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Alfa Romeo's first all-new car under Stellantis ownership challenges in the fearsomely competitive 'compact premium' SUV class

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Much as the thought may bring traditionalist devotees of this famous old Italian racing brand out in spots, Alfa Romeo is - under the auspices of its current Stellantis Group management overlords - slowly turning its corporate fortunes around; and it’s thanks almost entirely to SUVs.

While the Stelvio continues to do modestly good European business as it nears retirement, its maker is now gearing up to partner it with a much smaller and more affordable, compact crossover SUV aimed at a more youthful buyer - the Milano.

Double-bubbled, round-hooded dials have been an Alfa Romeo staple for decades, but they have been neatly reinterpreted with a customisable gauge cluster that’s clear and modern, yet still slightly retro.

And yet it’s a third, mid-sized SUV - the Alfa Romeo Tonale - that has fuelled the firm’s regeneration most recently. In its first full year on sale in 2023, the Tonale swelled Turin’s global sales volume by some thirty per cent, and that figure’s European-market equivalent by nearly fifty per cent.

Growth from a low base is one thing, of course; sustained market success quite another - and it’s not like this car hasn’t got serious competition. Operating in the hugely popular ‘premium C-SUV’ segment, it counts the likes of the BMW X1, Audi Q3 and Volvo XC40 among its rivals - even if, simply by being present in that market, it can have a big impact on Alfa’s bottom line. More desirable volume brand options like the Peugeot 3008 and Kia Sportage could also be considered rivals.

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With fleet-friendly plug-in hybrid technology in its armoury as well as Alfa’s familiar design appeal, though, this car seems to have plenty of potential. Launching in the UK in late 2022, it is now available in both mild hybrid and plug-in hybrid formats, priced from just over £35,000 to just under £50,000.

In this test, most of our impressions will come from the range-topping PHEV Veloce version - although we’ve also tested the mild hybrid on Italian roads.

DESIGN & STYLING

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alfa romeo tonale review 2024 02 side panning

The Alfa Romeo Tonale makes a fairly average-sized entry within the compact SUV class, at a little over 4.5 metres in length and standing just over 1.6 metres tall. As is typical of its brand, it seeks to set itself apart through sophisticated exterior design; though most testers agreed that, on a compact SUV, that’s quite the tricky challenge.

The Tonale’s exterior design references so many revered Alfas of the past. The tri-lobe headlights are a homage to the 1990s Alfa Romeo SZ sports car; the rising swage line on the bodyside to the Alfa GT; and the ‘teledial’ wheels to just about every fast Alfa of the last thirty years. But their combined effect is a little underwhelming on the eye, because the car’s proportions are more ordinary than Turin typically deals in. Smallish SUVs like this tend to have longish overhangs, boosted ride height, high-rising bodies and that slightly apologetic stance by default - and so, while the Tonale is nice enough looking by the standards of the class, that isn’t saying very much for it.

The 'biscione' serpent from Alfa's model badge - typically shown devouring a man - has been given a twist to decorate the Tonale PHEV; as a snake with an electric plug for a head, to be found in the corner of the rear door window.

Like almost every small Alfa, Fiat, Jeep (in other markets you can even add Dodge and Chrysler), the Tonale adopts the former FCA Group’s ‘SCCS’ platform which, while it has been reengineered and improved several times, has it roots in a collaboration that Fiat had with General Motors more than twenty years ago, which fathered the 2005 Grande Punto. For the Tonale, it’s now known as ‘Small-Wide-4x4-LWB’ - making the car closest-related to the Jeep Compass.

The car’s engine and model derivative range was a little slow in expanding, but UK buyers can now choose between 1.5-litre turbo, 158bhp, front-wheel drive, mild hybrid petrol- and 1.3-litre, 276bhp, four-wheel drive plug-in hybrid versions. The former is a 48-volt hybrid system which can run for very short periods with the engine off, but only at very low speeds and when coasting down. 

The latter, meanwhile, uses the combination of a 1.3-litre ‘Multiair’ turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine, making 178bhp, which drives the front axle (as well, at times, as a starter-generator electric motor) - and a 121bhp ‘ERAD’ electric rear axle drive unit. That electric motor draws power from a 15.5kWh drive battery, making for claimed ‘EAER Combined’ electric range of 38 miles: perhaps just a little above average for a PHEV in this class. 

