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By Charl Bosch

Motoring Journalist


Alfa Romeo Tonale plots a course aimed at silencing the critics

Long awaited "junior" Stelvio has the talents on paper, but lacks in one key area...


Stressing the importance of the Alfa Romeo Tonale for the second of Stellantis’ premium marques, the other being DS, comes as an all-too-familiar tune industry insiders, the media and the Alfisti are probably tired of hearing.

The difficulties that have plagued the marque for years are well known and seemingly no closer to being resolved, despite the products themselves being lauded dynamically and of course, emotionally.

Sound familiar?

Similarly, the Tonale has not had the easiest of roads since being shown as a concept at the Geneva Motor Show three years ago.

Delayed no less than three times for reasons ranging from the pandemic to the highly publicised underwhelming outputs of the engines by CEO Jean-Philippe Imparato, Alfa Romeo’s second SUV below the Stelvio officially launched in South Africa last week after bowing globally in February this year.

Alfa Romeo Tonale launch review South Africa
Although it rides on the same platform as the Jeep Compass, extensive updates have taken place underneath.

A model that plays in the lucrative premium compact C-SUV segment, the inherent challenges facing the Tonale not only come from its rivals, but, predictably the usual Alfa Romeo stigmas and why it should be avoided at all costs.

ALSO READ: Out at last: Alfa Romeo finally reveals eagerly awaited Tonale

Drop dead gorgeous to look at, an absolute riot to drive and dynamically gifted it might be, but ultimately blighted by after sales horrors, steep depreciation and an asking price beyond what many would view as logical are only a few obstacles the Tonale would need to dodge to be taken seriously.

And for the most part, the second Alfa Romeo to be named after a mountain pass after the Stelvio, showed its talents on a route that included the treacherous Bainskloof Pass and the less demanding but still testing Du Toitskloof Pass in the Cape.

It looks like an Alfa

But predictably there is the question of styling that an Alfa Romeo simply cannot be find wanting for. And, unsurprisingly, the Tonale doesn’t disappoint.

While based on the same Small Wide 4×4 LWB platform as the Jeep Compass, Alfa Romeo has incorporated several styling elements from past models, the most prominent being the 3+3 Adaptive LED headlights reminiscent of the rare SZ, the tele-dial alloy wheels ranging from 18 to 20-inches and what it calls the GT Line shoulder derived from the 1960s Giulia GT.

Alfa Romeo Tonale launch South Africa
Alluring 3+3 light arrangement a nod to the iconic SZ

Toned down comparatively little from the concept, the Tonale, which Alfa Romeo describes as the metamorphosis of the SUV, backs-ups its angular frontal appearance with a concave rear facia design characterised by a full-length LED light bar, the same 3+3 light arrangement and a wraparound rear window said to pay homage to the 8C Competizione.

The reference to historic models aesthetically, while likely to be dismissed by some hardcore Alfisti fans as PR jargon, doesn’t continue inside where memories of past Alfa Romeos disappear the moment the door opens.

Inside

Besides the steering wheel with the enticing aluminium gear shift paddles affixed to the column, the Tonale receives a cabin unique to it with very little being shared or derived from the Giulia and Stelvio.

Inviting and premium to the touch with little in the way of below-par materials despite the apparent cheap appearance of the diamond-pattern inlay on the dashboard, the layout is easy to get a hold of, as a result of the physical buttons and relatively simple workings of the freestanding 10.25-inch Uconnect infotainment system all models get as standard.

Alfa Romeo Tonale launch South Africa
Interior is simple in layout and look, but elegant, premium and packed with standard features.

In typical Alfa Romeo fashion, the body-hugging heated electric seats with lumbar support for the driver are supportive and in the case of the Speciale derivative sampled at launch, extremely well-equipped.

Part of a three model line-up, the Speciale sits between the entry-level Ti and the flagship Veloce, with all making use of the same powertrain, which, unfortunately rates as the biggest disappointment of the Tonale.

The drive

For now the sole option, despite the availability of a plug-in hybrid and turbodiesel in other markets, Alfa Romeo has fitted the Tonale with its new 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine paired to a 48-volt mild-hybrid system.

Hooked to a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, the setup produces a combined 118kW/240Nm directed to the front wheels only with the 0.8-kWh battery, driven by a 22 kW electric motor, producing 15kW/55Nm for short spells.

Said to propel the Tonale from 0-100 km/h in 8.8 seconds and on to a top speed of 210 km/h, the engine feels anything but spritely and needs to be revved hard to unlock any real potential.

Although progress remained smooth in the urban environment around Stellenbosch and Somerset-West in start/stop traffic on the launch route, delivery and feel on the pair of passes only improved with the DNA mode selector switched from Normal to Dynamic.

Alfa Romeo Tonale launch South Africa
DNA switch changes the Tonale’s personality dramatically

A literal switch in personality, the Tonale feels immediately different and capable of warranting more exploiting of its radically retuned dynamics.

Fitted not only with frequency selective dampers, but also torque vectoring as well as regenerative braking as per the hybrid hardware, Alfa Romeo has additionally reinforced the chassis, fitted an electronically locking front differential and retuned the steering.

The result is a relatively firm but acceptable ride in everyday use, that morphs into an Alfa Romeo in Dynamic mode with little body roll, poise, just enough grip and a beautifully communicative steering that is both sharp and accurate.

It is these aspects though that serves as the Tonale’s catch-22 as it needs to be driven with vigour to fully appreciate.

Conclusion

Despite the presence of the hybrid system with its efficiency minded propulsion systems such as e-Creeping, e-Parking, e-Queueing and e-Launch, all done on the electric motor, the Tonale feels capable of delivering more, as further evident by the transmission being more responsive and less prone to hunting in Dynamic mode than in Normal.

Perhaps an attribute of Alfa Romeo’s sporting past, the hard-hitting reality is that the Tonale’s final execution is blunted by its power unit that warrants for more and arguably deserves a few more ponies.

Alfa Romeo Tonale launch review South Africa
Speciale slots-in between the Ti and top-spec Veloce in the Tonale line-up.

The rest is more accomplished and although likely to be slammed for its asking price, it is worth noting all three models pack an extensive array of features and tech as standard that will require additional forking out on rival from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

That being said though, the Tonale is likely to remain a left-field offering that would’ve faired a better had its all-important heart been stronger.

Alfa Romeo Tonale launch review South Africa
Like the Stelvio, the Tonale takes its name from a mountain pass in Italy

It is, nonetheless, a welcome addition to the Alfa Romeo portfolio and one that will be keenly monitored as the brand continues to its fightback in a way only it can.

Price

All models come standard with a five-year/100 000 km warranty and maintenance plan

  • Tonale Ti – R739 900
  • Tonale Speciale – R799 900
  • Tonale Veloce – R819 900

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