First Drive: Alfa Romeo Tonale
The Alfa Romeo Tonale represents the future of Alfa Romeo. Firstly, it’s the brand’s first-ever hybrid powertrain-driven model. Secondly, and arguably, more importantly, it means a model for Alfa that, while maintaining that inherent passion factor the brand is known for, has an air of practicality and sensibility – I want to call it functional art.
While the Tonale doesn’t quite hit the same heights of jaw-dropping lines that crescendos into a culmination of ‘oohs,’ ‘ahs’ and statements of reawakening suppressed feelings we’ve come to love from Alfa Romeo, it’s an engaging and well-designed compact SUV that is sure to appeal to a wide range of consumers. And that’s the whole point.
As pretty as it is – I consider it one of the prettiest SUVs to ever see the light of day – it’s also a bit restrained in its overall execution. The reason? For Alfa to continue making cars with a body-part-clutching effect, it needs to drum up sales. And if there’s one thing any layman knows, R1m+ pieces of art tend to see slow days in a sales office.
But is it art?
Absolutely, yes. Typically I’m not particularly eager to waste hundreds of precious words describing rising beltlines and swooping roof lines since pictures tend to do a fine job in that department, but the styling execution of the Tonale SUV certainly justifies a mention.
Where carmakers in this segment are usually pedantic about maintaining that corporate identity throughout its range with a front-end borrowed from that sedan and a rear-end that is reminiscent of that hatchback with an awkward, but practical-use, body in between, it’s refreshing to see Alfa Romeo going back to discarding the rule-book.
The central grille architecture with the lower air intakes is full-fat ‘trilobo’, the iconic three-piece that looks to outline a three-leaf clover, and the 3+3 headlights, Alfa says, are inspired by the lights on the dramatically-beautiful Zagato. Whether on purpose or by lucky coincidence, the point is, it’s there. No squinting is required. The taillights follow a similar stylistic execution with a central cross-lightbar connecting these beautiful elements. On the side, what Alfa calls the GT line connects the front and rear seamlessly, an element said to stem from the Giulia GT. That’s a bit more abstract and open for interpretation but pretty nonetheless.
Bespoke Style and Gadget Selections
The Tonale is available locally in three derivatives; Ti, Speciale for a limited time, and the range-topping Veloce. And, while there are naturally price differences within the range, comfort, tech and style have been democratised with cabins brimmed with features. All models receive a crisp-viewing 12.3” TFT digital instrument display, a 10.25” infotainment system with all the bells and whistles like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and a wireless charging station.
On the safety front, all models can be had with lane-keep assist and auto headlights, adaptive cruise control with reliably accurate speed limit recognition and lane-centring assist. The limited-run Speciale models we tested adds heated and ventilated leather with power-operated seats and a Harman Kardon sound system for an additional outlay of R37,000. What further makes the Speciale, well, special is that it comes standard with column-mounted aluminium paddle shifters (as do the Veloce) and 20” telephone-rotor-inspired rims, while the Veloce comes with 19-inches and the Ti with a set of 18s.
Does It Have Alfa’s Driving DNA?
Yes and no. The Tonale’s primary drive source is still its 1.5-litre turbocharged engine, rated for 118 kW and 240 Nm of torque and coupled to a 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox. This is supplemented by an electric motor that adds an additional 15 kW and 55 Nm of torque to the working system and adds a future-proof strain to the operating DNA of the Alfa Romeo nameplate. But, like any forward progress, it doesn’t come without its hiccups. Chief of which is that I do not consider the Tonale’s hybrid element to be nearly prominent enough.
In fact, it’s easy to forget that this is a hybrid-powered SUV with what felt like very little input from the eMotor. Sure, during stop-go traffic, it worked seamlessly in gradually moving the car forwards without petrol power with what Alfa calls e-Creeping. It’s short-lived, though, as it soon runs out of electric charge, forcing the conventional petrol engine to take over driving operations. In essence, the electric motor is too small to revolutionise fuel economy with only marginal braking regeneration. In the same vein, it doesn’t tangibly aid performance since the 1.5-litre four-pot feels strained with the SUV’s 1.5-tonne kerb weight.
There is a bright silver lining, though. By working on the chassis, using independent damping and redistributing weight as far centre as possible, the Tonale has handling characteristics that belie the sizable and practical nature of this SUV. Through the twists and turns of some iconic Cape Town passes, it proved as surefooted as a mountain goat with a direct steering input that’s reactive to reflex – it’s one of, if not the sharpest tool in its segment as far as handling is concerned. On this front, Alfa’s revered DNA is definitely present.
How Does It Stack Up?
The Alfa Romeo Tonale starts at R739,900 and compares favourably against rivals like the Audi Q3, BMW X2 and Volvo XC40, especially when considering the long list of standard features and equipment it ships with. Add to that a hybrid-driven powertrain that, in the long run, should mean fewer trips to the filling station, and it’s hard to ignore Alfa’s first entrant into this combative segment. Is it the best value for money? Well, it depends on what you look for in a car. Then again, can you put a price tag on this calibre of art – however abstract it may be?
Oh, and there’s that handling…