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Alfa Romeo Tonale plug-in hybrid 2023 review

Curt Dupriez
Deputy editor

The debut small SUV for the iconic Italian carmaker is key to its fully-electric future. But can the flagship Tonale plug-in hybrid deliver both electrified goodness, and a bona-fide Alfa Romeo vibe?

Good points

  • Decent EV and outright ranges
  • Low fuel consumption
  • Real sportiness at pace
  • Flexible capabilities

Needs work

  • Austere character on road
  • Lacks steering feel
  • Minor ride grumbles
  • Questionable Alfisti appeal

Change is coming to Alfa Romeo, huge and fast. At 2022 kick-off, its global vehicle range featured no electrification whatsoever. By 2027, the Italian carmaker promises that it will be fully electric and internal combustion free.

As shake-ups go, that’s a big one.

The lynchpin to change is the Tonale, Alfa Romeo’s—somewhat delayed—first small SUV, lobbing into Australian showrooms in early 2023 after its recent global debut.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 rear 3/4

Tonale is an all-petrol-electric line-up, Alfa Romeo’s first volume-production hybrid. It promises much, with a circa-$50k entry point and charged with lifting the marque’s game in quality control and reliability.

There’s much riding on the affordable end of Stellantis’s premium Italian nameplate.

Now, a second, flagship version has been launched globally and due for Oz later next year: the Tonale Plug-In Hybrid Q4.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 duo

The all-wheel-drive version brings longer pure electric range (a claim of 82km), more power from its stronger electric motor, the promise of fiesty driving enjoyment, and remarkable frugality claims.

The Tonale plug-in hybrid appears to be a true bridging model between Alfa Romeo’s internal combustion present, and its stated goal of being zero-emissions in just over four short years.

The Tonale is literally Alfa Romeo in transition. On one hand, it’s underpinned by aging architecture dating back two decades, albeit as an extensively evolved platform. Under its stylised skin, it’s old-guard Alfa Romeo DNA as many know it.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 front city

But as the first new Alfa Romeo model in six years for a nameplate now 112 years young, its new-school electrification and other technical areas benefit handsomely from tapping the resources of relatively new owner Stellantis.

There’s a lot riding on Tonale. So, no pressure then. And for all of its various aspirations, whether the small SUV is accepted a genuine Alfisti-supported offering hinges largely on whether it looks, feels and drives as a proper Alfa Romeo should.

Fittingly, Alfa Romeo chose the fashion mecca of Milan, Italy, and the nearby, wonderful Stellantis Balocco proving ground as venue for the new PHEV’s international launch program. And in many ways, the small SUV is well dressed for the occasion.

What is the Tonale’s design like?

Two versions, the sporty Veloce and the slightly spec-trimmed Speciale launch edition, were available to sample. The plug-in Tonale will also launch in a base Ti trim.

Each guise apes the gorgeous Brera coupe (2005–2010) with adaptive ‘3+3’ LED matrix headlights, a bold ‘scudetto’ shield grille and huge lower air vent, making the SUV appear wider than it is.

That tail, too, is also neat and clean, with body-wide 3D effect taillights bring real class.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 wheel

Side on, old-school charm is anchored with the classic “telephone dial” wheel design and “heritage elements” such as its GT body line, though it’s in profile and from other viewpoints where Italian flair plays tug of war with the dumpy proportions of the small-SUV format and Tonale’s trim track width.

Despite being lower (1601mm) than it is wide (1841mm), the circa 4.5-metre-long wagon looks a little too plump and narrow in track compared with its more seductively proportioned stablemates in Giulia sedan and Stelvio SUV.

Still, the Tonale is not short on sportiness or Euro flair and there’s a befitting maturity that’ll appeal to many prospective Alfa Romeo adopters.

How is the Tonale plug-in hybrid’s interior?

While the exterior flaunts with Alfa Romeo signature classicisms, the Tonale’s interior design more fully embraces the marque’s well-minted style and vibe if moving the game on, in some areas, from Giulia and Stelvio.

It’s heavy on the Italian flair, much lighter in touch for slickness, and the sort of modernity you’d expect from a German rival.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 interior top down

From the style of the steering wheel to the contours of the dash fascia, and from the execution of the dials—real dials—and switchgear to the choice of material finish, the small SUV, in either Veloce or Speciale guise, is thoroughly conventional and almost retro in areas.

This classic Italian flavour remains one of Alfa Romeo’s strongest drawcards.

