BY BRIAN BYRNE
ALFA Romeo has been in the doldrums in Ireland for a few years now, primarily because the Irish distribution was in the same becalmed state as has been the parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles operation.
Partly, too, because of a dearth of new models due to underinvestment in the famous Italian sporting brand.
The merging of FCA and PSA Peugeot-Citroen in 2021 established what is becoming a global automotive powerhouse as Stellantis.
Locally, the distribution for all Stellantis brands has been acquired by Gowan Auto, a highly invested subsidiary of the Irish family-owned Gowan Group.
The potential for positive change in Alfa Romeo fortunes was illustrated last week at the launch of the new Tonale compact SUV in Gowan Auto’s brand new HQ on the outskirts of Dublin.
With this car here there are now three Alfa models, the large Giulia saloon, the Stelvio mid-sized SUV being the biggest seller, and the Tonale launched in other markets last year.
The time I spent in a first drive with the Tonale brought out some very positive vibes. The car looks good, essential for a marque that has always depended as much on sexy styling as their proven expertise in engineering innovation.
The shield-shaped grille with the unmistakeable Alfa cross-and-serpent logo is flanked by some very high tech-looking lights, with the number-plate offset to the left just like the most successful Alfa model of modern decades, the 156 of the late 1990s.
While dubbed a crossover, the Tonale has very much a sporty hatchback style about it, the designers opting not to use any cues suggesting offroad aspirations. Inside, there are tilts back to traditional Alfa interiors, including a double binnacle shaping over the main instruments, which themselves are fully digitised and format-able in several traditional or modern styles.
The interior fittings and trim are very much at a premium level, and there’s a real sense of strength in everything you touch or hold. If there once was an iffy reputation about Alfa build quality, it won’t be found here.
The new Tonale comes with a choice of two petrol-based powertrains, and represents the first car in the brand to be electrified — and Stellantis is on record as saying that Alfa Romeo will be its first marque to be producing only battery-electric vehicles by 2027.
But for now, a 1.5 petrol with a 48v mild hybrid system and a fully plug-in hybrid based on a turbo 1.3 petrol are the options.
Both are automatic, with outputs of 160hp and 280hp respectively, the latter being AWD thanks to the electric motor on the rear axle.
The PHEV includes a 15.5kWh battery thats some 36pc bigger than that used in the Jeep Compass PHEV, to which the Tonale is closely related.
Initial impressions are of a car where the driver is very much catered for, with a well thought out driving position and good placing of all controls.
The seats are firm but seem comfortable and I’ll be interested to see how I fare on the kind of cross-Ireland journey that this car will encourage when I get it for a full evaluation.
There’s a sporty feel to the steering, and the car is said to have the very latest in driving assists on board across all versions. At launch there are two grades and a ‘Speciale’ version in the PHEV only.
While the sound of Alfas in action is rapidly changing from a sophisticated exhaust crackle to a powerful hum, there’s a promise of real Alfa Romeo driving feel even in the electric age.
It’s so good to see the brand back active again.