Alfa Romeo’s first compact SUV looks great but struggles to deliver thrills or performance.
- High quality cabin, impressively solid construction
- Thrashy engine, limited performance
- Little sense of dynamic connection
- Firm ride on 20-inch wheels
It’s not hard to love Alfa Romeo, but nor is it hard to feel a deep level at frustration at the famous Italian brand’s ability to keep tripping over the same hurdles.
The company has always been good at delivering on design and charisma, less so on build quality and reliability – to the extent that new CEO Jean-Philippe Imparato admits to being familiar with most of the well-worn jokes inspired by the fragility of his company’s earlier offerings.
Following his arrival from Peugeot, Imparato’s determination that the new Tonale wouldn’t become another punchline is one of the reasons it is arriving later than planned. The original Tonale concept for a compact SUV positioned under the existing Stelvio was shown at the Geneva Motor Show back in 2019 and, given the appetites of the premium market, was immediately on the fast track to production.
It was delayed by COVID and the semiconductor shortage, but also the need to ensure quality would match Imparato’s expectations. Which is why it won’t be reaching Australia until the first half of next year.
I’d love to be able to tell you about the range-topping 202kW plug-in hybrid, one that will combine the efforts of a 1.3-litre turbocharged petrol engine up front with an electrically turned rear axle. Sadly this isn’t confirmed for Australia, and my first drive in Italy was limited to the less potent 118kW 1.5-litre version which uses a 48 Volt hybrid system and sending drive to the front wheels through a seven-speed double-clutch gearbox.
A less powerful version of the same engine will also be offered in Europe, but Australia is likely to only get the topper. It’s hard to imagine even the most passionate Alfisti getting too worked up about a new car that is set to take 8.8-seconds to dispatch the 0-100km/h benchmark.
Still, Alfa deserves plenty of praise for the Tonale’s design. It looks at least as good in real life as it does in the pictures, with the styling team having managed to make a car that looks better proportioned than almost all the obvious alternatives, despite a relatively modest 4528mm overall length.
Compact crossovers aren’t normally my thing, but I spent most of a day staring at various examples of the Tonale and struggled to find a bad angle. The triple headlight elements and compact heart-shape grille up front are unmistakeably Alfa, as is the wraparound rear screen and the gorgeous ‘teledial’ alloy wheels.
The Tonale’s cabin impresses, too – several steps on from either Stelvio or Giulia. This is where Imparato’s quest for quality feels immediately obvious, with soft materials in most touchable areas and far better ergonomics. Digital instruments are standard, and there is a crisply rendered new 10.25-inch touchscreen display running Alfa’s new UI system, this working intuitively and cleanly. It also supports Alexa-driven voice command inputs.
There is still a reasonable amount of conventional switchgear, with cruise and ADAS controls on the face of the steering wheel alongside the engine start button, plus physical heating and ventilation switches beneath the touchscreen.
The rotary controller for the three ‘DNA’ dynamic modes is located a bit awkwardly at the bottom of the centre stack; it was hard to see from the driver’s seat in the left-hook test cars. But the solid, metal gearshift paddles on the steering wheel of the plusher Veloce version felt brilliant – a detail that too many car makers just don’t bother with. (Australian specification isn’t finalised yet; it’s possible all our versions will get these.)
There is good space up front and plenty of driving position adjustment, and although the Tonale’s rear seating is predictably tighter thanks to the falling roofline, there is still adult viable space back there. Beyond the slick UI connectivity is good, too – and Alfa has taken the practical decision to have both USB-A and USB-C ports front and rear, meaning buyers won’t need to invest in multiple adapters for different generations of tech.
Refinement proved impressive, the cabin staying hushed even at the sort of rapid cruising pace allowed by the Italian Autostrada. I’m happy to confirm that, during four hours in two different cars, I didn’t hear a single creak or rattle from any bit of trim.
But the driving experience feels much less polished. The 1.5-litre engine isn’t destined to make the long list of great Alfa powerplants. It runs on the Miller cycle to boost economy, and gets a variable geometry turbocharger, but it sounds thrashy when extended, doesn’t seem to enjoy being revved and suffered from an inconsistent throttle response that often made it feel as if power was still being applied for a couple of beats after lifting off.
The Hybrid’s 15kW 48 Volt motor can motivate the car by itself at low speeds – pretty much all manoeuvring will be done as an EV – but there were some noticeable gaps when switching from electrical to combustion power, especially in the new ‘Advanced Efficiency’ eco mode, which had so much hesitation it was pretty much unusable in the cut and thrust of Italian traffic. The dual-clutch gearbox also seemed short on intelligence when left in Drive, and tended to thump between bigger throttle upshifts.
Alfa is proud of the Tonale’s fast steering, with the rack having a 13.6:1 ratio which is very high geared in this part of the market. This does indeed give sharp front end responses, and it also resisted understeer very well for a front-driven crossover, P Zero tyres finding impressive grip in tighter turns. Steering feedback is predictably muted through the electrical assistance, the switchable Dynamic mode increasing weight but not bringing any real feel.
The optional active dampers delivered slightly keener front end respon
ses through the steering, and also had a slightly more pliant ride in their softest setting. The dual valve passive dampers felt firmer over rougher surfaces at lower speeds, but both the cars I drove were riding on the biggest 20-inch wheels. The e-boosted brake pedal felt better than the one on the Stelvio, although with a slight response delay under gentle use.
That’s the physical car pretty much covered, but Alfa has also made great play of the fact the Tonale will also feature one of the fashionable digital Non Fungible Tokens. The (virtual) reality soon turns out to be some way short on the hype on this one, with the NFT basically just a way of protecting an encrypted version of the car’s service history – with Alfa also saying it won’t be possible for non-official dealers or workshops to update this.
The emphasis on ownership costs does go deeper, though – with Imparato confirming that he wants to deliver residual values to rival those of BMW in all major markets, Australia included.
The good news for now is that the Tonale manages the basics well. It looks great and it also feels much more solidly constructed than any of its predecessors. Based on our first turn in Italy the dynamics aren’t quite there yet, but it is always going to be easier to tweak and tune suspension and powertrain settings than to fix the sort of egregious quality problems that Alfa used to bring as standard.
|Key details||2022 Alfa Romeo Tonale|
|Engine||1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol mild-hybrid|
|Power||118kW @ 5750rpm|
|Torque||240Nm @ 1500rpm|
|Drive type||Front-wheel drive|
|Power to weight ratio||77.4kW/t|
On first impressions it requires more polish if it is going to make an impression in this hard-fought part of the market, and more urge than the 48 Volt Hybrid can muster would be nice, too. While the 202kW all-wheel driven PHEV version isn’t confirmed for Australia, it seems like the most obvious potential source of extra performance.
But the long wait for an excuse-free Alfa looks set to continue for a while longer.