Alfa's littlest crossover becomes a plug-in hybrid with almost 300hp. But is it fun?
By Stephen Dobie / Thursday, 17 November 2022 / Loading comments
There won’t be an Alfa Romeo Tonale Quadrifoglio. It feels important to get that minor bombshell out the way, because it contextualises the car you’re about to read about. Alfa didn’t make the decision blithely, rather it’s done the sums and realised the badge is better kept for more enticing products further along its increasingly packed timeline. That next year happens to be the 100th anniversary of Quadrifoglio (making it nearly twice as old as M Division), and that a sporty SUV might not seem the most appropriate present with which to mark the occasion? That’s neither here nor there…
Would we want one anyway? On the immediate surface, this isn’t an Alfa for the ages. Nor the enthusiasts. It’s the company balancing its books in a big-selling segment to help fund making the Good Stuff again. ‘The Cayenne Model’, you might call it. And the presentation surrounding the car appears to confirm as much.
Mike Duff had a similar experience when he sampled the base, mild-hybrid Tonale elsewhere in Italy; engines and handling pegged much lower down the running order than tech and quality. “The Tonale is going to need more polish to become an Alfa Romeo you don’t need to make any excuses for” was his conclusion on driving the 158hp front-driven version. Perhaps that polish arrives through the socket of this 280hp AWD plug-in hybrid.
Polish is precisely what’s needed if Alfa Romeo is meet its rather ambitious goal: to be number one in reliability surveys the world over. It sounds like the beginnings of a crude joke, but CEO Jean-Philippe Imparato is deadly serious. He’s also deadly serious about the small matter of making money. He’s not moved here from elsewhere aboard the Stellantis mothership to excuse some loss-making models because they shine a spotlight to the brand. A new model brings profit, or Alfa won’t bother.
With over three-quarters of Tonale buyers already going for top specs, it’d make perfect sense if the majority also go for the more expensive (though currently unpriced) Plug-In Hybrid Q4. Especially given the business benefits of its piddly 26g/km of CO2 and some likely favourable monthly rates.
A 180hp 1.3-litre 4cyl turbo engine drives the front wheels through a six-speed automatic (and supplemented by a 44hp motor) while a 122hp electric motor powers the rears and provides regen for the 15.5kWh battery. Front and rear powertrain elements aren’t physically connected, so there’s no combined torque figure besides ‘more than 295lb ft’. It’ll hit 62mph in 6.2secs and the top speed is 128mph (or 84mph on battery power alone).
Less exciting is its 1,835kg DIN weight, up an astonishing 300 kilos on the regular MHEV Tonale. Still, we’re told that figure is split 53:47 front/rear (compared to the 59:41 of an unnamed key rival) while handling is kept in check by brake-based torque vectoring, activated as you notch up into Dynamic via Alfa’s familiar DNA mode dial. Hold it round at its stop and it’ll even loosen the stability control, while a button in the middle mimics Ferrari’s ‘bumpy road’ mode by pairing the softer damper setting with the harder powertrain. But you can’t mix and match the other way.
Nor would you want to; much like in a Ferrari, you’ll be pressing that button every time you remember it’s there. Alfa says this is one of the comfiest cars in its corner of the market – and that presentation even contains a slightly dizzying graph showing vertical acceleration of passengers from their seats to try and prove it – but its ride is as firm-edged as any rival I recall driving. Blame trying to keep this much mass in check while adorning your latest model with glitzy 20in alloys (which do look good, I’ll admit).
Much like the base Tonale, the steering is uncommonly eager and takes a few moments to adjust to. Luckily the chassis beneath is rather sorted, and you’ll soon relish the slight hyperactivity from the wheel as the rest of the car can evidently keep up. And with EV power filling any gaps in internally combusted torque, this is a much more helpful partner on urban roads than its milder hybrid sibling.
Pop the DNA mode in A (it’s now Advance Efficiency rather than All Weather) and the car will favour the rear motor for up to 50 miles of emission-free range, where it’s lovely and refined. N sees the car in full hybrid mode, slipping between engine and motor (or both) as it sees fit, while D keeps the engine constantly stoked up. Start using the delectable metal gearshift paddles and the responsibility for upchanges is all yours – bucking an industry trend of even hardy performance cars shifting on your behalf.
Those long, sculptured paddles are a good metaphor for the keenness that lies beneath, in fact, and a daily reminder that you’ve ignored the seemingly infinite German or Korean options in this class. Somewhat improbably, Alfa laid on its Balocco test track for some quick laps to prove the Tonale’s mettle, with a keenly driven (and stone-chipped to buggery) Giulia as our pace car with nothing as much as a light briefing beforehand. Never change, Italy.
The Tonale exhibits something akin to deft balance on track, too, but while it’s a quicker, more interesting car to drive than the MHEV – you’d hope so with another 122hp – it’s stymied by its extra flab when it comes to body roll and braking, the joyously patinated saloon car up ahead having a far simpler time in tighter turns. As per modern Alfas, the Tonale’s hazard lights flash under really hard stops, not to mention when the ESC cuts in (it’s never fully off…) as the car begins to slide and the systems intervene while I’m in the middle of doing so myself.
Yes, it will slide, but its various powertrain elements and safety systems are tying themselves in knots as it does so. This is – of course – a truly frivolous exercise in a hybrid crossover. Of more relevance is a coned chicane on Balocco’s longer straight resembling an elk test, one which reveals the Tonale to be well in control of its height and mass during sudden direction changes; always a fear associated with the dynamic trade-off of an SUV versus a regular hatch.
All told, it’s a likeable car, made all the better by an interior packed with quality and pragmatism but not at the expense of character. The classic twin binnacle dials remain, only now they’re digital and hugely customisable (I hope BMW is taking notes) with lavish nav or powertrain status displays on offer as well as some good old-fashioned instruments. What it isn’t – as we suspected from the off – is an Alfa for enthusiasts. But it probably is a plug-in hybrid SUV for enthusiasts. If such a thing isn’t the wildest contradiction you’ve read in a year ripe with them.
SPECIFICATION | 2023 ALFA ROMEO TONALE PLUG IN HYBRID Q4
Engine: 1332cc, in-line four turbo, plug-in hybrid
Transmission: six-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Torque: Min. 295lb ft
Top speed: 128mph
Weight: 1835kg (DIN)
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