P4-style plug-in hybrid systems like that have been used by former FCA Group brand Jeep before, of course; but they do tend to be heavier than their P2- and P3-style competitors (where the electric drive motor is made part of the forward transmission). Sure enough, our Tonale PHEV test car weighed a little over 1.9 tonnes on the proving ground scales, its bulk split 53:47 front-to-rear.

Suspension for the car is all-independent, via MacPherson struts at the front axle and a simplified pseudo-multi-link axle at the rear. Coil springs and frequency-selective passive dampers feature as standard, the latter being upgraded to mode-selectable ‘dual stage’ adaptive dampers on our Veloce grade test car.

INTERIOR

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There’s something of a gulf developing among compact SUVs like this between the examples with well-packaged interiors, which provide that bit more passenger space than their compact exterior proportions lead you to expect, and those where everything feels a little squeezed in. The Tonale, rather regrettably, is in the latter camp.

Taking a seat behind the wheel feels like adopting a higher, more bent-legged driving position than you do in the larger Stelvio - and headroom is a little tight up front, our tape measure recording only 950mm of it above the seat cushion where the class average is somewhere between 1000- and 1050mm. Back-row travellers fare similarly (890mm of rear headroom is again about 10 per cent shy of the class norm). Though rear legroom is a little more class-competitive, the sense that this car offers less accommodation than it really should has already taken hold.

The control layout is simple and quite familiar. Alfa’s trademark ‘cannocchiale’ (telescope-style) instrument binnacle sits before an all-digital instrument screen; but elsewhere there’s a reassuringly large drive selector level, large and tactile aluminium gearshift paddles, and Alfa’s physical ‘DNA’ drive mode selection dial as primary points of contact. You get permanent, physical heating and ventilation controls, too; lots of opportunities, in other words, for Alfa to build in tactile material appeal for this car.

And yet almost none of them is taken. The Tonale’s prevailing standard for material fit and finish lags behind plenty of aspiring volume brands. Its primary cabin mouldings feel quite coarse and wobbly in places, with sharper edges to be found where better finishing should really have banished them. Primary features like its air vents, infotainment screen, instrument cowl and armrest cubby, meanwhile, feel flimsy and a little poorly secured. The car’s steering-wheel-born button consoles also look and feel quite cheap; and among the few efforts made to lift the richness of the cabin ambience, only the metallic shift paddles really land.

In the boot, meanwhile, space is more generous than in the wider cabin - but only if you opt for the front-driven mild-hybrid model, which proffers 500 litres of space below the windowline. In the PHEV, that figure’s cut to just under 400 litres, not least because most available under-floor storage space is lost (although there is no lump in the loading area to contend with, so bulkier loads are easy enough to carry).

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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alfa romeo tonale review 2024 23 engine

If the Tonale was intended as the car to save Alfa Romeo - and, let’s face it, there have been a few - you wouldn’t really know as much from a pair of electrified powertrains whose outright performance and drivability each leaves a fair bit to be desired.

Alfa’s engineers will tell you that the small electric motor and drive battery of the mildhybrid model are ‘right-sized’ for the car - but in practice they feel undersized to provide a truly convincing hybrid driving experience. The engine cuts in very quickly and it gets quite buzzy when it’s pushed. It feels slightly stronger and perhaps a shade more refined than some hybrid options, but a conventional petrol 2.0-litre BMW X1 is faster and more refined still.

Largely the same is true of the mild hybrid’s seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox: it’s okay, but if you’re coming from a BMW eight-speed auto, you won’t be impressed with the smoothness, speed or shift points it chooses.

In the case of the more powerful PHEV, outright performance certainly feels more responsive and assured; but here, the Tonale’s pace and drivability depends quite a lot on the condition of its drive battery. 

When fully charged, our performance tests confirmed that the car will indeed hit 60mph from rest in 6.3sec, and go on to crack a standing quarter mile in a shade under 15sec; both creditably athletic markers. But when we tried the same tests again with the battery fully depleted, the car needed a second longer to hit 60mph, and more than 2.5sec longer to hit 90mph from standing. 

The subjective performance of the Tonale PHEV feels even more adversely affected by a flat battery. Part-throttle responsiveness is dulled quite noticeably when the combustion engine’s crankshaft is being ‘dragged’ in order to top the battery back up, so it feels a little as if you’re driving through treacle - that is, at least, until you get to the lower reaches of the accelerator pedal’s travel, when the car’s powertrain calibration switches. Rivals certainly do a better job of delivering a consistent driving experience regardless of battery condition.

