The car to resurrect Alfa Romeo as a brand is neither the Giulia or Stelvio, it’s a small SUV called Tonale, which makes its debut as the most technologically advanced Alfa Romeo ever
It’s no secret that Alfa Romeo has been attempting to drastically improve its sales volume for at least a decade now.
And it’s also no secret that salvation no longer rests on the shoulders of the Giulia sedan (2016) or Stelvio SUV (2017) – Alfa’s imminent “metamorphosis” potentially begins with the Tonale premium small SUV.
Initial signs are promising. Across the first quarter of 2023, Alfa Romeo doubled its European market share and increased sales by 136 percent, while globally, volume grew 64 percent compared to the same period in 2022.
But in Australia, things aren’t quite so rosy, mainly owing to the delay of the facelifted MY23 Giulia/Stelvio and the all-new Tonale, which launched in Europe a year ago.
Just one drivetrain accompanies the Tonale’s Aussie debut – a mild-hybrid 1.5-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder driving the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.
An all-wheel-drive plug-in hybrid Tonale with an electric motor powering its rear axle will launch here towards the end of 2023. As for the left-hand-drive 2.0-litre turbo-petrol Tonale with nine-speed auto and AWD offered in North America, it’s yet to be confirmed for any other market.
Aside from several intriguing design details (such as its three-segment matrix LED adaptive headlights and full-width LED tail-lights), what sets the Tonale apart among its posh competitor set is its sizing – at 4528mm long, riding on a 2636mm wheelbase, it’s essentially a smaller medium SUV rather than a genuine small offering, to the benefit of its passenger space and potentially also its value for money.
But surely the most important aspect of the Tonale is whether it is fit-for-purpose as a pukka Alfa Romeo. It may be the most high-tech Alfa ever produced but does it build on the Stelvio’s dynamic verve?
And does the Tonale’s mild-hybrid drivetrain deliver any of the passion that buyers could rightfully expect from an Italian car that tries so hard to evoke the visual highs of Alfa Romeos past?
Two Tonale variants arrive in Australian showrooms this month – the $49,900 Tonale Ti and $56,400 Tonale Veloce (both prices before on-road costs).
Shared equipment highlights include adaptive matrix LED headlights with sequential indicators, full-width LED tail-lights, ‘telephone-dial’ alloy wheels (18-inch on Ti, 19-inch on Veloce), front and rear parking sensors and aluminium pedals.
In terms of technology, Alfa also throws in a 10.25-inch infotainment screen with navigation, wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, wireless phone charging, a 12.3-inch configurable TFT instrument cluster, traffic-sign recognition, adaptive cruise control, ‘My Alfa Connect’ services with Amazon Alexa compatibility, and an electric tailgate.
The up-spec Veloce gains adaptive damping, red four-piston Brembo front brake calipers, rear privacy glass, perforated Alcantara/leatherette upholstery with red stitching (instead of cloth/leatherette with grey stitching in the Ti), aluminium shift paddles and door-sill plates.
As far as safety features go, buyers net 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 guides.
The Tonale Ti requires an optional $2500 Technology Pack to receive the Veloce’s additional safety equipment, while both Tonale variants can be outfitted with a tempting $4500 Lusso pack.
This adds heated/ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated windscreen washers, perforated leather-faced upholstery with grey double stitching, eight-way electric front seat adjustment with driver’s memory, and a 14-speaker Harman/Kardon stereo with 465-watt amplifier (instead of the standard six-speaker audio system).
Additional options include metallic paint ($1600), sunroof ($2500) and, exclusively on Veloce, special tri-coat paint ($2500) and 20-inch alloys ($1500) with 235/40R20 Bridgestone tyres.
The headline aspect of the Tonale’s driving experience is undoubtedly its mild-hybrid drivetrain.
Combining a new 1469cc turbo-petrol four-cylinder engine with a 48-volt mild-hybrid system, a gear-driven 15kW/55Nm e-motor linked directly to the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, and a 22kW lithium-ion battery mounted in the centre of the car, the Tonale Hybrid is the first Alfa Romeo to offer any degree of electrification.
Labelling (though not badging) it a ‘Hybrid’ is potentially stretching the truth a little, though Alfa says that the e-motor’s direct connection allows the Tonale’s drivetrain to mimic a series-parallel hybrid.
