This is the brand new Alfa Romeo Tonale | Top Gear
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This is the brand new Alfa Romeo Tonale

The new Alfa is a... mid-sized family crossover. And here's why it's hugely important

Published: 08 Feb 2022

The launch of any new Alfa Romeo triggers massive spikes of web-traffic eyeballs. And here's a new Alfa Romeo. Right, now we've got your attention… here's a new mid-size family crossover. A type of vehicle for which enthusiasm is in rather shorter supply. Still, it's a pretty one, and it's an Alfa.

You'll remember the Tonale concept car (three syllables, rhymes with finale) from the last time the Geneva show was a thing, back in 2019. The production version has the same name and its design has survived very much unscathed. Well, apart from the usual concept-to-showroom peripherals – smaller wheels, bigger lights and mirrors, actual windscreen wipers and doorhandles.

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In brief, it's the size of an Audi Q3 and comes with petrol and diesel front-drive, and a powerful PHEV with electric drive to the rear wheels, totalling 275bhp. Alfa is confident enough in the reliability to offer a five-year warranty on the Tonale, and eight years on the hybrid battery.

OK, but you might be wondering what Alfa Romeo is doing here. This is the company that once competed on a level with Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Bugatti. That invented the modern sports saloon, and endless pretty coupes. That provided flat-12 engines for Gordon Murray's winning Brabhams. And which gave rise to the Top Gear dictum that you're not a car enthusiast unless you've owned an Alfa.

Alfa Romeo Tonale

Everyone wants Alfa Romeo to thrive. But here we strike Alfa's stubborn problem. It has a wonderful sports saloon. It has the best-driving big crossover. But it can't shift them. Sales worldwide are swamped by the German equivalents. So Alfa has decided to go where the buyers are and build a mildly sporty crossover.

Why can't Alfa Romeo thrive by doing what history says it's good at – beautiful fast cars, rather than getting into this rather workaday part of the market? Let's ask the boss, Jean-Philippe Imparato. "I need stability. I must feed the profit of Alfa Romeo. I can't be out of the main big segments of the world. What are the biggest and fastest-growing segment? C-crossovers [that's Tonale-sized] and B-crossovers [the next size down]."

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In other words the Tonale is meant to offer Alfa a breathing space and steady the ship. At the moment Alfa sells too few cars to justify investment in the glorious future of high-powered sporty cars. Getting in the cash from crossovers is expedient. So the Tonale isn't the only compact-ish Alfa SUV coming our way. Imparato says that in 2024 there will be an Alfa available with a full-electric drivetrain or an engine. That car, he doesn't deny when I put it to him, is actually a B-crossover based on the Peugeot 2008's platform.

While this happens, Alfa also needs to expand its global footprint. That's why, says Imparato, it has engaged a Chinese F1 driver, Guanyu Zhou. He doesn't mention the multi-million personal purse Zhou brings, but is proud of the fact Alfa fields an F1 outfit for a fraction of the budget of the sharp-end works teams.

For the same reason Alfa has to be canny with its new-car development budget. Unlike bigger rival BMW, it can't afford to develop cars with multiple powertrain types. So, after that little 2024 crossover, which has a petrol option, all new Alfas will be electric. It's all-in. As he's said before, "you can't be half-pregnant". Alfa will be the first Stellantis brand to use the conglomerate's best platform, allowing up to 500 miles range, from 118kWh packs at 800V, and charging rates of 20 miles a minute. "Based on what we know now, after 2027 I'll sell only battery-electric cars." He reminds us Stellantis has 14 brands, so others of them can persist with engines.

"For Alfa Romeo it's electricoleggero (lightweight electric). It must be a substitution scenario, which means when you switch to EV you get the same level of range and charging rate, and the handling and the Alfa Romeo touch. Maintaining the Quadrifoglio umbrella provided I can get the right performance and handling. And, in parallel working on some few-off cars [limited editions] because we need to fulfil the dream."

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There will be five mainstream models: crossovers and then a saloon and a GTV. He says a Spider remains on his wish list, not his definitive plan. The Tonale can be converted to full-battery, by the way, if the market goes that way.

At the moment the Tonale has engines. It uses a heavily modified version of sister-brand Jeep's platform, with new suspension, engines, electrics, and more aluminium. Anyway, that Jeep was itself modified from the Giulietta, so there's Alfa way back in the gene pool. The top PHEV has a 1.3-litre MultiAir petrol engine for the front wheels and an electric motor for the back, giving a 6.2-second 0-62 time and a 40-mile electric range.

Imparato, who arrived at Alfa late in the Tonale's development, says he delayed it so as they could improve electric range and the handling – he drafted in the suspension team who did the Giulia GTA. Imparato adds: "We're working on a Quadrifoglio version of the Tonale but won't push the green button unless we can get the highest level of performance."

The other petrol versions are 48V hybrids with a 1.6 turbo engine running the Miller cycle (good for consumption in a hybrid) and DCT transmission. Unusually for mild hybrids they have an extra clutch between the engine and motor, so they can start and creep along in electric mode. Alfa claims it can match a diesel in economy. But just in case, there's also a 130bhp front-drive diesel. And, for the Americas and Middle East, a non-hybrid with mechanical rather than electric 4WD.

Go back to the 1970s, our fathers' and grandfathers' cars. They said 'I love Alfa but I have to buy two to make one'

In these times of crypto and blockchain, here's a unique digital innovation. Each Tonale has its own NFT. This stores all the build specs, and after that the data belongs to the buyer, who can choose to add service data, mileage, number of battery charges and more. This secure certification will almost certainly add to the car's secondhand value.

Because building reliability, shoring up the used values and lengthening the guarantee are absolutely critical to keeping down the ownership cost, bolstering confidence and keeping buyers coming back. Novelties for Alfa. Those same techniques will be ported over to the Giulia and Stelvio by the way.

Of course the Tonale misses nothing in driver-assist, as any decent 2022 car must. It's also fully connected, and runs a total of 22.5 inches of dash screen. The driver's section, shaded by twin portholes, can be set to look like a traditional set of 1970s Alfa gauges. And why not?

On the outside, there are references to some of the great Alfas of old, including the SZ Mostro's triple headlights, now with matrix LEDs, the trilobe grilles, a rear glazing line that just about recalls the 8C Competizione. And 'telephone-dial' wheels. Young people, you'll just have to go look up telephone dials.

A nice car then, part of a nice Alfa plan. Even so it would be neglectful not to press the boss about previous nice plans that went wrong. The low-sales problem right now isn't the fault of cars. They're good. What is the mysterious block to sales? "For me it's clearly identified. Go back to the 1970s, our fathers' and grandfathers' cars. They said 'I love Alfa but I have to buy two to make one'. This is the question. We weren't stable. You need 30 years to build a brand, six months to kill it. So Alfa must be stable and consistent. I will launch a car each and every year. I will convince customers you can rely on Alfa Romeo."

But this century his predecessors have promised several times that Alfa Romeo would sell three or four times more, and each time it promptly instead shrunk. "That's what I'm telling you. Don't commit on something you cannot deliver. Ever. You will see the added value of Tonale, and I will add brick after brick and we will see the result over the next three years. " He reminds me of his most recent job: he turned around Peugeot when he was boss there. The tools were quality, keeping prices firm and building margin per car. Weren't those things in place when the Stelvio and Giulia launched? "The intention was there. But conception is 10 per cent of the job, execution is 90 per cent of the job." I guess you just have to trust the guy.

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