Alfa Romeo’s latest last chance has arrived.
The arrival of a new mass-market Alfa Romeo is always an important event, and the Tonale CUV arrives with heavy responsibilities upon its evocatively styled shoulders. Nearly three years have passed since the Tonale Concept showed its SZ-inspired face at the last Geneva Salon of the decade. I had been deeply impressed by Fiat’s Centoventi concept, unveiled at the same venue, but the Tonale seemed like a needless distraction; no certainty of production in the post-Marchionne paralysis, very little technical information other than that it would be electric, or at least electrified. The video presentation was fabulously impressive, the red show car rather less convincing.
My comment on DTW at the time was: “The designers use the Alfa ‘vocabulary’ of detailing with impressive articulacy, but it’s lipstick on plump, old-style small SUV proportions. VW Group, Opel, PSA, and even Ssangyong have used clever devices such as ‘floating’ roofs and side scalloping to reduce the apparent height and narrowness of their latest generation of SUVs. Strip away the wallpaper, and the Tonale’s more 2009 than 2019.”
Moving along (virtually) to 8th February 2022 and the Alfa Romeo Museum in Arese. Under cover of darkness, two racing drivers, Valtteri Bottas and Guanyu Zhou, arrive in a sleek, high-end Giulia. Our genial host is Jean-Philippe Imparato, Alfa Romeo Brand CEO since January 2021. A theme of the presentation is the Alfa Tribe(1), from the F1 drivers, the engineers and designers, to the line workers at the renamed Stellantis Pomigliano plant, where Tonale production will commence on 4th June 2022.
Despite having spent his entire pre-Stellantis career with Peugeot, Imparato, a native of l’Hérault, has impressive Alfa Tribe credentials, proudly describing himself as “Alfa Romeo by birth.” His parents were dedicated Alfisti, the first family car of his childhood was a Tipo 105 Giulia, replaced by an Alfetta, and his wife’s first car was an Alfasud.
It has to be said the Imparato brought his irrepressible and infectious enthusiasm to the Tonale’s presentation, despite the design having been frozen prior to his involvement. Likewise, Alejandro Mesonero-Romanos, Alfa design chief since June 2021, who was happy to give fulsome praise for the “Essential Beauty” of the work of the Tonale’s designers under his predecessor, Klaus Busse. I wonder what he really thinks of the Tonale: he is credited with the design of the Cupra Formentor, possibly Volkswagen Group’s best-ever ‘Spanish Alfa Romeo’.
And so to the first model of the “new Alfa Romeo era.” The clue was in the clumsily multilingual presentation title ‘La Metamorfosi begins’. Yet another one? It’s not even seven years since the last commenced with the introduction of the Tipo 952 Giulia.
Just below the surface of the Tonale, there is plenty of evidence that the new Alfa Romeo era is actually a return to the pre-Giorgio(2) days, which started with the 155, built on the Fiat Group Type Three platform and continued with the 2008 MiTo and 2010 Giulietta(3). The formula has been revived for the Tonale, with upgraded FCA Group platforms and powertrains, with Alfa-specific versions of group engines.
Aesthetics are something I usually leave to those at DTW better versed in the principles and argot of automotive design. I’ll briefly observe that production reality has coarsened the Tonale in comparison with the 2019 concept. The nose has been softened, possibly to comply with pedestrian protection regulations, so losing some of its affinity with Robert Opron’s brutal 1989 Mostro, better known as the SZ coupé. The flush door handles, with the rear pair elegantly concealed, have gone, replaced with a conventional arrangement similar to those used on the Stelvio.
Whereas the concept was a strict four-seater, so a CUV-coupe in character, the production car has three second-row places, to ensure it can compete on functional terms with its Qashqai-Class rivals.
Key Tonale dimensions are a 2,633mm wheelbase, 4,530mm overall length, 1,840mm width and 1,600 mm height. All are within millimetres of the mighty ‘qai, apart from the Tonale’s 105mm greater length, a bold departure which I hope has been put to good use.
Now, here’s a strange thing. Almost by accident, I found myself comparing the Tonale with the 2008 MiTo. Take a look at the A-pillar, mirror sail panel, bonnet, front wing and door shutline shapes and relationships. And then there’s the extraordinarily similar side DLO. Did someone dig out some old CAD files, or could there be an earlier design, now fashionably topped and tailed, at the core of the Tonale?
