The Tonale might just be the car that finally helps Alfa Romeo hit the big time. Seriously. Yeah, we know people said the same about the Giulia and Stelvio, and yet despite being well received, neither has sold in huge numbers. But the Tonale could change that. Does it deserve to? We jumped behind the wheel of a UK-spec entry-level, front-wheel drive mild-hybrid to find out.
Alfa has given customers multiple reasons not to buy its cars, including interior quality that didn’t match the competition’s, crappy multimedia systems and a reputation for poor dealer service. But one of the reasons it doesn’t sell enough cars (a pathetic 35,000 in 2021; Porsche shifted 38,000 911s in the same period) is that the brand is absent from key segments of the car market. It’s had no electrified offering and no small SUV, but the Tonale fixes both omissions.
The opportunities are huge. One in every four cars sold in the UK is a C-segment SUV, or subcompact SUV as they’re known in the U.S, where the rate is closer to 10 percent but is the fastest-growing segment. Alfa’s UK team says it currently only covers 15 percent of the car market with its current two-model, Giulia and Stelvio lines, but that’s going to expand to 40 percent with the addition of the Tonale, and 70 percent when the even smaller, all-electric SUV, potentially called Brennero, arrives next year.
Quick Facts › › ›
› Model: 2023 Alfa Romeo Tonale Hybrid (MHEV) 160
› Price UK (OTR): £38,595
› Powertrain: 1.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder petrol-hybrid
› Output: 158hp (petrol) + 20 hp (electric) / 177 lb-ft (petrol) + 41 lb-ft (electric)
› 0-62 MPH: 8.8 seconds (0-100km/h)
› Top Speed: 132 mph (212 km/h)
› Fuel Economy WLTP Comb: 49.6 – 43.5 UK mpg / 41.3 – 36.2 US mpg / 5.7 – 6.5 l/100km
So the fact that the Tonale is aimed at a sector that’s already huge, and still growing, means it’s already off to a good start. That it looks great means it’s off to an even better one. There’s only so much you can do with a blobby, small SUV shape, and the Tonale’s overhangs mean its profile isn’t its hottest angle. But in the metal this is handsome car with plenty of soft Alfa curves and numerous cool details like the front and rear LED lights that reference the brutalist Zagato-designed SZ of the late 1980s.
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Stellantis’s new STLA platforms weren’t ready in time for this car so under the skin is the same architecture used in cars like the Jeep Compass and Renegade, and Fiat 500L and X. Not that you’d know it to look at. The Alfa has its own distinct interior and exterior styling, or at least it does in Europe, where the worryingly similar (and conspicuously less expensive) Dodge Hornet won’t be available.
Better quality, if not class-leading
One area in which Alfa has always had to give second-best to Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes is in interior quality. The plastics were never up to scratch, or maybe just too hard and scratchy, the infotainment systems felt a generation behind and there’s no sign on the Stelvio or Giulia of the digital gauge cluster modern buyers seem to want. But while the Tonale doesn’t exactly redefine quality and refinement for premium cars, it’s definitely taken a giant leap forward for Alfa.
True, some of the plastics are still harder than the ones you’ll find in rival cars, but you might only really notice if you go looking for them like journalists do, prodding and poking bits of the car that owners will never touch. And even those that aren’t soft-touch, like the area on the lower console, are at least styled in a way that means they don’t look cheap. If you jumped out of a new BMW X1 and into the Tonale you’d certainly say the BMW felt more expensive, but the Tonale’s cabin is still a great place to be.
One of the reasons it’s a much better place to be than its Stelvio big brother is the new Uconnect 5 infotainment system. The 10.25-in letterbox format display is crisp and responsive, and is equipped with Amazon Alexa, meaning the voice-control actually works, and you can even use it to control functions in your house while on the move if you also have an Alexa at home. Handy if the kids are in the habit of whacking up the heating the minute you leave the house. Alfa says the Giulia and Stelvio will be updated with this new media system soon.
