh battery.
Alfa owes this to its sporting status to ensure that its crossover SUV handles with vigour and style. It rides on the same platform that the Jeep Compass and has front-wheel drive. The plug-in hybrids provide rear-wheel drive with an electric motor. It is front-wheel driven like all its competitors, even the BMW X1.
The Tonale offers more driving engagement than the average class. It features a quick steering rack (2.3 turns lock to lock), torque vectoring by brake, frequency-selective dampers, adaptive items, and four-piston brakes for the Veloce.
It is not clear if this car will save Alfa Romeo. It’s a well-respected brand so we hope so. But, in the end, it’s not the game-changer it should be.
Engineers will tell you that the small battery and electric motor are “right-sized”, but in reality, they are too small to offer a convincing hybrid experience. It cuts in quickly, and it buzzes when pushed. Although it’s faster than the full-hybrids from Honda or Kia, a petrol 2.0-litre BMW X1 is more powerful and refined.
The seven-speed dual clutch gearbox is the same as the eight-speed BMW 8-speed auto. It’s OK, but you won’t be impressed by the smoothness, speed, or shift points it selects. You have the option of using the manual mode or the large metal paddles on Veloce to control the vehicle. But, in a crossover SUV with 158bhp, who are you kidding?
Tech briefings also showed how the Tonale drives like an Alfa, with extra strengthening of the chassis and changes in the geometry to ensure that it is more enjoyable to drive than its ‘best rival’. The Tonale is a dynamic option in this segment, which is a credit to its creators.
The steering is very quick and precise, with Alfa’s ultra-quick fixed ratio steering. However, it doesn’t feel nervous. You’re never left with any hesitation or jitters thanks to the Pirelli P-Zero tires. However, the handling is not great as you need to push hard to get any steering back.
The dynamic handling does not come at the expense of ride comfort. It’s a bit stiff on 20in wheels, but it’s manageable and not too shaky. The Veloce trim gives you adaptive dampers. However, the comfort setting is very similar to that of the passive setup so they don’t really add much. The preferred option would be a Ti-spec car with standard 18in wheels.
The car’s best use is as a motorway-mile-muncher, despite Alfa’s focus on its dynamics. The Tonale is one of the quieter cars this class, with suspension and road noises being well muffled. The seats are comfortable and set fairly high.
However, the interior is somewhat disappointing. Alfa must do better than this mixed collection of materials if it wants to be a viable rival to BMW. Although it’s not terrible, nothing is particularly pleasing.
The Nissan Qashqai has a less traditional design, but it exudes luxury. Where has the smooth leather that was once synonymous with Italian luxury cars gone? It’s still practical, at least. The boot space and rear legroom of this car are comparable to an X1. However, the interior feels a little tighter than the X1.
The infotainment system works the same way as it did in previous ex-FCA Stellantis models. Although it would have been nice if Alfa could customize the design a little more, other than BMWs with their rapidly disappearing iDrive controller, the system is one of the most logical and responsive out there.
We have a nice-looking SUV, with excellent long-distance comfort and driving dynamics, as well as impressive multimedia and a decent interior. Although prices are not yet known, we were told that they will start at approximately PS35,000.
If this is true, the Tonale will be a good value. It would cost slightly less than a similar-equipped Nissan Qashqai but be a lot more than the premium competitors. The cost of the option packs is unknown, so that could be a problem.
Although the Alfa Romeo Tonale is a good car, it lacks the home-run capability or the old-school charm that would give us confidence in the future.