We are told that the unifying theme of the Tonale’s styling is something titled the GT-Line(4), inspired by several revered historic Alfas, most particularly Giugiaro’s GT Junior. This is a side-elevation feature line describing the waistline from the headlights to a tapering tail which, we are told,“defines attitude.” I will leave the reader to judge how effective this is on the production Tonale.
Should styling be such a concern? Between the front and back ends’ successful evocation of Alfa-ness there’s a core which already looks dated. Not before time, avant-garde style and marque individuality have arrived within the CUV segment and others, particularly those not carrying the baggage of marque tradition, are doing the ‘CUV-with-attitude’ rather better than Alfa Romeo has managed here.
According to reports from those who have seen pre-production Tonales, the interior story is a more positive one: it is rather self-consciously designer label-ish, but of visibly better quality than current Giulias and Stelvios. Another pleasing presentational matter is the use of traditional Alfa status signifiers; Super, Sprint, Ti and Veloce The first batch of production Tonales will all be in Edizione Speciale specification. Did they get that idea from Nissan?
At the presentation, much was made of the Tonale’s technology. This used to mean engines, gearboxes and suspension. Now it refers to infotainment, connectivity, driver assistance, and autonomous driving functions. After all, Imparato has told us that Stellantis’s mission is to be “a sustainable mobility technology company”. Isn’t that everybody’s mission these days?
We are told that the Tonale is the most technologically advanced car ever to carry the Biscione and is “the ultimate software machine”(5). At the moment, it certainly looks to be ahead of the C-segment crossover field, with the added attraction of some idiosyncratic Alfa flair, such as the Cannocchiale (telescope) instrument panel displays and every Tonale being provided with a unique NFT(6) containing build information and logging mileage, servicing records, and even battery charging history. Another delight is the ability to grant Amazon deliverers access to the luggage compartment, presumably also with the facility to track down the car.
It’s just possible that the more traditional observer of automotive progress at the La Metamorfosi presentation has by now blocked out the talk of unique NFT tokens, Cannocchiale displays and Amazon integration, but would still like to know what’s been done to the platform to create a driving experience which is “the most pleasurable in its category”. They might also wish to know more about how the powertrains have been developed to attain “mechanical nobleness(sic)”. And I for one really, really want to know about the “anti-mistake devices” which are being installed as part of the re-tooling at Pomigliano.
I’ll try to answer the first two questions at least:
Despite rumours of a transition to the PSA EMP2 platform, the Tonale turns out to be underpinned by the FCA Small Wide 4×4(7) component set, albeit in a ‘highly evolved’ form, with input from long-time Alfa suppliers Koni and Brembo, the former contributing to a remotely variable damping system controlled by the modern-day Alfa DNA mode selector system. There’s a certain amount of ‘nobleness’ in the rear suspension. No torsion beam here; instead a strut-based three-arm arrangement, with each side having a trailing longitudinal link and a pair of independently acting transverse links.
The powertrain story turns out to be rather interesting, although here, ‘nobleness’ is restricted to unique-to-Alfa upgrades of familiar but mainly recent FCA group engines. The big FireFly (Global Small Engine) news is the arrival of a new 1.5-litre four-cylinder version(8) producing 130 or 160PS, the higher figure being achieved using a variable-geometry turbocharger. As well as forced induction, the 1,496cc engines have direct injection and dual VVT, this last feature facilitating Miller-cycle operation, which works particularly effectively with hybrids.
The accompanying hybrid system is described as ‘mild’, but is a lot more sophisticated and powerful than the low-cost 12V systems which Volkswagen Group and Nissan offer. The Tonale’s has a 48V, 15kW, 55Nm motor driving a Getrag-supplied seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, with an impressive repertoire of silent starting, energy recovery, power boosting and electric-only modes. To the disappointment of locomotive footplatemen everywhere, manual gearboxes are not even an option on any Tonale.
The PHEV drivetrain is an evolved version of the system used in the Jeep Renegade and Compass, this time using an Alfa-specific version of the 1,332cc FireFly four producing a prodigious 178bhp. This engine drives the front wheels through a six-speed torque-converter gearbox, while a 121bhp electric traction motor drives the back pair, with a maximum combined output of 271bhp in all-wheel-drive mode, Q4 in Alfa-speak. Alfa Romeo claims a potential battery-only range of up to 37 miles. To sound a brief note of negativity, this version is reported to weigh a Superpesante 1,900kg.