Also new is a 12.3-inch “cannochiale” digital gauge cluster. It’s housed under a classic double-bubble dashboard top, just like on a 1960s Alfa, and the default layout, which features virtual versions of a round speedometer and rev counter even features 1960s-style fonts and an odometer designed to look like an old-fashioned revolving trip meter. Unfortunately the numbers are pretty small and hard to read so you’ll inevitably end up using the digital readout located between the clocks to check your speed, just like everyone has done on Porsches for years. And if you prefer something a little more modern you can tap the right-hand column stalk to reconfigure the gauge pack to show a more contemporary-looking instrument setup.
Other techy features include an NFT record of the car’s service history and the availability of Alfa’s first surround-view camera system, which will likely prove itself invaluable: the windscreen pillars are surprisingly fat and the rear visibility isn’t great, either. But it’s great to see that Alfa hasn’t gone overboard with digital technology. You still get a bunch of hard keys for heating controls, and even the gearstick is an old-fashioned lever with defined gear positions.
Decent passenger space, loads of luggage capacity
You don’t buy a small SUV expecting to fit a football team inside, but the Tonale is at least class-competitive. There’s probably just about enough space to fit four six foot passengers in one go, and there’s also the option of taking a fifth passenger, though we wouldn’t fancy drawing that short straw for a multi-hour trip.
It could do with some more storage up-front (the door pockets are small) and the rear bench is a bit firm, but we’re definitely impressed by the amount of luggage space Alfa has packed into a car that measures just 178-inches (4,528 mm) from bumper to bumper. The cargo bay can swallow 17.7 cu-ft (500 liters), which is just 0.2 cu-ft (5 litres) less than you you get in BMW’s commodious new X1, and far more than the Audi Q3, Lexus, Volvo XC40 or any of the Stellantis cars (Dodge Hornet excepted) that share the Tonale’s platform can offer.
Quiet at a cruise, tidy in the bends
Alfa is chasing different buyers with this car, shifting from a predominantly older male audience to a more even male-female split and where customers are likely to be younger and have young children. So practicality and ease of use is a bigger priority here than it has been on Alfa’s other cars. And that different focus has brought good and bad results.
On the positive side, the turning circle is usefully tight, road and wind noise levels are pleasingly low, and though only higher-spec Veloce cars in the UK get adaptive dampers, both the Ti and Veloce ride well. The adaptive car obviously feels more sophisticated on gnarly surfaces, but the Ti on its more basic frequency selective dampers still strikes good balance between being comfortable and feeling athletic.
Related: 2023 Alfa Romeo Tonale Lands With Hybrid Options, NFT Tech And The Promise Of U.S. Sales
But while many of those newer buyers might love the light steering for navigating parking spots on the school run, the rest of us will find it far too light. And that’s a shame because it detracts from what’s actually a pretty good chassis. There’s very little body roll and good vertical body control on bumpy sections of road in the stock Ti, and in the Veloce too, provided you’ve shifted its DNA drive mode selector to Dynamic and have the adaptive dampers in their firmer mode.
You also get Alfa’s trademark fast-steering ratio and a front end that seems determined not to relinquish its grip on the road, meaning this is a car that feels really light on its feet. It’s fun to punt down a twisty road, but the lack of steering weight and feel just takes the edge off the experience. At higher speeds, and in Dynamic mode, the assistance is reduced, but try zipping through a city roundabout that requires a quick change in direction, but at a relatively low speed, and the lack of arm muscle required makes it feel a little nervous and disconnected.
Mild-hybrid leaves us mildly disappointed
Adding to that disconnected feeling is a powertrain that’s a bit of a mixed bag. The fact that this is Alfa’s first ever electrified car might have you wondering why we left the engine stuff until so later in the story, but while everything we’ve covered so far will probably apply to every Tonale, not every car will get the same engine we’ve tried.
Some European countries will get a front-wheel drive diesel Tonale, for instance. In the U.S. the launch engine will be a fairly conventional 2.0-liter turbocharged motor with all-wheel drive, 256 hp (260 PS) and no hybrid assistance whatsoever. And come next spring UK buyers will get the option of a 272 hp (275 PS) plug-in Tonale powered by a combination of a turbocharged 1.3 driving the front wheels and an electric motor working on the rear axle.
For now though, the sole UK engine is a 1.5-liter petrol engine with variable-geometry turbo that drives the front wheels with the help of a mid-hybrid motor. The engine kicks out 158 hp (160 PS; there’s also a 128 hp / 130 PS version in mainland Europe) and the electric motor can add up to 20 hp (20 PS), or even allow electric-only driving in certain circumstances, like when creeping along in a traffic jam.
