► Alfa’s first compact SUV
► Launching with hybrid tech
► Low speed manners need work
The Tonale is the first compact SUV in Alfa Romeo’s illustrious history, and it’ll be a welcome alternative for families tired of the familiar line-up of ageing premium SUVs. Rivals such as BMW’s X1 and Audi’s Q3 are coming to the end of their second-generation models, while the Lexus UX and Jaguar E-Pace hardly feel like spring chickens. That’s the upside to being horrendously late to the SUV party, Alfa!
Another is launching strictly with hybrid engines. The 2.0-litre petrol and 1.6-litre diesel will not be offered in the UK, nor will the entry-level 130hp hybrid. That means a 158bhp petrol/electric drivetrain will power the first deliveries of Tonale, due in September 2022 and likely to cost around £35,000. A plug-in hybrid version, with 271bhp, 37 miles of pure electric range and all-wheel drive, follows around the turn of the year.
Has Alfa Romeo’s baby SUV been worth the wait? Read on for full spec and driving impressions of the Hybrid VGT Veloce.
What kind of hybrid is the Tonale, and is it economical?
The brand’s first foray into electrification, the Tonale Hybrid VGT has a complicated front-wheel drive powertrain. The engine is a 1.5-litre four-stroke petrol with lots of clever technology including dual variable valve timing, which delays inlet valve closure to facilitate the engine’s fuel-saving Miller cycle.
The petrol engine also has a variable geometry turbocharger – hence the VGT suffix – which is relatively uncommon (though used by Porsche and Volkswagen). This is more flexible than a normal turbocharger, helping to boost performance across the rev range including at lower rpm. Then there’s a 20bhp electric motor, connected to the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, to channel up to 100lb ft of torque into the driveline.
Technically this hybrid is a cut above its peers, because it can (unlike many belt-operated mild hybrids) propel the Tonale on electric power alone. We’re driving on the congested streets of Como in Italy, and in the Natural or Advanced Efficiency driving modes, it can trundle forward in queues or complete low-speed manoeuvres without calling on the combustion engine. This ‘P2’ hybrid is also better at recuperating energy from coasting to charge the battery, with the combustion engine able to switch off entirely.
Alfa Romeo says the Tonale will return between 44.8 and 49.6mpg on the WLTP test cycle, with CO2 emissions ranging from 130 to 144g/km of CO2. In comparison, a BMW X1 18i manages up to 44.8mpg and 142-146g/km of CO2, and it’s almost a second slower in the 0-62mph sprint.
How does the hybrid feel to drive?
The hybrid drivetrain is a bit of a mixed bag. Inching forward on pure electric power makes being in congestion slightly more palatable: it’s a lovely sensation. But the drivetrain’s fiendishly complex nature is laid bare when you switch the beautiful ‘cannocchiale’ (the driver’s telescopic digital instrument panel) to the charge power/meter: the engine and e-motor’s power inputs are constantly in flux.
And every now and then, when you’ve lifted off for a roundabout or junction and suddenly call for power again, the Tonale hybrid hesitates, or gives an inexplicable flare of revs or shunty gearchange. That’s no surprise given the complex calculations Alfa’s software is making to decide which power source to deploy, and many hybrids are afflicted by pauses. But it can make the Tonale hard to drive smoothly at times, and it’s at its worse in Advanced Efficiency (when throttle response is impeded to boost efficiency).
The steering also takes some getting used to. Like all Alfas, the rack is incredibly direct, but at urban speeds the weighting is too light for my tastes. As a result, the steering feels a bit loose and not absolutely in sync with the direction of the front wheels.
The body is suspended by MacPherson struts all round, fitted with dual-stage active damping on this Veloce trim level. Even though we’re not in Dynamic mode and therefore in the softer setting, the Tonale doesn’t really settle on Como’s craggy roads. It certainly jars through potholes, although noise is well damped. Base cars have Koni frequency selective damping, which hydraulically switch from sporty to comfort for high frequency bumps.
What’s the Tonale like when the pace picks up?
We follow Como’s lakeside road all the way to Bellagio, hemmed in behind chugging Daihatsus and ubiquitous Panda 4x4s, and dicing with oncoming buses on narrow lanes. But out the other side of the town, the road gets wider and the speed limit rises.
The hybrid pulls strongly in the mid-range, though the 0-62mph sprint takes 8.8secs. Like most four-cylinder turbos, it’s hardly sonorous under revs but nicely muted when cruising. The lovely paddleshifters, a scimitar-shaped sliver of aluminium mounted on the column, click up and down the dual-clutch ‘box responsively.
The engineers boast of the Tonale’s dynamic superiority over its X1 arch-rival on their Balocco test circuit, with lots of Alfa chassis revisions from its Jeep Compass sister car. The structure is stiffer thanks to new bracing and the tracks are wider, with both front and rear axles claimed to respond more quickly than the X1 in corners.
And the Tonale feels at its best on faster, cross-country roads. The steering becomes more meaty and reassuring at speed, and its directness is great in the hairpins climbing Monte Palanzone. Barrelling into faster corners, the SUV has lots of grip and resists understeer well. Dynamic torque vectoring acts on the front wheels, braking the inner wheel to help keep the nose tucked in. Roll is nicely contained too.
We briefly drive the Tonale on the autostrada too: it’s quiet and stable, and it’s impressive to see the engine switching off entirely when the SUV can coast under e-power.
What’s the cabin like?
The cockpit is another strength, with lashings of Alfa’s design flair, from the beautifully backlit dash strip to the wheel-mounted start button. The driving position feels quite lofty, though the raised centre console hems you in which feels sporty. Some of the plastics look a bit mediocre: the B-pillar was already scratched by the seatbelt buckle with very few miles on the clock. But the new touchscreen looks beautiful, responds quickly and has contemporary creature comforts like Alexa voice control.
Rear passengers have sufficient legroom and headroom, and the wide boot stows 500 litres of luggage, with plenty of lashing points. Fold the rear seats and max stowage is 1550 litres. Overall the packaging is good for a car measuring 4528mm long – some 8cm longer than an X1 but 18cm shorter than an X3.
The standard equipment of base Ti cars includes 18in alloy wheels, gloss black bodykit, parking sensors and rear camera, navigation and Apple Car Play/Android Auto. Upgrade to Veloce trim for 19in rims, Brembo red brake calipers, privacy glass, and aluminium cockpit flourishes including those paddleshifters.
Expect all Tonales to benefit from five years of warranty cover in the UK, and the car is also backed by NFT technology with off-vehicle blockchain recording of a car’s servicing record and condition (such as plug-in hybrid battery status). This should help to boost used car values, though the monthly rentals will not be available in the UK until prices are formalised.
The Alfa Romeo Tonale is a handsome design with a lovely, practical interior, plus lots of safety kit to keep the family safe, including automated braking, lane assist, blind spot detection and intelligent cruise control. Like a true Alfa, it’s fun to drive fast – it’ll be revealing to get a Ti onto sweeping British B-roads, to see if the frequency selective dampers iron out the fidgety ride and the handling truly meets our expectations.
There are four months until right-hand drive cars reach retailers, and let’s hope Alfa’s software engineers can fine-tune the car’s low-speed manners, making the steering more predictable and the hybrid less hesitant. That made it feel tricky around town but super at speed, which feels the reverse of how most buyers would want their compact SUV. It’s worth a test drive though, because for those that do gel with it, the Tonale is a breath of fresh air in the stale, premium compact SUV segment.