Refinement in the PHEV ranges from decent to mediocre. The combustion engine runs in quite reedy-sounding, tappetty fashion, and Alfa’s cabin insulation measures aren’t very effective. We recorded 71dbA of cabin noise at a 70mph motorway cruise, where some premium-brand options in the class get to 67dbA or below.

Brake pedal progression, via Alfa’s electromechanical brake booster system, is a little soft, but doesn’t feel overly artificial, and allows you to manage energy regeneration and friction braking well enough.

RIDE & HANDLING

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alfa romeo tonale review 2024 26 action

Alfa Romeo’s PR material for the Tonale goes to considerable lengths to describe how, and why, the car is able to handle ‘like a real Alfa’, - thanks to additional strengthening of the chassis, and specially tuned wheel geometry, intended to make sure that it is at once more fun to drive and more comfortable than the ‘best competitor’. And, to an extent and in particular circumstances, the Tonale does handle like one of the more dynamic options in the segment.

It has Alfa’s usual quick, light-weighted, fixed-ratio steering, which splits Autocar’s road test jury as to whether it suits a taller SUV, or makes the car’s handling seem flighty and lacking in assurance. Body roll is well contained, though, and you’re rarely left wanting for mid-corner grip or stability. 

But there’s no particular agility, true incisiveness or natural athleticism to the way the mild hybrid corners, once it’s tucked its nose in. And where you’d hope that the four-wheel-drive PHEV might augment the car’s throttle-on chassis balance and make for a shade more driver engagement, it actually fails to meld with the combustion-powered front axle very convincingly when you’re driving hard out of a corner. Here, the Tonale feels a little at war with itself, as its different powertrains react and respond to their own particular tunes.

For ride comfort, we were more impressed with Alfa’s passively-damped mild hybrid Tonale on Italian roads, which felt decently well contained and avoided crashing over broken asphalt, than we were with the heavier PHEV model on UK roads. The latter struggled for good close body control and a settled ride on country roads, its switchable dampers making it feel either overly soft or firmer but no more composed. The fluent precision of, say, a Giulia saloon is a long way from being equalled, even if in outright terms, the Tonale corners with that bit more keenness than the average compact SUV.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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alfa romeo tonale review 2024 01 front cornering

Alfa Romeo’s pricing range for the Tonale is broadly competitive, seeing entry-level mild hybrid models open up a little above £35,000. 

The PHEV version came with higher list prices when first introduced in 2023, but can now be secured in lower trim levels for less than £44,000 at showroom price, which aligns with what you might expect to pay for a like-for-like Audi Q3 or BMW X1. Manufacturer PCP finance deals are likewise competitive - though they don’t make the Tonale the same kind of list-price bargain that the larger Stelvio and Giulia have become when compared with their German equivalents.

It’s regrettable for fleet users that the car so narrowly misses the 40 miles of ‘EAER Combined’ lab-test electric range needed for an eight per cent BIK qualification (PHEV versions of the BMW X1, Kia Sportage, Mercedes GLA and Toyota RAV4 all hit it). In real-world testing, the Tonale managed an average 36 miles of electric running on a charge, which means at least some of its PHEV rivals. Between short-range electric and longer-range petrol running, and track testing, it averaged 49.7mpg over the full trip of our test, but only returns around 32mpg in range-extended motorway running.

VERDICT

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The Alfa Romeo Tonale feels like something of a place-holder in one of the car market’s most commercially important niches. The fact that it exists at all, with the right kind of vital statistics and pricing, somewhere where there is a lot of interest from European buyers right now should do plenty of good for its maker. 

And the Tonale does more than simply exist; without doing quite enough to trouble the best of its compact SUV rivals. To look at, it’s at least relatively handsome. To sit in, it’s inviting to a point - but soon enough blots its report card with compromised cabin quality and passenger practicality. To drive, it is fairly brisk and moderately tidy-handling in PHEV form, though it lacks consistency, refinement and finesse in its driving experience; and is a little tidier and more settled as an MHEV, albeit slower and equally coarse at times. Its fleet-market credentials are respectable, though not exceptional, and its pricing likewise.

Considering Alfa Romeo has started from scratch in a hard-fought compact SUV segment here, it hasn’t disgraced itself. But then Alfa so often has to start from scratch and come from nowhere - and it has done so to create considerably more accomplished, attractive and dynamically appealing cars, in fairly recent years, than this.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Alfa Romeo Tonale First drives