Alfa Romeo Tonale review: Can this hybrid SUV compete with premium rivals?

Alfa’s first compact SUV is also its first hybrid but how does it stack up against established models from BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Volvo?

The Alfa Romeo Tonale marks a new chapter for the Italian brand.

Not only is it the marque’s first compact SUV - expanding Alfa’s model line-up by 33% - but it also signifies the first step in a move towards electrification thanks to two hybrid powertrains.

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The Tonale isn’t exactly entering an easy field. In price, size and ambition, it’s up against models from all the usual premium brand suspects. The BMW X1, Audi Q3 and Mercedes GLA are the obvious bosses of the segment but there’s also the likes of the Volvo XC40 and Range Rover Evoque to consider.

So the Tonale isn’t going to have it easy but first impressions are that it offers something a little different from the pack that could just prove to be the success Alfa Romeo needs.

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Design and interior

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Alfa talks of the Tonale being a metamorphosis for the brand but you wouldn’t know that to look at it. The moment you see it, you know it’s an Alfa thanks to the famous triangular shield flanked by two sets of triple headlights that hark back to the Brera and beyond. Even from the side the shape of the headlights is enough to mark it out as an Alfa and the three-piece tail lights linked by a full-width light bar bring a distinctive touch to the otherwise slightly generic rear end. The overall effect is of a shrunken, sharpened Stelvio - which is no bad thing.

The interior is less Stelvio-lite, although the circular air vents are familiar and there’s a similar double-cowl instrument binnacle which here houses a fully digital display. A nicely textured dash panel runs behind the 10.25-inch touchscreen and its pattern is echoed in the upholstery of the sporty seats, finished in fabric, Alcantara or vegan “leather”. Materials are generally of the quality you’d expect at this price although there’s still the odd bit of bendy plastic if you go looking.

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The cabin isn’t the most spacious in the class. Leg, head and shoulder room feel tight compared to an Evoque or XC40 and while rear seat passengers are relatively well catered for it comes at the expense of those in front, where taller drivers will feel cramped. At least your luggage has plenty of space in the 500-litre boot.

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Engine and driving

The Tonale represents the start of a dramatic shift for Alfa Romeo as the brand famous for its howling V6 engines marches towards complete electrification. Its first EV will be with us in 2024 and three years later the entire range will be battery powered. The Tonale, however, is a gentle introduction to the idea of electric Alfas, launching with a mild hybrid four-pot before a plug-in hybrid variant arrives.

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Power comes from a turbocharged 1.5-litre petrol engine backed up by a 15kW electric motor. Unlike most mild hybrids, which simply provide a minimal torque boost to the running engine, the Tonale is capable of driving under purely electric power in some circumstances. The EV function is mostly used for low-speed manoeuvres and traffic jam crawling but can also kick in at higher-speed, low-demand cruising. It’s still no match for a “full” hybrid but feels more useful than the usual MHEV effort and offers claimed economy of up to 49.6mpg.

The Tonale’s 158bhp and 177lb ft doesn’t sound spectacular on paper but outside of town - where it can be a bit dithery - it’s actually remarkably sprightly. It responds well in any gear and gathers pace more willingly than its 8.8-second 0-62 time suggests, although you’ll need to be firm with the throttle to encourage it and ideally want to be in the “dynamic” drive mode.

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That dynamic mode sharpens the otherwise slightly dull throttle response, adds a little weight to the steering and reveals one of the Tonale’s key strengths - its handling. There’s a liveliness and directness to the Tonale’s behaviour that sets it apart from the staid and largely inert rivals. We’re not talking Giulia levels of engagement but there’s a pleasing weight and speed to the steering and on the open road the Tonale is more agile and fun than its competitors.

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Opt for the Veloce spec and you’ll get adaptive dampers that stiffen up in dynamic mode. These might work brilliantly on smooth European roads but here in Blighty you’ll be glad of the button that switches them to a softer mode. With or without the adaptive dampers the Tonale’s ride veers annoyingly between compliant and jittery, coping well with big bumps but struggling somewhat over smaller imperfections.

Price and spec

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Alfa is keeping the Tonale line-up simple, with just two regular trim levels to choose from - Ti and Veloce - plus a limited edition Special. Ti models start at £39,995 while Veloce is another £2,500. All versions are generously equipped with 18-inch alloys (teledials, naturally), a 10.25-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, wireless charging, dual-zone air conditioning, auto-dipping matrix LED headlights, a powered tailgate and adaptive cruise control.

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Veloce brings an added air of sportiness with 19-inch alloys, painted brake calipers, bespoke body kit and dark exterior trim. Metal pedals and massive metal shift paddles bring a sportier interior feeling, along with Alcantara upholstery, plus those adaptive dampers.

Verdict

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The Tonale is up against some very serious competition but does enough to warrant a closer look. Others might still have it beaten when it comes to interior design, space and quality but its lively driving characteristics, distinctive exterior design and generous specification make for an interesting new contender in a crowded segment.

Alfa Romeo Tonale Veloce

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Price: £42,495 (£43,145 as tested); Engine: 1.5-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol, mild hybrid; Power: 158bhp; Torque: 177lb ft; Transmission: Seven-speed automatic; Top speed: 132mph; 0-62mph: 8.8 seconds; Economy: 47.9mpg; CO2 emissions: 135g/km

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