New Alfa Romeo! Bold, beautiful & electrified: the inside story of the Tonale, Alfa’s Evoque. And here’s one they should’ve made earlier Inside. Accessing All Areas. If Alfa has any hope of doubling sales, a compact SUV can’t come soon enough. But that’s not the only reason why all eyes are on its Tonale crossover. Words Ben Barry. Photography John Wycherley.
Inside Accessing All Areas
Alfa Tonale, the hybrid SUV of your dreams
Fiat’s Centro Stile design studio is based in a former Fiat engine foundry in Turin. Its corridors are wide and quiet, the ceilings high, and whites and light greys dominate. Natural sunlight streams through large glass panes in the vertical sides of a saw-toothed factory roof. The glazing faces north towards similarly jagged snow-capped Alps in the distance, the better to keep factory workers cool. It’s a functional, simple, elegant space.
Centro Stile relocated here in 2007, pulling Fiat, Lancia and Alfa design teams from three disparate locations, and now all Alfas, Maseratis, Lancias, Abarths and Fiat Professional light commercial vehicles are designed on site. Most Fiats are too, though there’s also a studio in South America. We’re here to see Centro Stile’s most recent creation, the Alfa Romeo Tonale Concept, and to learn more about Alfa’s new compact crossover, and the place, the team and the processes behind it.
‘The Tonale was a time to progress – we didn’t just want to copy the Stelvio in a smaller size’ Klaus Busse
An original wooden buck for a Fiat 600 sits just inside Centro Stile’s entrance, crafted with artisanal pride. Huge modern artworks by Swiss graphic artist Roger Pfund stretch over the walls. The fashion, food, architecture and bustle of Turin is right on Centro Stile’s doorstep. It’s surely an inspiring environment in which to design an Italian automobile, if not without pressure and responsibility, especially when it comes to one wearing the Alfa Romeo badge.
‘The weight on your shoulders here is huge,’ confides Klaus Busse, head of FCA design (Europe, Middle East, Africa) since 2015. ‘When I got the job, a colleague at another company told me, “Klaus, we are all watching you now.” Everyone takes notice of Alfa.’ The responsibility is shared with Scott Krugger, head of Alfa Romeo design.
‘There’s a lot of aggressive hyper-design, but the Tonale is about being heroic – proud and assertive, not forceful’ Scott Krugge
Working on something as potentially controversial as an Alfa SUV must amplify that pressure, but in many ways the Tonale is entirely predictable: Alfa showcased the Kamal SUV – a stilt-walking 147 – back in 2003, and punched through the SUV barrier with its Stelvio production car in 2016, which was received well (though remains a slow seller). It’d be foolish not to drop a dress size to the big-selling compact crossover segment.
Named after the Tonale Pass that links to the Stelvio Pass in the Alps, the new concept’s unveiling was the nice surprise of this spring’s Geneva show. A very similar vehicle will enter production in 2020, competing against the likes of the Range Rover Evoque and BMW X2, though it’s a bit larger than both at 4499mm long, 1909mm wide and 1578mm tall. Alfa Romeo is targeting 400,000 sales a year for its whole range – more than double today’s figure – and the Tonale must make a large contribution to that.
Alfa chose to display the Tonale as a plug-in hybrid, not in high-performance Quadrifoglio trim that gave us a first taste of both Giulia saloon and Stelvio SUV. Look closely and you’ll notice that the biscione – Alfa’s viper – on the hidden rear door handles glows red during charging, and the crusader normally in its mouth is cunningly switched for a two-pronged plug graphic with a lightning flash. This will be Alfa’s first electrified production car, the first of six plug-in hybrids due by 2022.
The Tonale had a remarkably rapid gestation at Centro Stile. It’s home to 300 staff, with departments specialising in clay and digital modelling, interior and exterior design, colour and materials, and user experience. Though designers constantly sketch ideas for potential new models, serious work on what became the Tonale didn’t begin until December 2018 and continued right to the early March Geneva deadline.
Krugger believes the pace ensured a collective focus. ‘Designers change their minds so often, so this was: here’s the design, commit, execute,’ he recalls. ‘We couldn’t over-design, and we had to prioritise elements. It was a very good process in that regard.’