Some international markets will have the option of a 130bhp Multi-Jet diesel paired with the six-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Rather more appealing is the 2.0-litre, 275 bhp turbocharged four-cylinder from the Termoli-built Global Medium Engine family, with a nine-speed ZF automatic transmission and a mechanical Q4 AWD system. This is destined only for the USA and Middle East, and some US versions will be downrated to 256bhp and provided with an engine stop-start system to comply with the super-ultra-low emissions 30 (SULEV 30) standard.
Despite suggestions that the powertrains have been rigorously tailored to Alfa Romeo’s needs, they turn out to be drawn entirely from the Fiat / Chrysler / Jeep parts bins, with other applications within the FCA side of Stellantis: there’s even talk of a parallel ‘Dodge Hornet’ for North America.
As for wider Stellantis integration, the Fiat platform and engines HAD to be used. If the Tonale had been re-worked on a Peugeot platform there would have been too little time left to make the project viable before the true ‘new Alfa Romeo era’, when it becomes a battery-electric only brand after 2027.
So, will the Tonale turn around Alfa’s fortunes? It’s entering a sector which generates huge sales numbers, but also has a multitude of competitors, some of them expertly honed and highly capable. The Tonale is conspicuously and idiosyncratically an Alfa Romeo from every angle inside and out, but the powertrains, chassis, and technology do look to be better than merely class-competitive.
For once, and contrary to the ‘Fiat Charter’, Alfa Romeo is not trumpeting wildly ambitious sales expectations. According to an outside source(9), suppliers have been told to plan for around 60,000 units per year(10). That’s about the same as its Lancia Ypsilon stablemate, an ageing car sold only in Italy. More tellingly, this is only 3,000 fewer than the total number of Giulias, Stelvios, and end-of-days Giuliettas sold in 2020.
Price is still the great unknown. Imparato tells us that the Tonale will “make premiumness(sic) inclusive”, which sounds like a trite re-expression of the ‘affordable premium’ mantra of the last decade, the aspiration of every carmaker who knew that they were not actually premium.
According to an interview in Automotive News, Alfa’s CEO envisages the Tonale’s European pricing matching that of the BMW X1, which starts at around £29,000 in the UK, albeit at a much more basic specification level than the Alfa Romeo. In many key markets, monthly leasing costs will be all that matters. It is to be hoped that the error of the Giulia is not repeated, where the total cost of buying and owning a challenger product turns out to be far higher than its established premium competitors. If the Tonale succeeds, it will have maintained the credibility of the Biscione for four to five years until the real Metamorfosi arrives, the late-decade(11) transition to the electric era.
(1) Does anybody else feel that evoking tribes is a rather tone-deaf marketing pitch, given the widespread rise of nationalistic, ethnic, political and religious divisions in recent times?
(2) The platform on which the Giulia and Stelvio are built.
(3) Hopefully history will judge the MiTo and Giulietta kindly. They put the Alfa mystique within the reach of far more customers than the Giorgio cars, and had a vastly more favourable sales to investment ratio. There’s talk of a sub-Tonale CUV in the near future. Imparato and Mesonero-Romanos are up for it, if Carlos Tavares will bankroll the idea.
(4) Confusingly, also a Kia, Peugeot and Renault equipment level designation.
(5) Where once BMW met the Canterbury Scene?
(6) A non-fungible token, apparently.
(7) The Small Wide 4×4 platform is shared with the Jeep Renegade and Compass, and the Fiat 500X. It is the largest and most versatile of the ‘Small’ family of platforms which originated with the GM/Fiat SCCS, used for the 2005 Grande Punto, and 2006 Corsa D.
(8) The lower-powered 1.5 litre FireFly has very recently made its debut in the new Tipo Hybrid.
(9) Automotive News 07/02/2022.
(10) Around one-fifth of the planned numbers for the Alfasud at the same factory 50 years ago, although actual production achieved was around half that capacity.
(11) Jean-Philippe Imparato is on record as saying that he expects that Alfa Romeo will only sell battery-electric vehicles after 2027.