Car reviews - Alfa Romeo - Tonale
Alfa Romeo models
Premium design detailing; nicely balanced handling; well-damped ride; competitive interior space; up-to-date tech; comfortable seating; robust engine torque
Room for improvement
Driveability holes; engine lacks character; steering lacks feel; average cabin plastics; base Ti requires optional pack to receive full active-safety features
Long-awaited Tonale to kick-start brand’s sales renaissance, or so it hopes
14 Jun 2023
WITH the likeable and beautiful Alfa Romeo Giulietta hatch left to fade away towards the end of its life – without direct replacement – you could rightfully argue that its indirect successor, the Tonale SUV, is the car tasked with returning the brand’s sales to a sustainably level.
The new-generation Giulia sedan (2016) and Stelvio SUV (2017) have already proven that they aren’t the panacea for Alfa Romeo’s fortunes – despite their obvious talents – meaning the hybrid-engined Tonale carries the expectation of being the brand’s ‘metamorphosis’ vehicle, making its debut as the most technologically advanced Alfa Romeo ever.
Launched in Europe a year ago, but only just arriving in Australia, the Tonale achieved around 10,000 European sales across the remainder of 2022 – well below the Giulietta’s best of 78,911 units at the height of its abilities (2011) – so the pressure is already building on the Tonale to introduce the Italian brand to a broader range of buyers.
Intended to compete at a higher price point than the Giulietta against the likes of the Audi Q3, BMW X1/X2, Mercedes-Benz GLA and Volvo XC40, the Tonale debuts in Australia with a single mild-hybrid turbo-petrol drivetrain in two front-wheel-drive variants – the Tonale Ti ($49,900 plus on-road costs) and Tonale Veloce ($56,400 +ORC) – before being joined by an all-wheel-drive plug-in hybrid version later in 2023.
Relying heavily on its ‘hybrid’ efficiency and striking design detailing to attract image-conscious buyers from the premium small SUV segment – rather than the beauty of its shape like the still-gorgeous Giulietta – the Tonale’s immediate attraction is its size.
At 4528mm long, over 1.8m wide and 1.6m tall, riding on the same 2636mm wheelbase as the Jeep Compass it shares platform elements with, the Tonale is essentially a smaller medium SUV rather than a genuine small offering – to the benefit of passenger space and potentially also value for money.
Standard equipment is reasonably comprehensive, headlined by adaptive matrix LED headlights with sequential indicators, full-width LED taillights, classic ‘telephone-dial’ styled alloy wheels, a 10.25-inch infotainment screen with navigation, wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, wireless phone charging, a 12.3-inch configurable TFT instrument cluster and ‘Alfa Connect’ services with Amazon Alexa compatibility.
The pricier Veloce goes a step further with adaptive damping, red four-piston Brembo front brake calipers, Alcantara/leatherette seating (instead of cloth/leatherette) with red stitching, and aluminium shift paddles… though the entry-level Ti requires an optional $2500 Technology Pack to share the Veloce’s intelligent adaptive cruise control with traffic-jam assist, lane-keep assist, blind-spot assist, rear cross-traffic alert, side parking sensors and a 360-degree camera with dynamic lines.
Both variants can be optioned with a $4500 Lusso pack that brings heated/ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel and windscreen washers, perforated leather-faced seating with grey double stitching, eight-way electric front seats with driver’s memory and a 14-speaker, 465-watt harman/kardon stereo (instead the stock six-speaker set-up), as well as metallic paint ($1600), sunroof ($2500) and, exclusively on Veloce, tri-coat paint ($2500) and 20-inch alloys ($1500).
So, there’s definitely enough available equipment to persuade premium buyers that the Alfa Tonale is indeed premium.
But does it also have the dynamic talent and the drivetrain pizzazz to lure not only new buyers to the brand but also the Alfa Romeo faithful?
Despite sharing the core structure of its ‘Small Wide’ platform architecture with the Jeep Compass, Alfa Romeo claims the Tonale’s hardware and set-up are unique, incorporating a strut front-end, independent rear suspension via struts with three links per side, and two damping types – Koni frequency-selective units in the Ti and adaptive dampers in the Veloce – plus dynamic torque vectoring.
Both set-ups mostly perform to expectation. Riding on 235/50R18 Continental tyres, the Tonale Ti produces plenty of tyre rumble on coarse-chip surfaces but impresses with its firm yet nicely damped ride, decent body control and satisfying dynamic rhythm.
The 235/45R19 Goodyear-tyred, adaptively damped Veloce feels more sophisticated and finessed, and can even withstand being driven in Dynamic mode on lumpy country roads without losing its composure.
The Veloce’s ‘DNA’ drive-mode set-up also offers a softer damper setting when in Dynamic by pressing a button in the centre of the dial – thereby combining much-improved steering weighting and sharper drivetrain response with Natural’s suspension absorbency – though the Tonale’s steering never communicates genuine feel. It has zero slack at straight ahead and turns in with eagerness, but always feels electric.