The Tonale has a quality feel, the material choice used solid and generally quite tactile.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 interior dial

The layout is a little more convoluted if more convenient to navigate than, say, Giulia, with the so-called ‘Cannocchiale’ 12.3-inch digital instrumentation crisp and clear while the 10.25-inch is floating and proud rather awkwardly inset into the dash fascia like its Alfa Romeo stablemates.

The Android-based operating system, customisable and featuring Amazon Alexa voice control, is quick and functional enough, bringing 4G connectivity and over the air updates.

Both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto phone mirroring are offered wirelessly, too, while our Euro spec vehicles brought both proprietary sat-nav and DAB+.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 dash

The SUV also loads in myriad driving and efficiency telemetry, offer trendy phone app connectivity to monitor and adjust various vehicle functions.

The Tonale also offers a motoring world first in the form of a vehicular NFT, or ‘non fungible token’: blockchain-style technology that tracks updates a non-corruptible certificate of the vehicle’s history throughout its lifetime, from how it’s used, to how well it’s been serviced.

Sell the Tonale to a new other and the tamperproof NFT travels with it.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 interior front seats

This SUV feels like an Alfa Romeo: the shapeliness of the well-bolstered, mechanical adjustable semi-Alcantara seats (powered leather is optional), the awkward column-mounted paddle-shifters that rap your knuckles, the old-school DNA drive mode dial…even the odd shape of rear doors that make entry and egress a bit clumsy.

Our test cars were nicely equipped, if no particular indication of what we’ll expect with Aussie versions. Dual-zone climate control, inductive phone charging, USB-A and -C ports and an electric tailgate are standard in Italy.

However, goodies like a 360-degree camera, full leather trim, and even some safety features such as lane keeping and blind spot monitoring cost extra in these Euro-spec samplers.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 interior back seat

Whether these European-market options became standard fare in Australia remains to be seen, with local specification announcements expected in the coming months.

Roominess is decent though not exceptional, with acceptable length and headroom in both rows if a bit narrow in overall cabin width.

Alfa Romeo calls it an honest four-adult proposition and it’s bang on the money for a newcomer that doesn’t really approach any benchmarks for its segment.

Boot space is a decent 385 litres with quite practical square proportions. With the 60:40 rear split-fold seatbacks stowed, the load area blossoms to 1430 litres.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 interior boot flat

How is the Tonale plug-in hybrid to drive?

Alfa Romeo’s spokespeople wax lyrically about Tonale’s ‘passionate’ driving character, the tactility of manner and high degree of driver engagement.

But it’s easy to be sceptical given the PHEV nudges 1.9 tonnes of SUV underpinned by old architecture and offering just 1.3 litres of internal combustion.

However, the Tonale plug-in hybrid’s powertrain is interesting and hugely flexible.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 front 3/4 hill

Rather than the larger 1.5-litre turbo petrol series/parallel hybrid of the regular front-drive Tonale, the PHEV’s 1.3 MultiAir is pure internal combustion and, at 132kW and 270Nm, lusty for its size.

The front axle features a 33kW electric motor, though this is primarily an inverter for the 15.5kW lithium manganese cobalt battery that is mounted low and between the axle line, and to ‘prime’ the 1.3-litre engine’s turbocharger to improve engine response.

Drive is supplemented by a larger electric motor on the rear axle outputting 90kW and 250Nm. The axles can drive the Tonale together, or independently—either front or rear drive, depending on requirements.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 rear 3/4 hill

Total system power of the plug-in hybrid is 205kW, which prompts a number of very enticing stats (though total peak torque remains a mystery).

Zero to 100km/h acceleration? That’s a brisk 6.2-second claim. And on the march, in the sharpest Dynamic drive mode, it charges nicely off the mark and yields surprisingly robust roll-on acceleration.

But it’s really in efficiency where the PHEV system impresses most. Urban EV range is a claimed 82 kilometres WLTP, and with its low 26g/km CO2 figure, it slips under the 30g/km restriction limit for driving in some European cities.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 driving hills 2

And its remarkable frugality, claimed at low as 1.14L/100kms WLTP, extrapolates to a theoretical petrol-electric range of around 600 kilometres.

For European buyers, it’s a no-compromise, go-anywhere proposition, with stats primed for fleet friendliness, which Alfa Romeo projects will account for over half of the Tonale PHEV sales in Europe.

