Musings on the Motoring World

How the Tonale concept SUV might mark the return of beautiful Alfa Romeos

There are a few tenets of automotive enthusiast circles that are absolutes. Nothing truly aspirational can be found in four-cylinders, Ayrton Senna is basically Jesus, and it is rude to criticise Alfa Romeo. If the automotive world were comics, Alfa Romeo is basically young Matt Murdock, descended from competitive fighting stock, down on its luck due to recent misfortunes, but putting in a real effort to rise above its circumstances and make something of itself. To punch Alfa Romeo at this point is punching down, and no matter how you spin it, that is a dick move.

So, in the ongoing quest to make this website less endearing to yet another subset of enthusiasts, The Motor Muse would like to maintain that, save for a few luminaries, Alfa has produced more aesthetically challenged cars than aesthetically pleasing ones since the design team dropped their pencils and broke out the rulers with the Giulietta of the 1970s. To add further insults to this critique, there is hope for Alfa’s design aesthetics finally getting back on track and it is an SUV that is showing the way.

Now, before the excommunication can commence, the only derailment on this train of thought is that the SUV in question, the Tonale unveiled at the 2019 Geneva Motor Show, is still a concept. So there is time to kill the idea. Though, should we? Ignoring its proposed Jeep Renegade underpinnings, the design cues on the Tonale are what a modern Alfa Romeo should be wearing, and hopefully, it will pull the brand’s current middling design language away from the shadow of Wolfgang Egger’s 8C Competizione.

Ever since Alfa Romeo’s Maserati-engined love letter to the Americas – in hopes to take it back into its market – made its debut in 2007, the company has been persistent in trying to work its elegant form into its mundane product offerings with less than stellar results. The MiTo looked like it inherited a chromosomal disorder, and the flabby Giulietta wasn’t any much better. The 4C fared a little better than the Short Round siblings, but that is thanks in part to the 8C’s design cues favouring the proportions of traditional coupes and mid-engine sports cars.

This poor execution is no fault of Alfa Romeo. Generally speaking, transfering a design style that worked for a sports car onto something more vertically proportioned doesn’t usually end well. Porsche’s attempt to transplant the 911 aesthetics to the first-generation Cayenne and Panamera went as well as you’d expect a surgeon doing a heart transplant with a jackhammer. Likewise, the canvas of the first-generation 1 Series proved insufficiently short for BMW to apply Bangle’s flame surfacing effectively, with the end result looking like it got into a motorway pile up on the way out of the factory.

What is more egregious is that Alfa Romeo already had a pretty good template to start with, the Brera. While the MiTo struggles to get attention in an empty field, nobody’s gaze could escape the Brera’s magnetic form. Sure, it might have a personality as interesting as a damp towel, but you won’t refuse it if it got into your garage. What’s more, its design cues were translated remarkably well on its sedan and wagon counterparts. Eight years since its demise and the 159 sedan still cuts an Adonis-like figure amongst today’s four-door sedans.

Luckily for Alfistis, when it came to the second rebirth of the brand with the rear-wheel-drive Giorgio-platform Giulia and Stelvio SUV, the design aesthetics from the 4C were applied with a little more finesse, though it wasn’t all perfect. From the side, the flat-faced models bear a resemblance of a pug’s and British bulldog’s smashed-in face. Beautiful in its own right, some might argue, but it isn’t classically majestic like a German Shepard’s stance or an Afghan’s trot.

If there is someone to blame for Alfa Romeo’s design shortcomings it is the company’s own persistent belief in Egger’s one design triumph, followed by its insistence on moving its design work back in-house to Centro Stile during the impoverished times between the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s. As the 159 faced a slow decline, leaving fans with the prospect of having the execrable MiTo and Giulietta as the only representation of the Alfa Romeo name, there was one shining light that wore an Alfa Romeo badge. The only problem was that it was a concept, and it was designed by Pininfarina.

While Alfa Romeo was trying to get people to warm to the Giulietta at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show, across the hall Pininfarina had a wonderful time trying to calm the crowd gushing over the Alfa Romeo 2uettottanta. It was everything that Alfistis hoped future Alfa Romeos would look like with a clean shape that accentuates its athletic and compact profile, similar to the form of Alfa’s design classics like the original GTA and rare 33 Stradale. So effortlessly beautiful it brought fans back to a time of Tazio Nuvolari and grand prix victories, when Alfa really mattered.

If the 2uettottanta’s design cues look very familiar, that is because the Tonale bears a striking resemblance to it. Those slim headlights, prominent floating shield grille, a body devoid of excess form, and a forward-leaning stance, seems to have been “borrowed and repurposed from the 2uettottanta’s design, even if Alfa Romeo’s marketing material doesn’t care to give a mention about Pininfarina’s tribute, which is no bad thing. After all, what is that thing they were saying about imitation and flattery?

Being a concept at this stage it is uncertain of just how much of the Tonale’s styling cues will be brought over to the production version, but its presence alone shows that Pininfarina’s styling can be formed into a coherent design language that can be scaled up to suit many body styles, similar to BMW’s current copy-printer one-shape-fits-all approach. If Alfa Romeo needs further convincing, they needed to look no further than 2uettottanta’s own designers, after all, they were responsible for putting the last truly good-looking models from Alfa – the 159 and Brera – into production and you know they will do right by Alfa Romeo again.  

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