Few brands make car enthusiasts go weak at the knees quite like Alfa Romeo. Its 112-year backstory includes countless race wins, many of the world’s most evocative road cars and launching the career of a certain Enzo Ferrari.
In recent years, though, Alfa Romeo hasn’t been shown the amore it deserves. Today, its range has shrunk to just two models: the Giulia saloon and Stelvio SUV. Compare that with the sprawling diversity offered by its German rivals.
The Tonale is the start of Alfa’s fightback. Granted, it won’t get the Alfisti excited, but it should bolster the bottom line. Family SUVs are now the largest sector of the UK car market, with a quarter of overall sales. And the Tonale is aimed squarely at big-hitters such as the Audi Q3, BMW X1 and Volvo XC40.
We convene on the southern shore of Lake Como, where Alessandro Volta invented the first battery. The location is deliberate: the Tonale only comes as a petrol-electric hybrid (160hp and CO2 from 130g/km), with a plug-in hybrid (275hp and 35g/km) due in December.
Taking the stage, bullish CEO Jean-Philippe Imparato calls it the first step in Alfa Romeo’s plan to be fully electric and CO2-neutral by 2027.
Thankfully, despite the inherent boxiness of an SUV, the Tonale still looks like an authentic Alfa Romeo. Its styling has hardly changed from the 2019 Tonale concept car, with plenty of knowing nods to the marque’s illustrious past.
The triple LED running lights? Inspired by the Brera and SZ. That full-width rear light bar? A hat-tip to the 164. The gorgeous 20-inch Teledial alloys are a must-have option.
Inside, the Tonale will seat five adults and has a bigger-than-average 500-litre boot. The entry-level Ti version (likely to cost from £35,000) comes with navigation, parking sensors, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, a reversing camera and a powered tailgate. Upgrading to the sportier Veloce adds red Brembo brake callipers, Alcantara trim and aluminium shift paddles, while the top-spec Speciale I drove features adaptive dampers and those 20-inch wheels.
You’ll find some rather hard, shiny plastics dotted around the Tonale’s cabin, but the trad Alfa Romeo hooded instrument binnacle looks great, particularly if you select the retro Veglia-style digital dials.
The 10.25-inch touchscreen has crisp graphics and is intuitive to use, or you can summon Amazon Alexa via voice control. Other smart touches include subtle ambient lighting and a 14-speaker Harman Kardon audio system.
Jeep of faith
Our test-route includes fantastic switchback roads that criss-cross the hills above Lake Como. In terms of how the Tonale drives, though, prepare to manage your expectations. Lest we forget, this is a hybrid SUV that shares much of its hardware with the Jeep Compass.
Its key character trait is refinement, helped by the smooth 1.5-litre engine and silent, electric-only running at low speeds. The ride feels a little fidgety, but certainly not uncomfortable.
Twist the DNA dial to D-for-Dynamic mode and the Tonale comes alive a little. Its steering is quick and accurate, the brakes feel progressive (not a given with hybrids and EVs) and the chassis does a good job of quashing body-roll.
The dual-clutch gearbox is also nicer to use than the droning CVTs employed by Toyota and Lexus, although it can get flustered when you need a snappy downshift or two.
A new Alfa era
Damning it with faint praise, the Tonale has more character than the majority of mid-size SUVs. It looks distinctive, drives with a modicum of flair and has the technology and car-park kudos to challenge the premium brands. The tax-dodging plug-in hybrid should be popular with company car drivers, too.
Let’s hope the Tonale does for Alfa Romeo what the Cayenne did for Porsche, bankrolling more cars that truly do its badge justice.
Tim Pitt writes for Motoring Research
PRICE: From £35,000 (est.)
TOP SPEED: 130mph
FUEL ECONOMY: 44.8-49.6mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS: 130-144g/km