On our 100-kilometre test loop, our example was quite as frugal as its claim, returning an indicated 4.2L/100km consumption, albeit some of it charging through twisty Italian Alpine passes.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 plug charging

More genuine is the quoted 135km/h pure electric v-max, as our vehicle faithfully demonstrated along the autostada.

Recharging? It takes 2.5 hours using the Tonale’s onboard 7.4kW charger at a public source, or around seven hours plugged into a typical Australian household power point—meaning overnight, you’ll restore the full 82km urban electric range.

Given enough seat time and the right venue, the Tonale PHEV does prove itself to be quite a handy driver’s tool. But we soon discover that that venue isn’t really on a public road.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 rear 3/4

The small SUV is, in general, quiet and polite. There’s a nice thrum from the petrol four and a bit of tyre roar, but as a default there’s serene comfort brought about by decent refinement and manner that is really quite bereft of much colour at all.

It’s a character perfectly pitched to average small SUV buyers, if not necessarily to car-heads, let alone Alfisti die-hards.

Around town and on the open road, the Tonale plug-in hybrid is very benign. And for the most part, the myriad drive shuffling between the petrol-driven front axle (via a six-speed auto) and the electric rear axle is silky smooth.

Occasionally, though, a mistimed prod of the throttle will catch the front drive system out, returning an ugly snatch or thud.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 charging

The hybrid SUV grips and goes around corners keenly, particularly given the steering system’s quick ratio complimented by a dartiness off centre that’s signature Alfa Romeo.

Unfortunately, the rest of the direction finder recipe is lacking, suffering excessive over-assistance and an absence of anything like feedback and feel.

Our Veloce tester fits dual-mode suspension damping – Speciale and Ti get single-mode dampers as standard – and ride isn’t overly sharp in the softest setting while handling poise is more encouraging than delightful once the system firms up.

There’s some innate balance at play but, by the seat of the pants, the SUV’s significant weight is ever present and, at legal pace, the Tonale PHEV just doesn’t encourage the driver to dig in and have a red-hot go.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 driving highway

Be it through Italian villages, motorways or twisty hillclimb ascents, this isn’t the sort of Alfa Romeo experience the brand hangs its providence off.

It’d be easy to write off the Tonale PHEV as some stylish pretender had we stopped right here.

But Stellantis owns a wonderful proving ground with some stunning circuits chock-full of challenging corners—so out we ventured. And suddenly, the Tonale PHEV really and truly transforms.

The flagship Tonale fits Brembo brakes, and electronic LSD, a proper ‘ESP Off’ track setting in its DNA adjustment and, impressively, four-wheel dynamic torque vectoring brimming with trickery.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 interior touchscreen

Let the small SUV right off its chain on (essentially) a racetrack and suddenly subsystems left snoozing on road come to life, and out pops a surprisingly effective fun machine.

On the march it’s impressively quick, from one apex to the next. The steering comes to a semblance of life, it points and grips with real tenacity, the drive from the hybrid system is surly enough to drum up serious velocity, and the chassis that lumbered on road muscles up real poise and precision.

You can really feel the AWD torque vectoring paying real dividends, in a package that could easily handle another 70 or 80kW of stonk.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 driving 2

Okay, it’s not Quadrifoglio-grade sportiness, and the Tonale PHEV isn’t without go-fast limitations. But there is some lovely old-school Alfa Romeo spunk in the way it drives, even though you have to drive it bloody hard to find it.

With that, the Tonale PHEV does pretty much achieve what it sets out to offer. But to address the elephant in the room, it really is a bridging model to Alfa Romeo’s full electric future on a relatively near horizon.

Even out of the box, this plug-in small SUV’s days do seem numbered by what looks to be a short four-year lifespan before Alfa’s self-set, all-electric deadline arrives.

What will the Tonale plug-in hybrid cost?

On one hand, its various virtues are tailor-fit for European consumption given today’s regulations and climate. It remains to be seen how well this vehicle will translate onto Aussie roads for what’s a yet-to-be-revealed price.

Australian pricing has already been revealed for the two Tonale series-parallel hybrid grades that will sit beneath the plug-in hybrid in the local range.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Q4 2023 front 3/4 track

The milder hybrids will cost $49,900 in Ti trim or $56,400 as a Veloce, both before on-road costs.

The Tonale plug-in hybrid Q4 would want to start in the $60,000s, so as not to price itself out of contention against logical rivals in Audi Q3, Mercedes-Benz GLA and Volvo XC40—of which a fully electric version can be had from $71,900.

We’ll see how the Italian newcomer fares in localised spec once it arrives down under in late 2023.

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