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Bellissimo! — Alfa Romeo’s well-priced hybrid Tonale has landed

Bellissimo! — Alfa Romeo’s well-priced hybrid Tonale has landed
The all new Alfa Romeo Tonale. (Photo: Stellantis)

After a drought of new products for Alfa Romeo SA, the hybrid Tonale SUV may just have its German competitors glancing nervously in their rear-view mirrors.

Between 2012-2020, Alfa Romeo experienced lean years on the local front. With few new products launched, the brand saw a worrying decline in the premium market. When looking at dismal annual numbers, there were times that us journos would mutter: “How on earth are they managing to survive here?”

With the German automakers dominating this market, it looked like Alfa was on its way out. The legendary brand, established in 1910, saw a decline not unique to South Africa. As far back as 1995, Alfa Romeo departed from the US market due to sharply declining sales, believed by analysts to do with ongoing quality problems and increased competition from European luxury brands.

A similar trend was seen in Europe, with Alfa Romeo continuously losing market share. There were various issues at the heart of the brand’s decline including the takeover of Alfa by Fiat in 2007, Alfa’s hard-to-shake reputation for body rusting and Italian motoring unions playing havoc with production.

In 2019, the ultimate buyer revolt saw only 5,000 Alfas registered on Italian home turf in the first six months of the year.

The following year, the world went into lockdown.

alfa 8C Competizione

The classic 8C Competizione. (Photo: Stellantis)

With factories closed for weeks on end, many industry pundits believed the brand that had created some of the most beautiful and exciting cars ever produced — the 2000 GT Veloce, the 8C Competizione, the Spider, the 33 Stradale, the Brera and Giulia — would not survive.

Then, in early 2021, a lifeline was thrown to the beleaguered Italian badge, with the birth of  Stellantis, a global conglomerate housing no fewer than 16 automakers including Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Fiat Abarth, Citroën, Jeep, Opel and Peugeot — all under one roof.

With Carlos Tavares captaining the ship as CEO, Stellantis has seen impressive global growth in the past 21 months. 

In early November, the conglomerate announced net revenues of €42.1-billion, up 29% compared to Q3 2021.

At the Paris Motor Show in October, Tavares told media that Alfa was looking better than it had in years. 

“Alfa is going very well… The business has been turned around and it is profitable. It is now in a position to fund its own future — it’s safe. The turnaround was done even before the launch of Tonale.”

Which gets me to the latest Alfa that I got to drive in the Cape last week. 

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The Tonale, named after a high northern Italian mountain pass, is exactly what the brand needs as a possible volume seller. First revealed as a concept at the Geneva Motor Show back in 2019, it was showcased as part of Alfa’s growing SUV family, beneath the larger and more powerful Stelvio. 

alfa tonale hybrid

The Tonale is Alfa Romeo’s first hybrid engine. (Photo: Stellantis)

At the press briefing last week, one got a sense of how important this new product is for the local Alfa Romeo brand. 

It finds itself jostling for attention in the highly competitive C-SUV (medium-sized) arena amongst the likes of the Audi Q3, the Merc GLA, the BMW X1, the Volvo XC40 and perhaps even the Range Rover Evoque.

When it comes to aesthetics, I’ve always had a soft spot for that British evocative damsel, but with the Tonale in the lineup, my head has definitely turned. Measuring 4,528mm in length, 1,841mm in width and standing 1,601mm tall — with its svelte curves, slim front and rear LEDs, and iconic grille and badging — the Tonale is a stunner.

alfa tonale badge

The Alfa Romeo badge takes centre stage on the top edge of the grille. (Photo: Stellantis)

Inside, there’s a sweet sense of harmony in its layout and a strong whiff of quality. 

The multifunction leather steering wheel takes centre stage with its all-aluminium gear shift paddles. (Hard plastic is often seen in this segment when it comes to paddles.) It’s easy to work out the tech via the 10.25-inch Uconnect infotainment system which all models get as standard. 

