The verdict: Stylish, luxurious, and excellent to drive, Alfa Romeo has successfully created with the Tonale an entry-level SUV with more mass appeal to get new buyers into its showrooms.
Versus the competition: The Tonale has more personality than any of its competitors, including the Lexus UX and Audi Q3, and a more luxurious (but not more spacious) interior and spunky driving performance that’s in keeping with the brand’s sporty image.
If we’re being perfectly honest here, there isn’t much difference in the way many compact luxury SUVs feel. Vehicles such as the Audi Q3, BMW X1, Land Rover Range Rover Evoque and Lexus UX are all largely woven from the same cloth: Take a front-wheel-drive car platform, beef it up a bit, give it a tall body with tidy proportions, and wrap it in brand-specific styling that varies from mundane to quirky. They all tend to be easy-driving, not-too-sporty, highly approachable entry-level models that are meant to bring people into the brand and lock them in for life down a path of larger (and increasingly expensive) models as a customer moves through various stages of affluence. But missing from this list of brands, at least in the U.S., has been anything Italian — until now.
The newest member of the Alfa Romeo family is this, the 2024 Tonale. That’s “toe-nah-lay,” not “toenail” (c’mon, people). It comes to us via Italy through the Stellantis pantheon of brands, which includes more than a dozen global nameplates and includes everything that used to be part of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles as well as a number of others that might surprise you (French Citroen, British Vauxhall, German Opel).
The Tonale is notable for a few reasons: It’s a small, front-drive compact crossover that’s been on sale in Europe for less than a year now but is just arriving on our shores. It shares a lot of its underbits with the new Dodge Hornet and even the Jeep Compass. Second, it will only be offered here in one version: an all-wheel-drive plug-in hybrid, making it also the first Alfa Romeo to feature a plug. It can supposedly drive more than 30 miles on all-electric power before its tiny turbocharged gas engine kicks in.
Unlike a lot of Alfa Romeo’s products, this one has a slightly different focus, according to the company. It’s aimed at drawing in women buyers — and that’s reflected in the choices the brand has made regarding how the Tonale drives. It’s not a super sports machine like the Giulia sedan or the Stelvio SUV, nor the hairy-edge-of-sports-car-life like the now-discontinued 4C coupe. It’s a softer, friendlier Alfa Romeo meant to stand out in a crowded field with its Italian style, swank interior fittings and reasonable price.
I recently spent a long weekend with a European-spec Tonale while vacationing in the north of Italy, a happy coincidence that allowed me to get some extended seat time in Alfa’s new entry-level crossover.
The Italian Importance of Style
Spending any amount of time in Italy will very clearly impress upon you the role that style plays in the daily life of Italians. From clothes to coffeemakers and yes, cars, all of it seems to simply need to look good, and this latest Alfa Romeo is no exception; the three-element headlights flanking the traditional triangular Alfa Romeo grille work nicely on the Tonale, and the smooth body lines extending to the slim taillights all look sleek, clean and sculpted. It’s a different look than other Alfas, which tend to have a more masculine, muscular, powerful look, but it’s still oozing distinctive style. And unlike some luxury brands that apparently only want to offer cars in grayscale tones, you can get some wild paint colors on the Tonale, such as my test car’s Verde Fangio metallic color that turned heads even on the Tonale’s home turf.
That style-setting carries over into the interior, with a cabin that feels upscale, luxurious and well done despite some obvious parts-sharing with other Stellantis group products. The word in here is “distinctive,” in a good way: From the analog-style digital gauges in front of you to the faux suede and leather-trimmed seats with attractive stitching, the Tonale’s interior feels far more interesting and stylish than anything German or Japanese. The latest Lexus models don’t feel that different from the latest Toyotas on which they’re based; the same can be said for Audis that feel like Volkswagens. But the Tonale does things a little differently right down to how the switches for the windshield wipers work to the retention of actual buttons and switches for climate controls and other functions. Everything feels upscale and solid without any squeaks, rattles or shimmies that would suggest quality issues that have dogged Alfa Romeos in the past. Frankly, this might be the best-made Alfa Romeo I’ve ever experienced; it easily feels on par with its competition, and that alone is a monumental achievement.
Actually Feeling Like Luxury
Too many luxury brands are confusing “technology” with “luxury” — meaning many of them are going to a glass cabin full of touch-sensitive screens loaded with all manner of often useless or unnecessary features instead of focusing on materials and tactile feel. The Tonale doesn’t suffer from this, though it does have the requisite dashboard touchscreen. It’s a 10.25-inch touchscreen running the corporate Uconnect 5 multimedia system, which is one of the best infotainment systems on the market today. It’s squished into a slightly smaller-than-preferable area with this screen, but I’d rather have that than Lexus’ underwhelming multimedia system on the 12.3-inch touchscreen that’s available for the UX. But this also means that the Tonale’s touchscreen isn’t the dominant feature of the interior; you can instead focus on the sculpted dash, the round vents and the row of quality-feeling buttons.
