We’re at the stage in the history of the automobile where it’s entirely possible to coast on an image that was created many decades before. With so many brands and nameplates artfully resurrected with little more than a badge and an ethos, what hope is there for long-established brands that have been in for the long run?
Alfa Romeo is one such brand. Founded in Milan in 1910, for decades it represented the quintessential Italian automobile company, creating cars that were as beautiful as they were powerful and arguably laid the foundations of the country’s enduring image as the progenitor of the sports car.
Despite creating some of the most beautiful production cars of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Alfa found itself punted between cash-strapped owners, together with a mutinous workforce and notorious quality-control issues. There was a substantial revival in the 1990s, when the stars aligned once more and Fiat ownership oversaw a rediscovery of the original Alfa mojo. Little cars like the Giulietta (including the continuation of the Cloverleaf performance badge) and the riotous Alfa Romeo 4C Spider blended good looks and dynamics with just the right amount of idiosyncrasy.
Cut to 2021 and the creation of Stellantis, the behemoth auto group that spans the globe. Alfa Romeo is now in this multinational stable, an outfit that relies on platform sharing and careful brand stewardship. Alfa went into this new arrangement with a strong line-up, including the brilliant Giulia Quadrifoglio and the Stelvio SUV.
Alfa Romeo Tonale
Now meet the Alfa Romeo Tonale, the Stelvio’s ‘baby’ sibling. Tapping into the seemingly limitless desire for smaller SUV-type models. At first glance, the essence of the company appears to be present and correct, from the pitched-forward stance to the familiar central grille, to the familiar five-hole ‘pepperpot’ style wheel designs.
However, the Tonale shares its underpinnings with a Jeep, a fact that would not merely have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago, but unconscionable, given the theoretical gulf that exists between the two companies. Like the Jeep Compass, the Tonale is a hybrid, albeit a mild one for now. With just a 1.5-litre engine on hand and 158bhp, it’s no effortless performer. In fact, it’s distinctly lacking in the marque’s trademark zest and the prominent wheel-mounted paddles for the auto gearbox look woefully over-optimistic.
The more passionate alfisti will be waiting for the more powerful plug-in hybrid model, due next year, to get their fix (as well as a proper EV-only range of around 50 miles). The Tonale’s interior makes a stronger showing, with the twin binnacle instrument panel harking back to Alfas past, comfortable seats, and familiar ergonomics with a good mix of screens and switches.
The Tonale retains Alfa’s slightly confusing 'DNA’ drive system, which switches between Dynamic, Normal and All-Weather. To get any kind of vivid response from the engine, you’ll need to keep it in D, but the normal setting delivers good, if not startling economy.
Alfa must be doing something right, for it is no longer considered the beautiful but sickly child of the European motor industry, having recently reached independent financial solvency. However, the dark art of staying in the black has been achieved through the only way many car companies know how: building SUVs. To say this goes against the grain of the Alfa ethos is something of an understatement. Here's hoping that an electrified future gives this much-loved brand a jolt.
Alfa Romeo Tonale Veloce, from £42,495
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Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.
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