The Alfa Romeo Tonale makes a good first impression. It earns major street cred for its styling, which oozes italianità, and its cabin is a tasty mix of old-school analog dials and clever Uconnect 5 digital tech. But when you push the starter button to summon the puny 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine, slide the gear lever into drive, and hit the throttle, sober reality sets in. Fans hoping for a junior version of the vivacious, sharp-driving Stelvio will be disappointed. The Tonale is built for a different mission.
Alfa's compact crossover is carved from the same components set as the Dodge Hornet and the Jeep Compass. Welcome to the world of Stellantis, where mandatory synergies and compulsory differentiation are battling it out 24/7.
Unlike its siblings, the Alfa in our market is offered solely as a plug-in hybrid. The powertrain combines a small 188-hp turbocharged 1.3-liter engine and a 121-hp electric motor for a total output of 285 horsepower and 347 pound-feet of torque. The Q4 suffix confirms that the Tonale is all-wheel drive, but there is no physical connection between the engine and the motor powering the rear axle. Although Alfa claims a commendably brisk 60-mph time of 5.6 seconds, there's not enough high-end grunt, and the unexciting top speed of 125 mph takes forever to materialize. The sotto voce liftoff exhaust note in Dynamic mode raises goose pimples, but then the noise at high revs kills the acoustic joy.
The 14.8-kWh battery allows feather-footed drivers to cover a claimed 30-plus miles at speeds of up to 84 mph. (Official EPA range numbers are not yet available.) Refrain from unleashing your inner hooligan and Alfa Romeo promises a total driving range of up to 320 miles.
Most of the time, the Tonale is a front-driver, but kick-down automatically engages the rear motor, as can the traction and stability control. To the credit of the system, the transition between front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive ranges from virtually imperceptible to mildly entertaining in Dynamic mode with dynamic stability control deactivated, when a subtle front-to-rear torque transfer briefly enlightens the oh-so-fail-safe handling.
Unique to Alfa is the DNA mode selector. D signals Dynamic (a.k.a. pure arrabbiata), N stands for Natural (a.k.a. not particularly involving), and A denotes Advanced Efficiency (a.k.a. electric but only while the battery lasts). Why is there no Individual setting to let you compile your favorite combination of throttle response, shift action, damper control, and steering feel?
We went apex chasing through the foothills of Monte Mottac, gave it stick on the lightly trafficked A26 autostrada heading for Genoa, and fought our way clench fisted through Milan's rush-hour maze. The Tonale feels tight and well made, it has strong Brembo brakes that are a joy to modulate, and the ride is sufficiently compliant on all but the most neglected surfaces. The cabin accommodates four in comfort, but the cargo hold is compromised by the bulky electric drivetrain components. We give full marks for the infotainment interface, which is easy to use, comes with an available passenger's screen, and features wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay along with Fire TV to accommodate video streaming needs. The 10.3-inch touchscreen is supported by a row of direct-access buttons plus more on the steering wheel.
Downsides? Yep, there are a few of those, too. The steering is rather vague, light, and woolly. There's too much play around the straight-ahead position, and the action doesn't get any keener as you wind on more lock. The Tonale is certainly not under-tired, but it feels oddly over-damped and under-sprung on bumpy terrain where recurrent floating, heaving, rolling, and pitching motions disturb the uninspiring handling. On the other hand, understeer is reasonably well controlled even when going nine-tenths, the chassis feels well balanced during cornering, and the directional stability is hard to fault too.
Back on the debit side, the seats lack thigh and shoulder support, the unnecessarily wide center console steals precious legroom, the available shift paddles mask the wiper and turn-signal stalks, and, at the stated curb weight of 4133 pounds, the Tonale is actually heavier than the last 2.0-liter Stelvio Q4 we tested. There is no EV mode as such, but the driver can preserve the current state of charge, and it's also possible to foster the battery on the fly. Depending on the type of connection used, Alfa says it takes between two and a half and five hours to replenish the energy pack.
Prices range from $44,590 for the Sprint to $49,090 for the Veloce, which features, among other goodies, the huge paddle shifters, Alcantara-trimmed seats, and adaptive dampers. A sunroof, a Harman/Kardon sound system, 20-inch wheels, a surround-view camera, and the more advanced driver assists cost extra, so we're talking $50K-plus for a fully loaded Tonale. Not surprisingly, Alfa expects nine out of 10 cars to be leased at still-to-be-disclosed but allegedly highly favorable rates. For packaging and portfolio-management reasons, there will be no Quadrifoglio edition of this compact SUV.
According to Domenico Bagnasco, head of vehicle development, Alfa did what it could with the Stellantis platform it was presented with, within the confines of a shoestring budget. "We gave the car more electric power, made it look like a real Alfa inside and out, and taught it decent road manners. The outcome is not a hardcore driver's car, because that's not what this segment is about. Instead, we created a user-friendly and wholly competent alternative to the German establishment. The Tonale is easy to drive and easy to live with, yet it shouts Alfa Romeo from every angle and in any gear." Well said, Domenico. Given the audience of affluent style-conscious urbanites, a baby Stelvio is perhaps not what the market ordered, as much as Alfa's fan base might have liked to see one.
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