2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale First Drive: A Stiletto In A Room Of Flats

Those of us who cover the auto industry from an optimistic perspective — that is, genuinely caring about helping shoppers find the right vehicle — tend to toss off the refrain, "There's a butt for every seat."

The 2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale, however, has me scratching my head. That's not to say I don't like it. I do. It's just... Well, remember when BMW and Mercedes invented "four-door coupes"? And took perfectly useful SUVs and then made them less useful by chopping off half the cargo area? Answers to questions no one was asking, but it worked, because they're BMW and Mercedes. The Tonale is Alfa Romeo's first new vehicle in the United States in five years, and it comes at a time when the brand is trying to capture more female buyers, younger buyers, and shoppers who plan to buy instead of lease. That's a lot to ask of any vehicle, and a lot of weight on the Tonale's swole shoulders.

The Alfa Romeo Tonale isn't nearly as dumb an idea as, say, an overpriced German SUV with half the cargo capacity sold alongside its full-size companion. It's not a dumb idea at all. It just faces an uphill battle in a saturated segment. But I enjoyed the time that it was my butt in the seat, even if it was an exercise in indulging stereotypes.

Fit and stylish

The Tonale was designed to appeal to women, Alfa Romeo insists, and it's truly lovely even if it's hard to divorce it from Alfa's masculine brand image — the racing heritage and all that. All of which is super cool — the automaker invited us to Italy, not only to drive the new car but for an intimate tour of the Alfa Romeo Museum, which is as much a retrospective of motorsports history and world history as it is Alfa Romeo history. Without communicating a clear connection to that heritage, the Tonale loses something; to harp on it, though, would likely alienate the target customer.

Yet we don't need to know the history of every notable Alfa Romeo race car to know that the Tonale's beauty is undeniable. Look at that Verde Fangio Metallic green — yes, we know "verde" means "green" but there's no color like it currently on the market unless you're going to commission a Porsche, in which case, you're unlikely to be looking at the Tonale anyway.

The Alfa cues are pleasing to the eye: the curvy grille flanked by two air intakes, the flower-petal wheels finished in a dark metallic charcoal, the "GT-Line," which Alfa Romeo designer Alessandro Maccolini described as a "long vigorous line from front to rear," swooping along the entire side of the vehicle. The Tonale isn't afraid to take up space and flex its muscle, and at least on the outside, the design is a success.

Can't win 'em all

The simple approach continues inside, with an approach Alfa designer Maccolini summed up thusly: "What do we need? Nothing more and nothing less."

The cabin is comfortable and spacious, front and rear, with what Alfa Romeo claims are best-in-class leg room and overall interior space. Everything looks nice; it's easy to reach the controls and the pedals. The seats are supportive regardless of the type of road. The standard 10.25-inch touchscreen display incorporates wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as wireless charging.

It's upscale, for sure. But Alfa Romeo may want to consider adding some interior options to appeal to the stated target demographic — a hot topic among the other women invited to this test drive. One of my co-drivers insisted women won't buy a car available only with a dark interior; another agreed the cabin misses the mark but that simply offering white leather won't address the issue. What can I say — we contain multitudes.

The black upholstery and surfaces were fine by me, but I couldn't help but notice that the closely related Dodge Hornet I drove earlier in the spring had more details and visual interest. The Tonale doesn't need carbon-fiber or excessive brushed aluminum trim, necessarily, but some colorful contrast stitching on the seats and dash would go a long way.

Redefining sportiness

The Alfa Romeo Tonale is not going to knock you off your feet with its performance, but then neither will any of its direct rivals. For that, you're looking not at BMWs but the BMW Ms, not the Mercedes-Benzes but the Mercedes-AMGs, and so on.

All three Tonale models — Sprint, Ti, and Veloce — get a 1.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine paired with a 90-kW electric motor on the rear axle. That yields a solid but not jaw-dropping 285 horsepower and 347 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed automatic with manual mode is standard across the lineup, and paddle shifters are optional on the Ti and standard on the Veloce. All-wheel drive is compulsory. For what it's worth, it seems like a smart decision on Alfa's part to avoid weighing down the Tonale with higher-performance versions. This crossover is built for comfort, not competition. Anyway, Alfa Romeo said, the Tonale's "skateboard" EV platform isn't designed to handle significantly more power without disturbing the weight distribution.