Drivetrain wise, the Tonale Hybrid is the first Alfa Romeo to offer any kind of electrification, though it is essentially a 48-volt mild-hybrid with a gear-driven 15kW/55Nm e-motor linked directly to the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and a 0.8kWh lithium-ion battery mounted in the centre of the car, rather than a genuine series-parallel hybrid.
Alfa Romeo claims that the e-motor’s direct mechanical connection allows the Tonale to operate much like a full hybrid – offering silent start-up and take-off, and electric motoring at speeds up to 15km/h (or beyond at times) – before the new 1469cc turbo-petrol four-cylinder kicks in.
Producing 118kW at 5750rpm and 240Nm from 1500rpm, the petrol engine’s variable-geometry turbocharger makes itself known with distinctly audible turbo whistle around 2000rpm, but that’s about the extent of the Tonale’s drivetrain personality.
Lacking any kind of traditional Alfa induction sportiness, it is lucky the Tonale Hybrid’s 1.5-litre turbo-petrol is effortlessly torquey and quite punchy – Alfa claims 0-100km/h in 8.8 seconds, which is half a second quicker than an Audi Q3 35 TFSI, and a top speed of 212km/h.
Yet considerable lag often intrudes in Natural drive mode – particularly when the throttle is stomped during rolling acceleration, where the pause before effect can be alarmingly long – and the union of Tonale’s idle-stop system with its dual-clutch transmission lacks the unintrusive slickness expected in 2023.
At least the Tonale Hybrid’s official combined fuel consumption is a competitive 5.6 litres per 100km, though we averaged 7.0L/100km in a briskly driven Ti on flowing country roads, and 11.2L/100km in a Veloce asked for everything on some super-steep and tight roads in the Adelaide Hills.
Interior space is also highly competitive, with adult-sized rear-seat room and a supportive rear bench that offers good under-thigh support in the outer two positions, but no overhead or door grab handles, and downgraded plastics compared to what’s on offer up front.
At least the Tonale has rear air vents, plus USB-A and USB-C outlets, and respectable luggage capacity, despite Alfa’s 500-litre claim failing to account for the 17-inch space-saver spare lurking beneath the boot floor of Australian-spec Tonales.
The front buckets with crank-handle height adjustment and lever backrest adjustment are impressively comfortable, though to get full-electric operation you must forego the interesting cloth/grey stitching (Ti) or Alcantara/red stitching (Veloce) trim centres with leatherette bolsters for dark-coloured perforated leather facings with heating/cooling.
The Tonale’s driving position is mostly excellent, with Alfa’s brilliant three-spoke steering wheel combining with a 12.3-inch TFT instrument screen offering several view options that include a classy ‘heritage’ setting with flat-faced digital dials that beautifully mimic the huge analogue gauges of late-’60s Alfas.
Switchgear is simple to use (such as the lane-assist button being on the end of the left column stalk, not buried beneath screen layers) and in-cabin tech is bang on, with the 10.25-inch infotainment touchscreen combining with wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto for slick, seamless operation.
The Lusso pack 14-speaker harman/kardon stereo is impressively crisp and strong too.
But the Tonale’s lower plastics are all hard to touch and feel inexpensive – aside from the squidgy, heavily grained dash top – with the rock-hard centre-console edges pressing into the driver’s shins being a constant reminder that Tonale’s cabin ultimately lacks consistency.
And when it comes to the crunch, so does the Tonale itself. It is a shame it does not quite deliver on the sporting sizzle promised by its design detailing or Alfa Romeo branding, so while there’s a good car lurking here, it ends up being a dichotomy.
On the one hand, from a dynamic perspective, the Tonale’s well-balanced handling, well-judged ride quality and powerful brakes mostly compensate for its lack of true steering feel (which is particularly wanting in ‘Natural’ mode). But its occasionally flawed and relatively uninspiring drivetrain does not gel with this dynamic competence, or the Italian sporting heritage the Tonale’s design cues are trying so hard to evoke.
Even after a calibration makeover (which the drivetrain ultimately needs), you are left with a torquey, efficient engine that might be pleasantly unobtrusive in another car but one that fails to realise the potential in the otherwise promising Tonale.
At least its sound packaging yields ample space and comfortable seating combined with impressive in-cabin tech, and maybe it is this aspect that will appeal most to the fresh buyer profile Alfa Romeo is so keen to attract.
But why can’t the Tonale Hybrid do both – heart and head at the same time – rather than merely being able to crow about being the only hybrid-esque premium small European SUV?
Perhaps that is the job of the forthcoming all-wheel-drive plug-in hybrid. For the Tonale’s sake, let’s hope so.
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