The Tonale also feels different to sit in; the seats are on the small side (everything is on the small side, though, as this is very much a compact SUV), and they’re very, very firm, but still comfortable. The steering wheel is chunky, and the engine stop-start button is located there. My well-equipped Veloce trim level (the top of three trims that also include Sprint and Ti) also had flappy paddle shifters behind the steering wheel, but I still see no reason to ever use these things in any SUV.
Visibility out is decent if you’re looking forward or to the sides; rearward visibility isn’t great due to the sweep of the Tonale’s beltline and a smallish rear window that’s somewhat occluded by the backseat head restraints. The backseat isn’t a great place to spend much time, however, as foot- and legroom is scant — front-seat occupants will need to adjust their position in order to fit full-size adults in the second row, which isn’t uncommon for this class. A moonroof is optional, but my test car didn’t have one, and headroom was plentiful. Cargo room is also perfectly adequate for the segment. The Tonale is properly sized to compete with the rest of the field — not bigger, not smaller, just right.
Out on the Strada
U.S. versions have a plug-in hybrid powertrain that includes a turbocharged 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission, an electric motor and a 15.5-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. The electric motor is mounted to the rear axle and, combined with the turbo engine, produces a system 285 horsepower and 347 pounds-feet of torque. Alfa Romeo says it’s good for a 0-60 mph time of less than 6 seconds, and I believe it — the powertrain is punchy and quick, and I’m impressed with the mostly seamless integration of the electric motor’s power delivery with the conventional gas-engine system.
The powertrain is also rated to deliver more than 30 miles of all-electric driving range, according to Alfa Romeo, before the gas engine kicks on to keep the party going. My test vehicle didn’t have a full charge when I received it, and there was no opportunity to plug it in, so that range test will have to wait. But what charge I was able to build up (there’s an e-Save setting that uses the gas engine as a generator) allowed me to experience some brief all-electric driving. The drivetrain will stay in EV mode as much as possible even up steep grades or at higher speeds, but put your foot into the accelerator pedal and you’ll see the limits of the electric motor: The Tonale prefers to mix in the gas engine for performance purposes. However, motoring around town at lower speeds is easily done in quiet electric-only mode.
Once that little gas engine fires up, however, you start to experience another bit of Italianness. It sounds like a proper Italian Alfa Romeo, with an exhaust note and snarl quite unlike anything else in the class. The powertrain has personality, and it further enhances the uniqueness of the Tonale in a field full of lookalikes.
The Tonale’s steering is unusual when the SUV is in its Natural drive mode (the “DNA” selector lets you choose between “Dynamic” or sport mode, “Natural” or normal, or “Advanced Efficiency,” which keeps the Tonale in EV mode as much as possible). In Natural, the power steering is boosted way beyond what one would expect in an Alfa — there’s no on-center feel at all, and the thing feels like a video game. Slip into Dynamic and the feel returns, but the powertrain gets a little high-strung. It’s fun for brief forays through the mountain canyons but not something you’d use all the time.
The most notable thing about the way the Tonale performs is that it’s softer than most other Alfa Romeos I’ve driven, which is to be expected given where Alfa is aiming the Tonale. This is meant to be a more mass-market product that still has a healthy dose of Alfa’s signature style and swagger, something accessible that brings in new customers and doesn’t turn them off with extreme behavior or too-quirky attributes. In that regard, it succeeds beautifully and should bring in a host of new buyers. Alfa Romeo certainly plans on trying; it’s got a massive marketing campaign lined up to get the word out about the new model in the next few months.
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Priced to Appeal
While Alfa Romeo expects that a significant number of customers are going to opt for leasing, the price for purchasing a new ‘24 Tonale is attractive. It starts at $44,590 (all prices include a significant $1,595 destination charge) for a base Sprint trim. You move up to the Ti for $46,590 and top out in the Veloce for $49,090, not including some things like the moonroof, which cost extra even on the top trim. This is still quite competitive in the class, and I can’t say there’s anything that a top-spec Veloce lacks — even the base Sprint trim is well equipped (AWD is standard, for instance), and the only real differences between the trims are a few option packages and interior styling options.
The Tonale succeeds in being a shot of espresso in a world of boring decaf coffee. It offers buyers an option with verve and personality, something that’s stylish instead of mundane. Given there aren’t nearly as many Alfa Romeo showrooms as there are Lexus or Audi dealers in the U.S., you’re also likely to have something of a whiff of exclusivity, as well, if you opt for one; you won’t be seeing yourself coming and going on every street in your town, that’s for sure. If Alfa can nail the quality and reliability on this one, it’s cooked up a winner.
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