2023 Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV

HERNDON, Va. — Enzo Ferrari drove for Alfa Romeo in the early 1920s, and campaigned the company’s race cars — under his Scuderia Ferrari banner — in the decade immediately before World War II. Italian driver Tazio Nuvolari would pilot various Alfa Romeo Grand Prix and sports cars throughout the ‘30s, compiling a record of legendary wins for Alfa, Ferrari’s Scuderia and — not incidentally — himself.

Despite their history of winning in the present and racing toward the future, both Ferrari and Nuvolari would be hard-pressed to appreciate the Alfa Romeo Tonale and its plug-in hybrid drivetrain. Without giving too much away in this first paragraph, I’m with ‘em.

My own connection with Alfa Romeo is considerably more pedestrian than that of Enzo or Tazio. A fan of the company’s product and history since reading Ralph Stein’s Great Cars and the enthusiast pubs as — Road & Track, Car and Driver — as a teenager, Alfa sightings in either Lincoln, Neb., (which was home) or Hammond, Ind., were rare. Visits to the Chicago Auto Show, however, transformed the messaging into actual metal, and while Alfa remained a small, boutique player in the U.S., its lineup was an atypical assemblage of engineering, style and performance at an almost-accessible price point.

I effectively cemented my relationship with Alfa during brief periods of ownership, purchasing a ’74 Berlina new in ’76, and owning an ’82 Spider during the mid-‘80s.

Much more recently, Alfa Romeo has been rebuilding its lineup and, after a fashion, its U.S. dealer network. Both the Giulia sedan and Stelvio crossover have enjoyed moderate sales growth, and their Quadrifoglio upgrades offer a visceral take on performance rarely available on such practical platforms.

Into Alfa’s modest momentum comes a compact crossover dubbed Tonale, which marks — we’re told — “the brand’s metamorphosis. While remaining true to its DNA of noble Italian sportsmanship since 1910, Tonale is part of a radical evolution taking place at Alfa Romeo, which looks ahead to a new era of electrification and connectivity.” Uh. Huh.

Whether looking at the Tonale’s photography or in doing a walk-around, you gotta’ admit: this smallest Alfa is a looker. Despite bowing to crossover convention, the shape is softly organic, and with the iconic grille serving as the face of the brand you’ll never mistake the Tonale for Hyundai’s Tucson. Definitely a compact crossover, its target audience is urban, and is perfectly proportioned for underground parking at the condo, office building or Whole Foods.

That overall shape is made even more compelling in its optional Verde (Green) metallic. But then, the option is a $2,200 add to the window sticker, a figure that would buy a decent pre-owned Vespa or a credible Bianchi road bike.

If Verde (Green!) is great, the Tonale’s stance is disappointing, as its wheels and tires are undersized relative to the Tonale’s wheel openings; hell, a Jeep Compass has a more aggressive footprint than the Tonale. I’m hard-pressed to see the "DNA of Italian sportsmanship" when the crossover’s running shoes look like ballet slippers. Beef up the rubber and Alfa would have a much more dynamic first impression.

The reasonable exterior dimensions provide an easy, comfortable step-in. And once inside four adults are generously accommodated with — to this butt — a surprising amount of room. The front buckets seem overtly Germanic for an Alfa built in Italy, and the backseat is perhaps more flat than ideal, but in the context of a small footprint and excellent maneuverability you’ll be pleased at the space for a young family, or you and three workmates making a lunch run.

If driving, you’ll enjoy a perfectly proportioned steering wheel, legible instrumentation immediately in front of you, and a fairly intuitive infotainment screen to your right. Alfa locates its start/stop button at about 10 o’clock on that wheel, which is easy to locate if you’ve parked with the front wheels turned straight, less easy if the wheel is cocked. You’ll adjust, but the button is always easier to find if located in a fixed position on the dash. And the Tonale’s paddle shifters are on the column, which makes them harder to reach when making a turn.

The good news? I found the ride/handling balance what I’d hope it to be in a smallish Alfa crossover. Steering is direct, ride — while firm — is composed, and although there’s some lean when cornering aggressively, the amount of lean isn’t off-putting, and won’t reduce the ‘brio’. If putting that brio into your right foot, 60 will come up in less than six seconds, and if di Polizia will allow, you’ll reach 125 before overrunning the speedo; you won’t, of course, outrun the helicopters.

My disconnect is with the decision to bring only one drivetrain to these United States. I’m fully on board with a plug-in hybrid, as almost every OEM has some electrification strategy, and in the absence of a BEV — Alfa parent Stellantis has no battery electrics currently offered in the U.S. — a plug-in is a viable bridge.

The Dodge Hornet, the Tonale’s corporate cousin and production sibling, offers a 2.0 liter turbocharged four powering all wheels with 268 horsepower; that’s in addition to a 1.3 liter turbo hybrid plug-in identical to the Tonale’s. In contrast — and defying any and all logic when you consider that aforementioned Alfa DNA — Alfa gives us only one plug-in and its somewhat ill-mannered roadability.

The hybrid dynamic (or lack thereof) in the Alfa is similar to what I experienced in the Grand Cherokee 4xe plug-in…I liked the Jeep’s efficiency, but less enchanted by its operation. In its all-EV mode, good for 30+ miles, the Tonale is wonderful, providing the same smooth, seamless operation a battery-propelled EV delivers. But when running only on the 1.3 turbo, or transitioning in and out of hybrid mode, the Tonale’s drivetrain borders on coarse. That makes reasonable sense when spending around $28K for your transportation, but works decidedly less well when investing the Tonale’s $58K in "lifestyle."

The Artful Dodger is a fictional pickpocket created by Charles Dickens.  The execs at Alfa have repurposed the pickpocket in the Tonale plug-in. If in an Alfa showroom — assuming I can find one — I’m buying a similarly priced (or cheaper) Stelvio or Giulia. Or I’m heading to a Dodge showroom, grabbing a made-in-Italy Dodge Hornet (for under $40K) and saving roughly $15K.

From my bottom line, that seems more artful.

— David Boldt (MyCarData)