31 May 2024

An Alfa for the modern millennial, they say? Don't let that put you off

| James Coleman
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green Alfa Romeo SUV near a chainlink fence

Adding beauty to a demolished service station off the Pacific Highway. Photo: James Coleman.

The Alfa Romeo Tonale is designed with women in mind.

Every car marker does this, of course. It’s just the Italians (like with the iconic ‘beep, beep’ Barina ads and the instantly lamentable Nissan Tiida) have read the quiet bit out loud. They’ve openly said their latest little SUV will appeal to the more feminine, millennial side of society.

I’m not entirely sure what this means, but what I will say is that shortly after picking up my ‘Montreal Green’ version from the media-fleet warehouse in Marrickville, Sydney, I pulled over for a caffeine pitstop only to discover it was a vegan café and my vanilla latte contained milk freshly squeezed from an almond cow. The stars had truly aligned.

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Whatever, I’m actually very excited by the prospect of the Tonale. It’s my first Alfa. Which is like saying it’s my first girlfriend.

I’ve grown up being told what to expect, largely by the three old men on Top Gear who uttered until it became law, “You’re not a true petrolhead until you’ve owned an Alfa”. There must be something magical about them, apart from the smoke they sometimes give off.

The Tonale is not quite a 1960s Duetto Spider, and Sydney is also not the sun-kissed Amalfi Coast, but this’ll be good.

It’s also necessary for the brand.

Alfa sold a measly 716 cars in Australia last year, more than half of which were Tonales (they don’t specify how many buyers were women).

It’s said you should never meet your heroes because they’re bound to disappoint. Well, first impressions were not great.

Extra pretty. Photo: James Coleman.

It’s true the Tonale is one of the best-looking SUVs out there.

Alfa’s earlier models, the Stelvio SUV and Giulia sedan were lovely, but their faces lacked the outright verve of the older 159 and Brera models. That’s not an issue here: the angry headlights combine with curves and swells and those iconic ‘Teledial’ wheels to form a thing of undeniable beauty.

Inside had its pleasing moments too, like the ‘engine stop-start’ button on the steering wheel and the comfy seats with embossed Alfa badges. Boot space is impressive too. But then it goes a bit downhill.

Build quality is not an Italian strong point. For instance, some of the buttons sunk in like they were loose, and the indicator sounded like someone was in the dashboard, popping an empty plastic bottle.

Tonale (pronounced toh-nar-lee, not ‘toe-nail’) is Italian for ‘tonal’. Could have fooled me.

A sporty steering wheel. Photo: James Coleman.

Two ‘mild-hybrid’ models are available, starting from $49,900 for the Ti and rising to $56,400 for the sportier Veloce, with the two option packs of Technology and Lusso available.

Mine is a plug-in hybrid, which only comes in Veloce form and starts at $77,500. That’s a fair bit.

There’s a 1.3-litre turbocharged petrol engine mated to an electric motor and battery combo – good for 60 km of pure EV range, or 0-100 km/h in 6.2 seconds.

The interplay is seamless enough, to the point there were times I wasn’t sure which bits were actually making me move. And the ‘e-charge’ function can charge the battery while you’re driving along, so you may never need to plug it in. But put your foot down for more power and then down further, and there’s a stroppy roar from what sounds like a wood chipper under the bonnet. It’s hard to drive smoothly.

Alfa’s famous ‘DNA’ drive-mode dial is here, largely because the designers were so chuffed when they first came up with the acronym, they still smile warmly today when they think of it.

But even out of ‘Advanced Efficiency’ and ‘Normal’ and in the rortiest ‘Dynamic’ setting, the Tonale still felt numb.

The steering was too vague for my liking too, and they’ve somehow made a small SUV with the turning circle of a commuter train.

I could forgive the quality issues because Alfa was never about that. Stuff broke and stopped working, but you didn’t care because you were having so much fun. But this? That’s the whole package ruined.

It’s pronounced ‘toh-nar-lee‘. Photo: James Coleman.

So enough city. I fired up the wood chipper again and headed onto the Pacific Highway between Sydney and Newcastle, which is different from the Pacific Motorway in that it is far prettier and windier.

And within a few corners, there it was. Subtle at first, but definitely there. It’s hard to describe, except that the car begins to feel like an extension of your body. It flows. And you smile like an idiot.

It’s shrouded in cheap plastic, but yep, the Alfa heart still beats here.

Even more Alfa-like, when I returned to the city, all those things that had made me sad about my first Alfa experience suddenly weren’t so bad.

Whenever I indicated to the sound of the ‘Popcorn’ song or pressed a button I wasn’t sure would return from whence it came, I just shrugged and thought to myself, ‘Alfa things’.

I know this is coming from a 25-year-old who had an almond latte earlier (accidentally), but this makes the Tonale a proper Alfa. Flawed but fun.

‘Montreal Green’ is a $1990 option, but you’d do it. Photo: James Coleman.

2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale Veloce PHEV

  • $77,500 (plus driveaway costs)
  • 1.3-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder petrol engine, 90 kW electric motor, 15.5 kWh battery; 202 kW / 520 Nm total
  • 6-speed automatic, all-wheel drive (AWD)
  • 1.5 litres / 100 km claimed fuel consumption
  • 0-100 km/h in 6.2 seconds
  • 1811 kg
  • 5-star ANCAP safety rating

This car was provided for testing by Alfa Romeo Australia. Region has no commercial arrangement with Alfa Romeo Australia.

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