Two things are immediately striking about Tonale: the first is how comfortably its SUV body carries Alfa’s design language and Italian heritage; the second that the design team have pulled this off without either of their two key figures being even slightly Italian.
Krugger, who was born in Pennsylvania and remembers visiting the Detroit auto show as a kid, joined Chrysler in 2001. He was lead exterior designer on the 2013 SRT Viper before being appointed Alfa’s head of design in late 2015, a year after Fiat and Chrysler merged into FCA.
Busse started his career at Mercedes, and later worked as head of interior design for Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram before transferring to the big FCA gig almost four years ago. He grew up in farmland in northern Germany, and cites watching a simulated NATO dogfight between an F-15 and F-16 during the Cold War of his childhood as a pivotal design inspiration – ‘I was exposed to this technological shock’. Fighter jets line shelves in his unpretentious office.
There are plenty of Italians on the design team, but also Greek, South Korean, French, Chinese and Russian colleagues. It’s a true melting pot. ‘We’re like coffee beans from all over the world, but it’s the process and this culture that makes us Italian,’ is Busse’s succinct metaphor.
Early discussions established that the Tonale should have its own distinctive personality. ‘We didn’t just want to copy the Stelvio in a smaller size,’ explains Busse. ‘The Stelvio was our entry into the SUV space, and it came after the Giulia saloon, so it had to feel familiar and use a design language we were familiar with. The Tonale was a time to progress.’
Adds Krugger: ‘If you look at the past of Alfa design, Alfa can be very adventurous, extremely diverse with the historical influence of design houses like Pininfarina, Bertone, Italdesign Giugiaro. We can do that too.’
‘We asked ourselves,’ continues Krugger, ‘what is an Alfa CUV [compact utility vehicle] in this space, what is the footprint, the dimensions? How extreme do we make the proportions? We decided it was paramount to make something believable, with appropriate dimensions for a very real-world segment – it needs to fit people, luggage and lifestyles. Once you start changing the proportions too heavily, once you lower the roof too much – what is this? – it’s no longer a credible CUV. Above all, it was more than just being a CUV, we wanted it to be an Alfa Romeo.’
Establishing a silhouette was the first step. ‘That’s the overall size impression, the emotion of the vehicle, and then it’s about purity, cleanliness and beauty – attributes of any Alfa, regardless of whether it’s a sports car or utility vehicle. There’s a lot of aggressive hyper-design at the moment, but here it’s more about being heroic – proud and assertive, not forceful.’ Hand-drawn sketches came first, then clay models, and only then did the team digitally scan the car and move into CAD. They do use virtual reality, for instance in global reviews with FCA global design boss Ralph Gilles says Busse. ‘It’s state-of-the-art and it accelerates the process, but Italy is the country of Michelangelo, it’s still very much hand sculpture, and when you do it by hand, things have to start somewhere and end somewhere. A lot of cars don’t have this, they have hard edges.’
The upwards taper of the glasshouse at the rear doors and the rake of the rear screen are both more aggressive than the Stelvio, but the designers have found other ways to give decent rear headroom and space for bags. ‘The rear screen is fast, which takes away some luggage room, but we’ve pulled the rear end out lower down to give customers a boot,’ says Busse. The wheelbase looks long and the overhangs short, thanks in part to the chamfering and tapering of the extremities of the bodywork; it will be a challenge to create the same look on a production version that doesn’t benefit from 21-inch telephone-dial alloys.
The Tonale is officially a Q4 all-wheel-drive concept. Its mostly composite body is built over a bespoke frame, not the group-wide platform the production car will use. Krugger remembers Geneva showgoers fruitlessly looking underneath as they attempted to crack the platform conundrum. Neither he nor Busse is giving anything away, confining the conversation to design, not powertrains, but FCA has confirmed that the production Tonale will share underpinnings with the Jeep Compass/Renegade family, and that will include a plug-in hybrid.
Handily a Renegade is under covers nearby. The Alfa concept’s wheelbase is longer, and the tracks look wider, but the Compass is itself longer than Renegade, so clearly some degree of adaptability has been designed in. What they will all share is a transverse engine layout, with the front wheels driven by the petrol engine, and in the case of the hybrid version the rear wheels driven by an electric motor; there’s no propshaft connecting front and rear. The petrol engine is a turbo 1.3-litre four.
