2023 Alfa Romeo Tonale: The Brand's Smallest SUV Holds Promise

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It seems strange that a company in such obvious need to grow sales volume as Alfa Romeo has taken so long to enter one of the most popular parts of the premium market. The Italian brand’s first compact crossover, the Tonale, is nearly here—set to reach U.S. buyers early next year. Not wanting to wait until then to tell you what it’s like, we’ve driven the European version, which hits the streets in its home market later this year.

The Tonale sits on the same Stellantis Small Wide LWB platform that underpins the Jeep Compass. Getting our early preview meant experiencing it with a powertrain that almost certainly won’t come to America. While U.S.-bound versions of the Tonale will feature a 256-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, a nine-speed automatic, and standard all-wheel drive, Europeans get a weedier 130- or 160-hp turbocharged 1.5-liter inline-four paired with a 20-hp electric motor that, even in its most potent form, takes a claimed 8.8 seconds to reach 62 mph. It also sends torque exclusively through the front wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Both markets will also ultimately get a 272-hp plug-in hybrid that combines a 180-hp turbocharged 1.3-liter engine with a 121-hp electric motor powering the rear axle.

Alfa Romeo

But it was the 1.5-liter front-driver that we experienced in Italy, and we can confirm that U.S. buyers need not feel upset about being denied it. The engine operates on the Miller cycle and has a variable-geometry turbocharger to boost economy, but it still feels like a utility-grade powerplant with a harsh voice when pushed and limited enthusiasm for the upper reaches of its rev range. The cars we drove also had inconsistent throttle response and frequently hesitated when switching from electrical to combustion power. The dual-clutch gearbox lacked smarts in Drive and tended to thump when shifting under bigger accelerator inputs.

The good news from the U.S. perspective is that the rest of the car proved much better, giving plentiful hope for the quality of the ones that will cross the Atlantic.

Design is a definite highlight even by Alfa’s elevated standards of sartorial evidence. While many automakers have struggled to deliver elegant lines from the dinky dimensions of a compact crossover, the Tonale looks elegant and well proportioned. Overall length at 178.3 inches is just a tad longer than the Audi Q3 and BMW X1, and the basic form is closer to that of a hatchback than a boxy SUV. The triple-element headlights, wraparound rear glass, and Alfa’s traditional “phone-dial” wheels all look great.

Alfa Romeo

The Tonale’s cabin is a step beyond the plasticky interiors of the Stelvio and Giulia too. The trim feels of higher quality, with soft materials in the most high-touch areas and far more evidence of ergonomic thought. The Tonale gets digital instruments as standard, as well as a crisply rendered 10.3-inch infotainment touchscreen that runs Alfa’s new user interface, which works cleanly and intuitively. The system also supports wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and Alexa-driven voice commands that can be as broad as “play Seventies disco” or “navigate me to a good pizzeria.” Having both USB-A and USB-C ports front and rear is welcome.

Conventional switchgear includes physical buttons for the climate control, a definite plus, as well as a rotary controller for the driving modes. We also loved the large metal shift paddles that come with the plush Veloce trim. Subjective build quality was impressively high too, with squeaks and rattles conspicuously absent.

Alfa Romeo

Cabin space is good up front, with plenty of driving position adjustment, but is predictably tighter in the rear. The Tonale’s fashionable falling roofline limits back-seat headroom, and the equally trendy rising beltline makes it feel a little gloomy back there. Yet it’s adequate by the standards of this not especially spacious segment. Refinement also impressed, with the Tonale’s cabin staying hushed even at a rapid autostrada cruising pace.

Alfa has chosen a quick steering ratio to deliver sharp responses, with the electrically assisted rack’s 13.6:1 gearing giving the front end a keenness that feels more like that of a hot hatch than a compact SUV. The Tonale resists understeer impressively well, too, with the Pirelli P Zero tires finding plentiful adhesion and biting hard in tighter turns. Yet the electrically assisted steering seems to filter out almost all low-level feedback, and although the tires had lots of grip, there was little ability to adjust the Tonale’s cornering line by varying throttle input. The brake-by-wire system feels natural under harder use, less so in gentle applications, where there’s a slight response delay.

Alfa Romeo

The European Tonale’s suspension settings were also on the firm side of comfortable, even on generally smooth Italian roads. We drove cars fitted with passive dampers and the optional active dampers. The latter delivered crisper front-end responses, as well as a more compliant ride in their softer setting—the non-adjustable dampers were always stiff. In both cases, the cars we drove were riding on 20-inch wheels (the largest available)—smaller wheels likely would improve ride quality.

While the Tonale that comes to the U.S. will have a different engine and suspension tune, the basics seem positive—and the new car already feels like a higher-quality offering than either the Giulia or the Stelvio. Whether the U.S.-bound versions will be able to match the charisma of Alfa’s existing lineup is still a question; the European hybrid powertrain certainly felt some way short of special.

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Source: Reviews -


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