All the same, it's worth noting that Canada and Mexico will get a gas-only version of the Tonale alongside the PHEV; the United States will get gas-only and PHEV Dodge Hornet models. The Tonale in the U.S. is about using electrification for performance, not efficiency, though, according to Alfa Romeo. In other words, that torquey takeoff and 30-mile EV range — and the cheeky electrified version of the Alfa logo that appears near the charging port — are just for grins.

Slick and quick

The Tonale drives exactly like you probably expect. If you haven't driven a PHEV luxury crossover before, the extra zip from the motor might catch you off-guard the first few times you launch. Based on where Alfa Romeo is going with the Tonale — at least, where they say they're going with it — it's ambiguous whether or not you're supposed to notice the electrification. It's slick, it's quick, it stays planted whether you're navigating picturesque cobblestone streets or cautiously exploring the foothills of the Alps.

With the Tonale, and with the PHEV model of the Dodge Hornet (a new mainstream crossover that shares most of its design and engineering with the Tonale) Alfa Romeo, its parent company Stellantis, and its downmarket relatives (Dodge), are playing up performance as a reason for electrification, rather than necessarily improving gas mileage. That's totally fair. I drove the Dodge Hornet PHEV earlier this year and, like the Tonale, the electric aspect is a boost rather than a reason for being, especially since, unlike the Tonale, the Hornet comes in a gas-only version. 

Meanwhile, though these vehicles aren't at all competitors, they're more alike than not. If you like the Tonale but can't justify the price tag, the PHEV Hornet will likely scratch that itch, though with a corresponding downgrade in style. As auto reviewers, we're supposed to skirt over these connections — after all, they're not actually meant to be competing in the exact same segment — but it's also a disservice to shoppers to not acknowledge an advance in electrification or a more affordable version of it from within the same family, and it's clearer here than in many similar cases.

Like studying abroad in Milan

If you're shopping for a luxury crossover with PHEV flexibility, you have a ton of options. BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, Audi, Cadillac, Lincoln, and Jaguar all offer hybrid and PHEV alternatives to the Alfa Romeo Tonale — though that's without figuring in factors like pricing and performance, and then more practical considerations like EV-only range and cargo space. Alfa Romeo knows this, and also knows that most Tonale keyholders are likely to be lessees, at least to start. For what it's worth, Alfa knows what they're up against.

As we know, the Tonale was designed to appeal to women. Alfa Romeo might be a little fuzzy on the details — for example, citing just 10 models as direct competitors in the segment, whereas consumers don't necessarily know or care about that, especially when we're supposed to believe consumers, and women in particular, will buy it based on emotion rather than practicality.

Women love Italian things: shoes, leather, food, wine. This is a vehicle that coddles you and makes you comfortable and feels just exotic enough while still speaking English. None of this is snark. The Alfa Romeo Tonale does exactly what it's supposed to do, which is a win in this market. Want to stand out amongst a sea of contemporaries with a really pretty vehicle? The Tonale does that.

2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale Verdict

It's here where I start to wonder how much that Italian heritage will really resonate here — especially now that I've disembarked from my transatlantic flight. Yeah, I sang its praises several times in the previous paragraphs, I know.

The Tonale is wickedly seductive in its natural setting, but is it different enough from the Dodge Hornet? Is it $13,000 better for the base Tonale Sprint model compared to the base Hornet GT? (Probably, since the base Hornet isn't a plug-in hybrid.) These are hard questions to answer, especially since most of the other models that populate the luxury compact crossover segment don't have close downmarket relatives. If what you really want is the upscale look and feel, the mainstream version probably won't do. Especially if you're in Alfa Romeo's target audience.

On sale now, the 2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale starts at $42,995 for the base Sprint, the mid-range Ti costs $45,655, and the top-tier Veloce costs $49,695. All come with the same powertrain and the same performance specs, so the driving experience is largely the same, which is a point in the Tonale's favor in terms of value. 

The Ti and Veloce do offer a couple different interior combinations — all on the dark side, though — and the Veloce adds an active suspension system as its only real performance upgrade. Options such as larger wheels and ventilated seats vary by trim, but most desirable features do come standard. We women do love feeling like we got a deal, after all.