Alfa Romeo Tonale Plug-in Hybrid UK first drive

01 Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV FD 2023 Lead driving front

Italian brand’s 276bhp plug-in hybrid crossover arrives in the UK. Does it impress more than the standard petrol?

‘Zero to zero’ is the slightly self-deprecating slogan that Alfa Romeo is using to promote the fact that it’s going from offering zero electrified cars in 2022 to selling only zero-emission EVs by 2027. The new Alfa Romeo Tonale Plug-in Hybrid is the first step on that road.

The Tonale PHEV’s powertrain is an upgraded version of the one in the Jeep Compass 4xe, with the same 177bhp turbocharged four-cylinder 1.3-litre petrol engine driving the front wheels through a six-speed automatic gearbox. The electric motor driving the rears is more powerful than the Jeep’s, at 121bhp.

The battery is bigger too, with a capacity of 15.5kWh (12kWh usable). That allows for an impressive 43-mile EV range, opening up the fleet market, in which Alfa Romeo hasn’t been able to play for a long time.

Much of what we’ve experienced in other Tonales is the same here, while PHEV-specific features include the ability to save or even charge the battery for a zero-emissions zone and a downhill coast function that holds 31mph and recharges the battery in the process (which works particularly well).

The rear suspension has been tuned to take the extra weight of the hybrid system, which contributes to a hefty total kerb weight of 1835kg.

Even so, Alfa talks up the Tonale PHEV as the sportiest model in its class. It certainly has a keen front end, plus quick steering that can catch you out with a combination of startling directness, lightness and lack of feedback. So while the Tonale may initially seem sporty, it doesn’t actually reward all that much.

The weight is just as detrimental to the Tonale’s sporty aspirations as the steering. Handling is a bit stodgy, and it’s hard to get a good flow through a series of bends, even with the DNA drive selector set to D (for Dynamic). On the Veloce, which gets adaptive dampers, that also firms up the suspension, but even then the Tonale struggles to control its weight over bumps and crests.

Ironically, considering the car’s positioning, the Tonale is at its best when you’re taking it easy. Even in N (for Natural, rather than Normal) mode, the suspension is firm, but it’s very nicely damped and not crashy, which actually makes it quite comfortable. It settles down on the motorway and its seats are remarkably comfortable.

The weight influences the drivetrain, too: this only really feels like a 276bhp car when you floor it in Dynamic mode. While the more powerful electric motor somewhat reduces the mid-range lethargy that hobbles the Compass 4xe, there’s still plenty of it in the Tonale, as if the software will only call up the motor at big right-foot inputs, rather than give you easy electric shove whenever it can.

The Tonale discourages enthusiastic driving in other, surprising ways. The brake pedal is very touchy, and if you brake slightly harder than you would in relaxed, day-to-day driving, it automatically puts the hazard lights on. And even on a road with no markings, the lane-keeping assistance is constantly pulling at the steering, and not always in the right direction either.

It’s less underwhelming in more rational areas. The interior is spacious, the controls are nicely laid out and clear and easy to use, the infotainment works well and there’s good visibility.

Alfa is also making a huge push on quality, and while that will mainly be borne out over a longer period, there’s an impressive solidity to the car and excellent fit and finish. Even so, the materials are a very mixed bag, ranging from (optional) soft leather and ultra-tactile shift paddles to some cheap plastics and coarse rubber surfaces.

It’s a funny kind of car, then, the Tonale PHEV. For all the talk about passion and driving dynamics, its main selling point will be its sensible appeal. And nothing shouts sensible appeal more than a low company-car tax band. All Tonale PHEVs bar the Speciale (due to its 20in wheels) are rated for an impressive 43 miles of EV range, which puts them in the 8% BIK band, whereas most rivals languish at 12%.

We’ve previously range-tested a Tonale PHEV and got just over 30 miles out of it in freezing temperatures, suggesting that high-30s ought to be achievable in more clement weather – an good result for the class.

PHEV SUVs are inevitably quite expensive, but with a starting price of £45,995 (for the Ti version) and decent equipment levels, the Tonale’s pricing is in line with that of the BMW X1 and Volvo XC40, and it’s looking reasonably competitive on finance as well.

In this new era, Alfa has found plenty of new rational qualities but seemingly left behind those for which we loved it in the first place. If it can strike a better balance between the two, it could yet become a serious player, although that’s not going to happen with this particular version of the Tonale.

Source: Autocar

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