Reasonable performance, poor response
As you’ve probably guessed from those power figures, the Tonale is not a rapid car in this guise. Zero to 62 mph (100 km/h) takes 8.8 seconds, and while it never feels outright slow and can be hustled along an empty road pretty quickly, there’s never a ton of horses in reserve. The reality is that it’s probably got ample performance for most non-enthusiast drivers, at least in Europe, however our beef isn’t really with the amount of performance anyway, but rather the way you access it.
For all its variable-geometry trickery, the turbocharged engine’s response to a kick of right-foot is poor, and it’s not helped by a seven-speed transmission that is also slow to respond. It’s possible to mash the throttle right down to the floor and lift it back up again without noticing any change in forward momentum, and even holding the revs at 3,500 rpm or 4,000 rpm, then flattening the pedal as you might when you were preparing for, and then carrying out, an overtaking maneuver, there’s still an annoying wait for the power to kick in.
The transmission also seems too eager to default to higher gears, even when you’re tanking along a twisty road and need it to hang on to lower ones to give you some engine braking effect on the approach to bends. If you like to hustle you’re best off sliding the gearstick across to the left, where you can manually select your gears by rocking the stick backwards and forwards, or, if you’ve splashed for the Veloce, by using the gorgeous aluminum shift paddles (the Ti doesn’t get paddles).
What about the hybrid’s EV potential? Technically, it’s a mild hybrid with a small 0.8 kWh battery, so it’s never going to let you commute to work on electric power, and our country-road route hardly showed it off in its best light. But it does creep along in traffic without the engine running, will allow the combustion engine to cut out at up to 50 mph (80 km/h), and I was able to accelerate slowly up to 20 mph (32 km/h) purely using the battery, which suggests it could have some real fuel-saving benefits for urban drivers. You can’t plug it in though, and I did notice some occasional shunting at even low speeds when running on the electric motor.
Well equipped, but rivals cost less
UK Tonale prices start at £38,595 ($42,545) for the launch-edition Speciale, which for some reason cost £1,500 ($1,653) less than the Ti it’s based on, but is dressed up to look like the top of the range Veloce. That must make it the pick of the range, provided those big wheels don’t ruin the ride.
The Ti itself costs £39,995 ($44,089) and while it doesn’t get the Veloce’s fancy shift paddles it’s still very well equipped. Matrix LED headlights, a hands-free tailgate, keyless go, 18-inch wheels and a wireless phone-charging pad are all standard. But the £42,495 ($46,847) Veloce looks undeniably better thanks to its 20-inch wheels and grey, rather than gloss black, exterior trim, and it also features adaptive dampers.
Related: We Get Up Close To The New 2023 BMW X1 Compact SUV
The long list of standard equipment is important because you can get into an Audi Q3 or new BMX X1 for as little as £34,000 ($37,494), and when you price match the three cars the two Germans deliver more power than the Alfa. It’s even possible to buy a PHEV Q3 S line 45 TFSi e that is almost 2 seconds faster to 62 mph and offers 50 miles (80 km) of electric driving for the same price as a Tonale Veloce MHEV. Maybe the Tonale could shrug that competition aside if it kicked ass in every other area, but it doesn’t.
Related: 14,000 Dodge Hornet Orders In 24 Hours? If Alfa’s Tonale Bombs Blame The Brand, Not The Car
Don’t get us wrong, there’s lots to like about the Alfa Romeo Tonale, and I’m sure it will transform Alfa’s sales figures. It looks great, it’s well equipped, has loads of luggage space, rides well, feels agile, and here in the UK the low CO2 figure will make it attractive to company car drivers who get taxed on their car’s emissions.
But the competition is strong and well priced, we’re not fans of the Alfa’s over-light steering and this MHEV drivetrain isn’t as good as it could be. There’s a great car in the Tonale waiting to get out, but we might have to wait for one of the other powertrains (PHEV in Europe, 2.0-liter non-hybrid in the U.S.) to come on line next year before we get to really experience it.
Note: We asked you what you wanted to know about the Tonale and we’ll cover those questions in a separate post