This system offers silent start-up and take-off, fully electric motoring at speeds up to 15km/h (and sometimes beyond), and an ‘e-boost’ function to bolster acceleration at higher speeds when the turbo-petrol is doing the heavy lifting.
Producing 118kW at 5750rpm and 240Nm at just 1500rpm, Alfa’s new 1.5-litre four-cylinder features a variable-geometry turbocharger that whistles prominently around 2000rpm under load, though the harsh reality of this otherwise competent drivetrain is that this turbo whistle is the only real personality it has.
It feels torquey and accelerates keenly but is notably lacking in the kind of satisfying induction fizz that defines the 2.0-litre turbo-petrol in the Stelvio and Giulia. Instead, it merely goes about its job with respectable refinement, stretching to 6000rpm under full throttle before shifting gears, but nothing more.
Alfa Romeo claims the Tonale Hybrid can reach 100km/h from standstill in 8.8 seconds – half a second quicker than a similar-money Audi Q3 35 TFSI – and reach 212km/h flat out.
But at the opposite end of the spectrum, it feels frustratingly laggy when you ask for everything it has during rolling acceleration with the ‘DNA’ system in Natural (N) drive mode, which is what most buyers would use (it’s the default set-up).
Then there’s the often-lethargic combination of Alfa’s idle-stop system with the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, which isn’t as slick as it should be in 2023, but also nowhere near as lumpy and terrible as Alfa Romeo’s original set-up in the Mito TCT more than a decade ago.
Despite sharing its core underpinnings with the Jeep Compass and other ‘Small Wide’ platform buddies (including the Fiat 500X), Alfa Romeo claims that the Tonale’s suspension design and overall set-up has been comprehensively revamped.
The Tonale utalises struts up front and an independent rear end with three-link struts at each corner, dynamic torque vectoring and two types of damper set-up – Koni frequency-selective dampers (Ti) or electronically adaptive dampers (Veloce) with two damping tunes (Natural and Dynamic).
Both suspension set-ups are pretty good, with the Tonale Ti on 235/50R18 Continental tyres offering a firmly controlled yet absorbent ride, decent body control and a satisfying dynamic rhythm, though plenty of coarse-surface tyre rumble.
The adaptively damped Veloce wearing 235/45R19 Goodyears feels more sophisticated in its movement and can even handle Australian country roads in Dynamic mode without its suspension crashing through.
The Veloce’s ‘DNA’ drive-mode dial gains a damper icon in its centre section to soften the damping back to the ‘Natural’ setting when in Dynamic mode – meaning you can combine Dynamic’s superior steering weighting and drivetrain response with a cushier suspension tune.
Though, regardless of drive mode, the Tonale’s electric steering is incapable of providing genuine feel.
With 2.3 turns lock-to-lock and sharp on-centre response, it changes direction with verve, but always feels distantly connected to the front wheels.
While the Tonale is outdone for wheelbase length by several key rivals, including Audi Q3 (2680mm), new-gen BMW X1 (2692mm), Volvo XC40 (2702mm) and Mercedes-Benz GLA (2729mm), its expansive height (1601mm) and width (1835mm) result in generous interior accommodation.
Rear-seat passengers enjoy decent leg, toe and headroom, backed by a fairly upright (non-adjustable) rear bench that provides good under-thigh support in the outer two positions, and is even quite doable for three adults given that it lacks prominent bolstering (and would definitely be more laterally supportive without optional leather).
The Tonale also offers rear air vents, as well as USB-A and USB-C outlets, though it lacks roof grab handles or proper door grips, its doors only take 600ml bottles, and it suffers from lower-grade plastics than what’s on offer up front.
Tonale’s excellent front buckets offer crank-handle height adjustment and lever backrest adjustment as standard, and cloth (Ti) or Alcantara (Veloce) upholstery with leatherette bolsters.
With Alfa’s superb three-spoke steering wheel angled directly at the driver, Tonale’s driving position is impressively ergonomic, vision is good and the switchgear is sensibly laid out and super-easy to use.
