Road test 2023 Alfa Romeo Tonale 160 Hybrid Type 965
Alfa’s crucial new Tonale is now on UK roads in right-hand drive. We head to Yorkshire to discover just how well it drives.
Story by Chris Rees
Images by Alfa Romeo
Toned & Honed
Ever since the demise of the Giulietta and 4C, Alfa Romeo has been a two-model marque, with just Giulia and Stelvio holding the fort. For a brand with BMW-rivalling aspirations, that’s frankly a shocking scenario, covering just 15% of the total market. But things are about to change, big time. The arrival of the new Tonale instantly pushes Alfa’s market coverage up to 40%, while the even more compact Peugeot 2008-based B-SUV of 2024 (Alfa’s first full-electric car), will raise it to 70%.
Another thing is that Alfa’s principal market is currently males aged over 50. The Tonale shifts the balance to 60/40 male/female and the age range down to 30-50. Considering that just 1574 Alfas were registered in the UK last year, the fact that over 13,000 ‘handraisers’ have expressed an interest in the Tonale in the UK is very encouraging.
The handling feels sporty right from the off, at least by SUV standards. The steering ratio is ultra-fast and feels very direct
British buyers have just two trim levels to choose from: Ti at £39,995 and Veloce at £42,495 (plus a limited Speciale launch edition). The entry-level Ti gets 18-inch diamond-cut alloys, gloss-black bodykit, black mirror caps, black cloth upholstery and leather steering wheel. The Veloce adds dark-coloured body details, privacy glass, 19-inch alloys, red callipers, electronic damping, aluminium pedals, gearshift paddles and Alcantara upholstery. Only six colours are on offer: white, red, black, blue, green and grey.
The encouraging level of customer interest surely has a lot to do with how superb the Tonale looks. In Yorkshire to test the right-hand drive Tonale, I can tell you it makes a great impression – very pretty by SUV standards, thanks to the plethora of traditional Alfa tropes to delight you. As well as the centre V-grille and trilobo, the ‘GT Line’ waistline curve adds a subtle nod to the 105 GT coupe, while the kinked rear screen echoes the 147. Even more striking is the SZ-inspired ‘3+3’ triple headlight theme, cleverly duplicated at the rear. The full-LED adaptive matrix headlights have been developed in conjunction with Marelli, providing daylight running, indicators and a ‘welcome and goodbye’ light show.
Stepping inside, my instant reaction is delight. The impression of high quality throughout shines forth, thanks to high-end materials like soft-touch plastics and bits of real metal (including – hooray – a physical audio volume knob). There’s plenty of space inside, both front and rear. The latter can fit six-footers, while large door apertures ease getting in and out; the only issue is that scratchy plastic abounds in the back, but that applies to pretty much every new car these days. The boot is generous (500 litres) and has a split-level floor, even if the load lip is a long way off the ground (par for the course for SUVs, sadly).
Behind the three-spoke steering wheel sits a twin-hooded binnacle that houses an all-digital TFT screen in place of analogue gauges. Measuring 12.3 inches across, it’s the biggest screen in its class, giving you the choice of three different styles: Heritage (classic), Evolved (modern) and Relaxed (night driving). The centre of the dashboard houses a nice 10.25-inch touchscreen that’s fully configurable – choose between technical gauges or sat nav, for instance, while Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Amazon Alexa are all included.
OK, it’s time to press the start button and head off for my first drive on UK roads (I’m not going to count a quick hoof up the hill at Goodwood back in June). The only power option at launch in the UK is the Hybrid 160 (in other markets it’s offered in Hybrid 130, diesel and pure petrol forms). There’s a 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine mated to a small 48-volt electric motor (15kW of power and 55Nm of torque), providing 160hp of power in total.
If you’re really gentle with the throttle, the Tonale can travel in electric-only mode, which Alfa weirdly calls ‘e- Creeping’. That kind of hints at the fact that the Hybrid isn’t a ‘pukka’ hybrid. While it’s capable of travelling in electric-only mode for very short distances, in practice it only does so downhill – as soon as you hit level ground, the petrol engine kicks in.