It’s a relief to see handy physical buttons, and I was particularly impressed by the body-hugging heated electric seats that feel like an ode to Alfa’s legendary driver-focused approach. 

alfa tonale cabin

The Tonale’s spacious cabin. (Photo: Stellantis)

When it comes to safety, the Tonale came out tops by scoring five stars during its rigorous Euro NCAP crash testing. Systems include stuff like: forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, traffic sign recognition, front and rear park sensors, a 360-degree camera, as well as six airbags.

On the engine front, the Tonale is available in a single 1.5-litre turbo petrol engine, offering  a respectable, but in no way mind-blowing, 118 KWs and 240 Nm. 

The kicker here is that the Tonale is a hybrid. 

“What?” red-blooded Alfa fans might splutter. “A silent Alfa? Have the Italians gone pianissimo?”

alfa tonale veloce

The Tonale Veloce’s 19-inch alloys with red-painted brake callipers. (Photo: Stellantis)

So, during its one-day Cape launch — once I’d settled into the driver’s seat, surveying the plush, well-specced cabin — I took a deep breath and pushed the Start button. Nothing. Just church-like silence. Like ghost mobiles, we exited the parking lot.

“Is an Alfa still an Alfa if it’s gagged?” I wondered.

However, the decision to introduce a hybrid drive in the Tonale is a direct reflection of these carbon-averse times we are living in, with all manufacturers having to push towards a “clean, carbon-zero” in the not-so-distant future. 

Up until the arrival of the Tonale, the petrol-thirsty Italian brand had offered nothing electrified, causing its fleet to post unacceptably high CO2 averages, according to the carbon emission cops.

Look, don’t get me wrong, hybrids have many merits — and in the Tonale, the system is impressive with its lightweight 11kg battery and 48V motor. Importantly, it offers handy frugality when driving in the city.

Relying solely on its hybrid engine, the system can get the car manoeuvring and crawling through low-speed traffic using zero fuel. 

Thankfully, to satisfy my need for thrills, there’s a handy dial with a choice of three drive modes — Dynamic, Natural and Advance Efficiency — and so, with a quick rotation, one can opt for the speedy option, whereby the petrol engine gives the battery a middle finger and we’re back into classic Alfa drive. 

And when it comes to its performance, it’s clear that the Tonale has been designed to make drivers smile, albeit that it could do with an extra 20 kilowatts to make one really grin.

Once one gets used to the dead-silent takeoff, the power delivery via its 7-speed auto gearbox is relatively smooth, despite there being at times a slight lag between gear changes when on the incline. 

In Dynamic Mode, the engine, shared by the Jeep Compass, also thankfully produces a reminiscent Alfa sound on acceleration. On Du Toits Kloof pass, the steering showed itself to be superbly direct, and there was almost zero body roll, courtesy of its effective, adjustable damping.

There are three trim levels in the Tonale line-up: the Tonale Ti, the Speciale and the top of the range Veloce. They are not vastly different in price and the list of standard features is extensive.

The top of the range Veloce gets that adaptive suspension system, aluminium paddle shifters, 19-inch alloys with red-painted brake callipers, as well as Alcantara upholstery. 

In the final analysis, the Tonale must be seen as a triumph for the Italians. 

With its drop-dead gorgeous looks, quality cabin, fair pricing and a marriage between efficiency and pleasure, Alfa’s latest child holds the iconic brand’s flag high. 

It’s worth mentioning that Alfa’s reputation has seen a total turnaround in the US since the Tonale’s launch — a 2022 J.D. Power Customer Satisfaction Index saw Alfa Romeo beat Porsche and Lexus to win top spot in the premium segment.

At the end of the day, I was left with that “special” Alfa feeling. 

It reminded me of the statement that Orazio Satta Puliga, (the head of Alfa’s design department during the postwar years), made in 1946: “The real essence of Alfa defies description… It can be compared to those irrational movements of the spirit that sometimes occur in man, and for which there is no logical explanation. We are in the realm of sensations, passions, things that have more to do with the heart than with the head.”

Pricing:

Tonale Ti: R739,900
Speciale: R799,900
Veloce: R819,900 DM

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