The Lusso pack’s charcoal perforated leather and eight-way electric adjustment for both front seats do improve overall comfort, though the seats are mounted slightly higher and the trim colouring makes the Tonale’s interior appear quite dark unless you option the large electric sunroof.
While the heavily grained dashtop is quite squidgy – and both variants from July ’23 production will gain standard ambient lighting in five colours.
The Tonale’s plastics in lower areas are hard to touch and lack a feeling of expense – particularly the rock-like centre-console edges that pummel the driver’s shins in any kind of cornering.
Alfa Romeo says it’s suitably proud of the Tonale’s interior technology, and rightfully so.
The dash-mounted 10.25-inch infotainment touchscreen features wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and operates seamlessly – especially when connected to the punchy 14-speaker Harman/Kardon stereo that forms part of the optional Lusso pack – and the driver’s 12.3-inch ‘Cannocchiale’ TFT instrument cluster offers three classy view options.
Our favourite is the ‘heritage’ setting with flat-faced digital gauges derived from the gorgeous analogue dials of several 1960s Alfa Romeo coupes.
In terms of boot space, Alfa quotes 500 litres with the 60/40 rear backrest upright, though Australian-spec Tonales offer slightly less seeing they house a 17-inch space-saver spare beneath their carpeted floors.
Accessed via a standard electric tailgate on both variants, the Tonale’s boot is neatly trimmed but not as classy as the luggage area of a Stelvio.
The Alfa Romeo Tonale was awarded a five-star crash-test rating by Euro NCAP in 2022, which was endorsed by the Australian ANCAP body earlier this year.
On our extensive drive with the Tonale on damp roads, its passive safety proved to be excellent, while the simplicity of disarming its reasonably subtle lane-keep system (via a button on the end of its left column stalk) negates the need to burrow through touchscreen layers to achieve the same result.
Safety systems such as forward AEB, a rear camera, front and rear parking sensors, traffic-sign recognition, intelligent speed control and adaptive cruise control are standard on both variants, though the Tonale Ti requires an optional Technology Pack ($2500) to gain the following safety gear that’s already standard on the Veloce:
The Tonale Hybrid’s official combined fuel consumption figure is 5.6L/100km – and as evidence of its electrification benefits, 5.7L/100km urban cycle and 5.5L/100km highway cycle – though we averaged 7.0L/100km driving a Ti with verve on fast, flowing country roads and 11.2L/100km in a hard-driven Veloce when tested solely on challenging twisty roads in the Adelaide hills.
Recommended service intervals for the Tonale Hybrid are every 12 months or 15,000km, with its five-year/75,000km servicing cost totalling $3675. In comparison, Audi’s five-year service plan for a petrol-engined Q3 is $2970 covering the same distance whereas the five-year/75,000km service plan for a Volvo XC40 petrol is $3000.
Alfa Romeo Australia’s five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty for Tonale is a big improvement over its previous three-year/150,000km warranty, and now also includes roadside assistance for five years or unlimited kilometres.
Despite the obvious eco benefits of its torquey drivetrain and the competence of its suspension tune, the Tonale doesn’t quite deliver on the sporting personality promised by its dazzling design cues and Alfa Romeo DNA.
Apart from a lack of steering feel, it generally delivers from a driver’s perspective thanks to its keen, well-balanced handling, decent ride quality and arresting brakes. But its uninspiring drivetrain seems mis-matched with the Italian character that Alfa Romeo appears so keen to drum home.
Finessed calibration of its driveability flaws would make it a better all-rounder and a better driver’s car, but that wouldn’t change the personality of its bland engine – one that’s saved only by its generous torque and easy-going country road nature. Around town, the Tonale Hybrid isn’t as slick and seamless as it should be.
What saves the Tonale is its unique appearance and its packaging prowess, with impressive seat comfort and classy in-cabin tech making it a sound purchase for anyone hoping a Tonale might serve their modest family well as a premium small SUV with hybrid-esque qualities.
But what would really save it is the 200kW 2.0-litre turbo-petrol engine with AWD offered in North America – somehow defeating the purpose of the Tonale Hybrid’s efficiency focus but realising the potential in the otherwise promising Alfa Romeo Tonale itself.
Key specs (as tested)
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Alfa Romeo Tonale 2023: small hybrid SUV to arrive in Australian dealerships by February with two variants
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