In raw terms, performance is decent, if not exceptional (0-62mph takes 8.8 seconds). However, I’m surprised by just how sluggish the throttle response is. Even when you turn the DNA rotary dial to Dynamic mode, it doesn’t feel especially sharp – almost like there’s a rubber band delaying the reaction. For a hybrid whose electric motor should really be filling in torque gaps and sharpening response times, it feels like a missed opportunity. It’s the same with the gearbox. The seven-speed auto transmission is a dual-clutch unit but you’d never guess it from how long it takes to respond. Switching to manual mode does slightly improve things. By the way, you use the gear lever to change manually on the Ti, while the Veloce has aluminium paddle shifters behind the steering wheel (which feel superb, incidentally). The frantic gearbox doesn’t help refinement, either. But I have no qualms about the Tonale’s excellent brake-by-wire brakes with four-piston Brembo callipers.
What about the handling, which Alfa claims is best-in- class? The feel right from the off is sporty, at least by SUV standards. The steering ratio is ultra-fast and feels very direct – so much so, in fact, that some drivers might even find it a bit nervous. Me? I love its directness, even if I’d like a touch less lightness. Body roll is very well contained, which is impressive for a platform that’s now quite old (it’s evolution of the Fiat 500X/Jeep Compass chassis). Thank the wide track, extra stiffness, low weight, and unique suspension, steering and electronic systems for that. You can really feel the 50/50 weight distribution, too, and the grip from the front-wheel drive chassis is excellent, even on sodden Yorkshire roads.
The ride quality depends on which model you opt for, and I think that’s mostly to do with wheel/tyre specification. Alfa’s traditional five-hole teledial wheel design gets a fresh look and I’m delighted to say that the look – so close to the original concept car’s – is great whatever size you have (18, 19 or 20 inches). Personally, I think the Tonale works best on 18s. The difference between the Ti (235/50 R18 tyres) and the Veloce (235/45 R19) may not sound like much, but the ride feels more resolved on the Ti. Of course, that may also have something to do with the different suspension. The Veloce has variable dampers but here’s the thing: even in the softer setting, ride comfort doesn’t feel as good as in the Ti, which sticks with fixed-rate dampers. The Ti’s handling seems to be slightly better resolved, too, so it’d be my choice.
Whatever your view of SUVs – and personally, I’d have much preferred to be reporting on the Giulia Wagon than the Tonale – frankly Alfa Romeo has been in desperate need of a compact SUV for years. When you learn that one in four new cars sold is a medium SUV (and more like one in two for all sizes of SUV), this conclusion is both stark and inescapable. Is it a car to excite and enthuse Alfisti? Not really. But it will undoubtedly bring new buyers to the marque, just like the MiTo and Giulietta did before it. And that means a more prosperous brand that can afford to develop models that we’ll love better – and Alfa is promising one new model every year for the next 10 years. Viewed in that light, the Tonale is not just to be welcomed but actively celebrated.
The most exciting Tonale is yet to come. The range-topping Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV) Q4 version will offer all-wheel drive and a power output of 275hp, courtesy of a 1.3-litre MultiAir turbo engine driving the front wheels, plus an electric motor driving the rears. It’ll do 0-62mph in 6.2 seconds and travel up to 37 miles in EV mode. Expect prices to start at around £50,000 when it goes on sale in 2023.
TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS 2023 Alfa Romeo Tonale 160 Hybrid
- ENGINE: 1469cc 4-cyl petrol hybrid
- COMPRESSION RATIO: 12.5:1
- MAX POWER: 160hp at 5750rpm
- MAX TORQUE: 240Nm at 1500rpm
- BATTERY CAPACITY: 0.77kWh
- GEARBOX: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, FWD
- BRAKES: 330 x 28mm (front), 278 x 12mm (rear)
- SUSPENSION: MacPherson struts front and rear
- DIMENSIONS: 4528mm (L), 2082mm (W), 1601mm (H)
- WEIGHT: 1600kg
- MAX SPEED: 130mph
- 0-62MPH: 8.8sec
- FUEL CONSUMPTION: 45.3-49.6mpg
- CO2 EMISSIONS: 130-142g/km
- PRICE: £39,995 (Ti), £42,495 (Veloce)