- Car Reviews
- Alfa Romeo
What is it like to drive?
There are a few clues – right from the off – that this is a crossover that’s been set up to feel sporty rather than blend into the murmur and hubbub of life. Y’know, like vast swathes of its rivals.
The first thing you’ll notice, and perhaps not too positively in the first few miles, is just how light, ultra-direct and plain flighty its steering feels. This is what all modern Ferrari racks feel like and it’s easy to groan, assuming Alfa is trying far too hard to mimic its mates across in Maranello. The fix, oddly enough, is to turn the DNA dial up to its topmost Dynamic mode to inject more weight into it. The flightiness remains, but you’ve more confidence in turns and during low-speed manoeuvres.
You also get a much keener powertrain map – the car hanging onto low gears and barely bothering EV mode – to go with it. You’re unable to pick’n’mix the individual characteristics of the drive modes like you can in VW Group cars, for instance.
Which could be construed as wilful ignorance of the general class convention, one that’s actively making the car worse. But you’ll adjust. You’ll learn to derive smoothness from both the powertrain and steering in the early stages of your lease deal, we suspect. Particularly if you’ve chosen the Tonale specifically to have something that feels more dynamic than its countless, often anodyne rivals. Which is exactly the purpose it serves. And serves well.
Which hybrid do I want?
The base Tonale ain’t quick. Not least because the hybrid system can get a bit flustered at low speeds. By the time you've got going, some sharp-elbowed van driver has dodged into the gap ahead of you. Still, to be fair you'll have to look at length to find any affordable hybrid or PHEV that has an entirely intuitive powertrain.
Most hybrids get even less pleasant the harder you drive, but this Alfa is the opposite. Twist the mode selector into D and take control with the big (albeit optional) aluminium shift paddles and the view is far sunnier. There's still low-down turbo lag but you can predict it. Don't turn down the stereo: the 1.5-litre engine sounds inoffensive but not as inspiring as Alfa fours of old, and is better at lower revs than high.
By the same token the chassis gets better if you press on. It's a tallish car that takes 8.8 seconds to get from 0-62mph, so don't expect it to act like a hot hatch. But the steering gains weight at out-of-town speed, and its hasty reactions are backed up by pleasing accuracy. It’s not the revelation that both the Giulia and Stelvio were in their classes; this is a front-wheel-drive car, so some of their delicious balance is absent. But the Tonale is as good as a car in this class can realistically hope to drive. Perhaps a touch better.
And the plug-in version?
Well, the Tonale Q4 is 300kg heavier, both over its base car and the delectable, purely petrol Giulia saloon it shares its peak power with. So while it’s immediately the quicker and keener version of Alfa’s littler SUV – and more interesting thanks to being AWD – don’t expect it to feel the full 275bhp ticket, however swift its 6.2-second 0-62mph sprint suddenly looks.
Oddly enough, it uses a different engine to the base Tonale, an occasionally quite vocal 1.3-litre rather than a 1.5. Given other hybrids in the big Stellantis mothership use a 1.6, it’s all a bit discombobulating. Better to not think too much about the engine and learn how to extract the smoothest progress from the setup, which again isn’t the work of a moment.
Flick the DNA dial into A (it’s Advanced Efficiency these days, not All Weather) and the car will prioritise its rear electric motor for as many as 50 miles of emissions-free driving if you’re really careful. Despite just 120bhp to power 1.8 tonnes, it feels brisk enough for everyday life, though hills will be hard work.
Unless you’re driving solely in town, better to drive with the dial in N and let the electronic brain work out which powertrain mix is best. Even then, you’ll have to make a concerted stab of throttle just before an incline to outfox the powertrain’s response times. It’s not really a problem in D, though, when the car is much more assertive in its use of power. Amusingly enough, you can flick the dial one step further to loosen the stability control, something you can’t do that in other Stellantis PHEVS, nor any Giulia or Stelvio south of their Quadrifoglio performance halos. Odd.
Any other business?
The ride is on the acceptable side of firm. The base Tonale Ti sits on 18in alloys with fat sidewalls, while the Tonale Veloce (that two-thirds of you will actually buy) gets 19s but with an adaptive suspension setup that helps take the edge off those bigger wheels (not literally). While they both broadly drive the same, the Veloce is the only spec where you get paddleshifters. For those of us still enamoured with driving, it’s an obvious choice, the extra outlay each month bringing a few other goodies too.
The brakes use Alfa's 'integrated' system – you press the pedal and an electronic controller decides how hard to squeeze the pads. This helps the hybrid system harvest more regeneration in light touches of the pedal. It’s another dynamic facet that takes a touch of acclimatisation. This may be a new, slightly more rational Alfa Romeo, but the driving experience is still brimming with ‘character’. Both genuinely and euphemistically.