Payne: Bite-size Tonale SUV is a meaty Alfa appetizer

Posted by Talbot Payne on May 18, 2023

Balocco, Italy — Heading downhill on Route SP338 though the Italian countryside, the road narrows to a single lane on the way to Bollengo, a ribbon of fast curves and 180-degree hairpins ahead. I floored my Alfa Romeo tester’s throttle and the steel stallion surged through the tree-lined curves.

I admired the classic Italian scenery in the crib of Lombardy province where Alfa was born 113 years ago. But I am not driving a classic, low-slung Alfa sports car.

I’m piloting a high-riding Tonale SUV aimed squarely at the U.S. market.

Yes, SUV. When it entered the U.S. luxury market in 2015, Alfa Romeo merged into America’s post-Great Recession sales race with one of its great sports cars, the 4C. Nimble, sexy, and deliciously loud, the two-seater introduced Italian personality to a sub-$100,000 U.S. performance market loaded with Hellcats, Shelbys, and Z06s. In 4C’s wake came the whip-quick Giulia sedan and Stelvio SUV.

But the times they are a-changin’. SUVs have crushed premium sedan sales, high-tech Tesla electric cars dominate luxe sales, and governments have drawn a big red target around the internal combustion engine for elimination. So for its latest act, the revered Italian brand is leading with an electrified, all-wheel-drive, tech-tastic, subcompact Tonale SUV.

Previewing a stream of pure EVs that will make the brand all-electric by 2027, Tonale, interestingly, is not battery-only like the concept Tonale teased back at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show. Instead, this car is produced in Italy alongside the plug-in hybrid Dodge Hornet with which it shares a platform.

I suspect Alfa will make its big EV statement with an all-new, gorgeous Giulia sedan sometime soon (perhaps based on the same all-electric, 800-volt, STLA platform as the wicked Dodge Charger Daytona SRT Banshee). It may even be built in the United States in order to take advantage of generous federal subsidies.

Giddyap. With 347 torque and AWD, the 2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale likes to play in the twisties of Italy.Giddyap. With 347 torque and AWD, the 2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale likes to play in the twisties of Italy.

But for now, Alfa needs to sell volume in multiple markets and earn electric tax credits to ward off nanny-state fines. So Tonale is aimed at the heart of a popular subcompact market that includes competitors like the BMW X1, Jaguar E-Pace, Volvo VC40, Mercedes GLA and Cadillac XT4.

Though half-electrified, the Tonale is hardly half-baked. This is a compelling entry.

It’s the best-looking SUV in segment. You had me at the five-hole, phone-dial wheels. Like BMW’s kidneys, Alfa’s Trilobo grille is recognizable but not garish. It’s graced everything from the 1955 Giulietta to the 4C, and Tonale gives it a 21st century interpretation with thin, triple-beam headlights framing the beak-like grille. It looks like a sparrow hawk cruising for prey.

Tonale flanks are toned, simple. Unlike the look-at-me Lexus NX, the Alfa (wrap it any of Italy’s national, red/white/green colors) knows it’s handsome. “It really looks good,” said Mrs. Payne at first sight.

The beauty is hardly skin deep.

The 2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale can be charged for 30 miles of battery-only power.The 2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale can be charged for 30 miles of battery-only power.

Tonale is the only plug-in hybrid in segment along with NX. That means that, under a loophole in federal law, the $44,590 plug-in is eligible for $7,500 tax credit if leased, giving it a huge sticker price advantage over its competitors. And, ahem, Alfa expects 80% of Tonales will be leased.

The plug-in powertrain also means best-in-class power with horsepower and torque numbers that put big brother Stelvio to shame. Exiting Alfa’s Proving Grounds into SP230 (SP stands for Stada Provinciali, aka, provincial road) north to Candelo, Tonale gulped highway as if shot out of a cannon. Thank the 15.5 kWh hour battery that brings seamless torque before the turbo-4 engine spools up.

I first experienced this concept on the E-Ray Corvette. Chevy engineers call it “torque-fill” (as if the 6.2-liter V-8 needs more low-end torque). Tonale’s mere 1.3-liter mill, on the other hand, is transformed by the additional e-torque. Compared to Tonale, the non-hybrid, 2.0-liter turbo-4 in, say, the Giulia Competition, takes all morning before the turbo wakes up.