Expect a combined peak of around 250bhp, up to 31 miles on e-power alone, 0-62mph in less than five seconds and a claimed CO2 figure below 50g/km. In its most aggressive drive mode it will be able to exploit the potential of the power from the internal combustion engine and e-motors, using torque vectoring across the rear axle from the e-motor, and the usual racier gearbox, throttle, stability control and steering calibrations.
Krugger deftly steers talk back to design. The mood boards and design walls nearby are a collage of blood red and charcoal greys, and we pore over sketches by exterior designer Alexandros Liokis. He’s beautifully drawn some of the greatest hits from Alfa’s back catalogue, including the GT Junior, Montreal, GTV, SZ and Brera, all of them head-on, a sniper’s target bisecting the scudetto, or shield on the front grille.
‘Everything starts with the large scudetto and trilobo [the three elements of the front end],’ explains Krugger with a sweep of his hand over the Tonale’s front. ‘On the Tonale, the scudetto kind of lunges forward, and that’s the keystone, a focal tension for the design. Everything begins here. The three-plus-three headlamps reference the SZ and Brera, and it all radiates back.’
If the front is overtly Alfa, the profile carries a reference that’s harder to pinpoint but similarly resonant: the muscular line that wraps completely round the Tonale. Where does that come from? Krugger shows us a profile sketch of the ’60s Giulia GT Junior. A hand-drawn arrow traces the arc of the pretty coupe’s shoulder-line as if fired from an archer’s bow. It is, he says, this echo of the ‘GT line’ that your eye picks up in the side graphic. ‘The GT Junior is extremely elegant, but this GT line has a tonne of tension. It’s not really aggressiveness, it’s sportiness. It’s very level, very clean, and it gives this 360º feel, like a high-water line. We wanted to move the visual weight higher up to create this tense, poised feel. It has a more linear aspect than the Stelvio, a longer feel. There are references to Duetto and Disco Volante in these volumes.’
The rear screen plunges to a point like a necklace – a nod to both Brera and the 1930s 8C 2900 – with a trio of LED rear lights echoing the headlamps, but with a less upright appearance. Explains Busse: ‘At first the rear lights felt too simple, so we moved towards an italic feel and it started to look more relaxed, like an artist’s signature. That’s the freedom LED lights give you.’
Quizzed on whether Tonale is a more dynamic design than Stelvio, Krugger counters that ‘Tonale is more dynamic in its line work, Stelvio more dynamic in volume’ and when I ask if a Tonale could merit the Quadrifoglio badge – despite presumably smaller powertrains and a transverse layout – Krugger replies that they design every car with a QF in mind, so that wings and cooling feel organically integrated, not afterthoughts. The interior has more concept-car playfulness than the exterior with four individual seats, but it still feels believable. I tentatively lower my weight into the thin sports seat, and Krugger leans in at the door. ‘This is where I think you can feel the dimensions of the car,’ he says. ‘For a concept, it’s not crazy, and that was by design – it’s a C-segment SUV.’
Fundamentally, the dashboard architecture is a hybrid of Giulia and Stelvio, both of which are already similar – the ‘binocular’ instrument binnacle, jet-engine air vents and the thin three-spoke wheel with integrated starter button and scimitar-like paddleshifts all ground it.
The low, sporty feel of the Giulia’s cockpit transfers to the Tonale, with a centre console that ramps up and fans out dramatically, like you’re sitting low in a supercar with a chunky transmission tunnel – here it’s encased in milled Plexiglas, with strands of carbonfibre laid under a translucent top coat and backlit with red pulsing light. It’s inspired by a German architectural project on the nearby mood boards, but I see Spider-Man and rubber laid down on a racetrack.
There’s no tacky Alfa gearlever, just the DNA drive-mode selector, its acronym twisted to fit a new electrified brief: Dual Power, Natural and Advance E. ‘Electrification will not be a gimmick, it’s something we harness,’ comments Krugger. ‘It’s about how it makes the vehicle better, bringing more performance.’
The instrument panel has more of the horizontal formality of the Stelvio, but it looks leaner and more angular, and flows smoothly into the door casings. There are some beautiful materials: the brushed aluminium spokes of the steering wheel are milled from solid, and on opening the door you glimpse the structure of the air vent, like shrouds for jet engines, also aluminium.
