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The 2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale.Stellantis/Courtesy of manufacturer

The first Alfa Romeo rolled off the assembly line in Milan in 1910. This was some 80 years after the first electric car appeared, depending on your information source and your preferred definition of the word “car.” By the time the Italian brand appeared on the scene, the first wave of electric vehicles had already fallen out of favour, displaced by the convenience of gasoline-powered options.

Thus, there’s never been an electrified Alfa Romeo in history – until now. With the automaker committing to go all-in on electrification by 2027, we have in our hot hands its first foray into this space, the 2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), which starts at almost $55,000. There are a number of reasons why this compact utility vehicle (CUV), which will compete in Canada against the sales-leader Audi Q3, the BMW X1, Volvo XC40 and Lexus UX, is important for the brand.

First, see above – it’s the first electrified Alfa. Second, the luxury CUV segment is predicted to be one of the fastest-growing in North America. Third: it’s been a staggering six years since Alfa Romeo re-entered the North American market with its Giulia and Stelvio model lines. That’s an eternity for a brand that’s looking to compete head-to-head with the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

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The car has a customizable 12.3-inch digital instrument panel.Stellantis/Courtesy of manufacturer

Recognizing these factors and market conditions, the Alfa Romeo Tonale is something of a moonshot for the brand. The engineers benchmarked the best-in-class, then put the hammer down with the intention of accelerating past all of them.

There are two versions of the Tonale available at launch, the PHEV and a gas-powered model. The former, which has a 15.5-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, is targeted at buyers living in three provinces where the majority of electrified vehicles are sold – B.C., Quebec and Ontario. The latter, which is powered by a turbocharged two-litre four-cylinder, is aimed elsewhere. Both will be available for sale in Alfa Romeo dealers across the country.

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The 2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV with a modified serpent from the logo to show it is electrified.Mark Hacking/The Globe and Mail

We’re focused on the PHEV for the purposes of this article because it’s a different kind of hybrid, one with an incredible breadth of capabilities, from ultra-efficiency to all-out performance. When stacked up against the competitive set, none of which currently offer a plug-in hybrid option, the Alfa comes out ahead in nearly every respect.

The powertrain combines a 1.3-lite four-cylinder gas engine with a 90-kilowatt electric motor. The engine drives the front wheels, the motor sends power exclusively to the rear, giving the Tonale full-time all-wheel drive. The hybrid powertrain creates a combined 285 horsepower and 347 lb-ft of torque. The Alfa can sprint to 100 kilometres an hour in less than six seconds and can drive on electric power alone for about 50 kilometres. These numbers alone give a sense of the dual nature of the Tonale.

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The Alfa can sprint to 100 kilometres an hour in less than six seconds and can drive on electric power alone for about 50 kilometres.Mark Hacking/The Globe and Mail

Many hybrid vehicles, particularly those that cost less than six figures, don’t often leverage their electric power in the name of performance. They’re silent, efficient and when the gas engine kicks in, it’s often jarring and can trigger a sense of shame in the driver. (You’ve used up all your battery power, pinhead, now you’re dragging around that empty battery pack like an anchor.)

Not so with the Tonale.

There are four drive modes, triggered by Alfa’s DNA selector dial. The “A” stands for advanced efficiency – it’s the all-electric mode and is silent. The “N” is the middle of the road mode, where the Tonale switches between electric and gas power based on the amount of lead in your foot. The “D” is for dynamic, the mode that draws maximum power from both the engine and the motor.

There’s also an even racier mode that sees the electronic stability control switched off completely. And there’s a separate button to preserve battery power.

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It features a brake-by-wire system and fixed four-piston Brembo brake calipers, an extreme commitment to braking performance that’s uncommon in this segment.Stellantis/Courtesy of manufacturer

In dynamic mode and above, the Tonale growls and hustles like a performance car. The chassis is nimble with near-ideal weight distribution, sweet steering response and an electronic limited slip rear differential to help carve corners. The Alfa also features a brake-by-wire system and available fixed four-piston Brembo brake calipers, an extreme commitment to braking performance that’s uncommon in this segment.

Lastly, the Tonale PHEV rides on an available adaptive suspension system. The drive along curvy roads in a rural area north of Detroit makes the Alfa feel unlike any other compact utility on the road today. It’s composed and comfortable and it actually makes you want to attack challenging stretches of road just for the fun of it.

When you stop to consider all the performance attributes of the Tonale PHEV, you quickly realize that this CUV is not just a watered-down entry-level vehicle from a performance brand.

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With the seats folded down, there is more than enough storage for a weekly grocery run.Stellantis/Courtesy of manufacturer

There are other ways the Tonale is a true reflection of the brand – namely, in its design. The classic Alfa Romeo shield dominates the front; bracketed by distinct LED headlights, it immediately sets the Tonale apart in a sea of jellybean-shaped CUVs. Inside, the vehicle is more performance car than grocery-getter: the flat-bottom steering wheel, customizable 12.3-inch digital instrument panel, and available aluminum pedals, paddle shifters and Alcantara seats see to that.

Now, this doesn’t mean to say you can’t use the 2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale to get groceries. You certainly can. And, if the grocery store is less than 25 kilometres away, you can cover the entire trip without using a drop of gas. Or you can unleash the F1 driver deep in your soul and cover the distance in a fraction of the time. The 2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale starts at $44,995; the Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV kicks off at $54,995.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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2024 Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEVMark Hacking/The Globe and Mail

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