The Alfa ute’s torque comes on, like — NOW!

But it’s understandable why Alfa didn’t go all-electric on Tonale as, say, Cadillac, did with its Lyriq EV.

In urban areas, the 2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale can be used on battery only.In urban areas, the 2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale can be used on battery only.

Cruising down SP143, I came across an electric Pininfarina Battista hypercar plugged into a roadside fast charger. I rolled up next to the $2.2 million rocket ship, its driver having a smoke while his steed recharged. Buongiorno! The sci-fi cyborg boasts other-worldly numbers: 1,880 horsepower; zero-60 mph in 1.76 seconds; 217 mph top speed. Incredible! But it wasn’t going anywhere until it charged its massive 120 kWh battery.

With a 13.5-gallon gas tank, Tonale can fill up (petrol costs  a stiff $7-a-gallon in Italy) in five minutes and be on its way. But the Alfa can also go all-electric when needed.

Further north, I entered the village of Candelo, which began a stretch of urban road that also ran through the city of Biella. Tonale can travel 30 miles on electrons alone and I’d reserved all of it with the press of the E-Save button on the console. Entering Candelo, I engaged battery power by rotating the Drive Mode selector to A (for Advanced Efficiency).

Candelo/Biella are not EV-only zones — yet. But the ban on gas-powered cars in European cities is coming. Milan will ban diesel cars from the city by the end of this year. Milan, Rome, London, Munich and Paris are already penalizing non-EVs. Expect American cities like New York, San Francisco, LA to follow — cities in states crucial to Alfa sales.

I motored through the towns on battery power alone, using all but 9 miles by the time I hit the SP338 twisties.

I rotated the dial to D (Dynamic) and the Alfa noticeably stiffened. Dynamic mode puts all systems on full alert: turbo-4 driving the front wheels, e-motor driving the rears, six-speed transmission, shocks. Andiamo!

The 2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale features an E-save button so that the driver can preserve the battery charge.

The 2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale features an E-save button so that the driver can preserve the battery charge.

The steering column bears the brand’s trademark bat-wing paddle-shifters, but they went unused thanks to the silky transmission — and all that torque at the end of my right leg. Tonale is not tuned as aggressively as the Hornet (which rivals the Mazda CX-30 in aggression) and falls short of the best-in-class BMW X1.

Of more interest to daily users is the SUV’s usable rear seat (Tonale claims best-in-class interior room) and significantly upgraded electronics. A remote Alfa app and wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto are standard, as are twin digital displays, adaptive cruise control and blind-spot assist.

The latter pair are must-haves, and on Italy’s narrow streets they came in handy time and again. Alfa has taen pains to improve its quality — “I don’t want to make any trade-offs on any items related to quality,” emphasized CEO Jean-Philippe Imparato at Tonale’s media launch here. Time will tell if Alfa can shrug that monkey off its back. It’s crucial to the brand’s success. But Tonale is instantly recognizable inside as well as out when you press the steering-wheel-based ON button. Just like the 4C.

And like 4C, I  took the Tonale on the test track at day’s end. It couldn’t hold a candle to the sports car’s electrifying handling around the Balocco Proving Ground. But with its electric motor, the SUV was more responsive than its stablemate exiting corners. Alfa hasn’t changed, and everything is changing.Next week: 2023 VinFast VF 8

2024 Alfa Tonale

Vehicle type: Front engine/rear electric motor, all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: $44,590 including $1,595 destination ($56,090 Veloce as tested)

Powerplant: 1.3-liter turbo-4 cylinder mated to 15.5 kWh lithium ion battery and rear electric motor

Power: 285 horsepower, 347 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.6 seconds; top speed, 125 mph

Weight: 4,140 pounds (est.)

Fuel economy: EPA est. NA (est. 26 mpg combined); 30 mile range on battery only

Report card

Highs: Alfa presence; waves of torque

Lows: Interior not on par with German competitors; handling lacks confidence of BMW X1

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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