The seats develop Alfa’s trademark ‘cannelloni’ ribs, making a gentle ‘v’ rather than the traditional straight lines, the upholstery light grey nubuck. ‘It’s modern and cool, like concrete, but also has softness and good grip,’ says Rossella Guasco, head of colour and materials. She explains that, in some Alfas of old, the greys and blacks are balanced by warmer biscotti tan leather, which recurs here on the seats, seatbelts, luggage straps and doors.
The craftsmanship is combined with a higher-tech feel than today’s Alfas. Two new screens feature: a central 10.25-inch screen that’s comparable to Stelvio and Giulia, and a 12.3-inch sibling slotted beneath the instrument panel’s binoculars to give a digital look with a classic analogue feel – it’s so neatly integrated it’s a shock to see it as an oblong screen on a nearby desk. All the graphics were developed in-house at Centro Stile. ‘We’re not creating distraction, just the information you need,’ says Busse. It’s easy to imagine the ideas being toned down a little and translating to a production interior. The exterior? Save for wipers and camera mirrors, it looks production-ready right now, which might be just as well given they’ve got only until late next year to put a Tonale on the road.
As Krugger himself says: design, commit, execute. Because surely, when an Alfa this potentially polarising looks so comfortable in its skin, the weight on his and Busse’s shoulders must be easing just a little by now.
Concept looks ready for production. Good job: it’s in showrooms next year.
Hybrid-ready Jeep Compass platform will be shared with Tonale.
Alfa’s serpent gets subtle plug adapter for new e-era Tonale’s shoulder line references the GT Junior, Duetto and Disco Volante
Krugger: ‘It needs to be believable, and fit people, luggage and lifestyles’
Need a concept car quickly? Alfa design boss Scott Krugger is the man. Centro Stile – and the Tonale’s interior – not short of ideas.
It’s striking how comfortably the Tonale’s SUV body carries Alfa’s design language and Italian heritage.
Much rests on Klaus Busse’s shoulders. Fortunately, they’re broad.
A RANGE IN TRANSITION
STELVIO The mould breaker The enthusiast-friendly SUV, and a genuine Macan rival. Range-topping Quadrifoglio is rear-biased and outrageously good fun.
GIULIA The purist’s choice A modern miracle, Giulia had a painful gestation but the late nights were worth it. Beautiful, and beautiful to drive too.
MITO The cute one No longer being made in Europe and in desperate need of replacement – unless Alfa decides to leave small cars to Fiat…
GIULIETTA The big hit Longer in the tooth than any of the Natural History Museum’s big cats, and it’s not due a replacement any time soon.
4C The flawed genius Never perfect – first as a coupe, now Spider-only – but that doesn’t take the shine off the cramped, dynamically curious and gorgeous 4C.
TONALE The key to it all Concept will turn into next year’s Evoque-rivalling second Alfa SUV. Will play a huge part in Alfa’s bid to crack 400,000 sales.
GTV The name that won’t die Due 2021, two-door version of the Giulia saloon should be sharper to drive and even sharper to look at, especially the Quadrifoglio.
8C The step change Mid-engined all-wheel-drive supercar due 2021. Expect a carbon chassis, 600bhp from bi-turbo V6 plus 200bhp from the electric motor.
Craftsmanship is combined with a higher-tech feel than today’s Alfas
AFTER THE SUV… GTV
Alfa Romeo’s GTV coupe is due to return in 2021 to rival the BMW 4-series, Merc C-Class coupe and Audi A5. The name was last used on the 1994-2004 front-drive 2+2 coupe, but this time it’s a two-door version of the Giulia saloon. Hence the GTV will be based on the Giorgio platform already deployed on Giulia and the Stelvio SUV. That means proper rear seats, a longitudinal front-engined layout and rear-wheel drive as standard, with the option of Q4 all-wheel drive. Entry-level variants will field turbocharged four-cylinder petrols and diesels, while the range-topping Quadrifoglio will use the 2.9-litre twin-turbocharged V6 with an e-motor between engine and transmission for 530bhp total output and brief boosts beyond 600bhp to give the M4/C63/RS5 nightmares. Thirty miles of pure electric motoring is also on the cards. A GTV Spider follows in 2022 or 2023.