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Tim O'Brien | Jul 11, 2009 | 5 Comments

WHICH IS the greater God? The 'God of Power' – this is the God of hedonists and Clarkson - or the 'God of On-road Balance'? And before which altar do you stand?

Or perhaps the greatest is a middle God; one where power and on-road balance sit in equilibrium, and each the equal.

This is more the European path to sporting performance – how else do you explain badges like Abarth, Gordini, Cooper S and any number of other super-minis from nearly every Euro manufacturer?

And this is the Alfa MiTo.

Whether in its Sport or standard iteration, Alfa’s newest and impossibly fashionable entry into the premium small car stakes, the MiTo, blends sportscar handling with larger car interior comforts, and places them behind one of two potent and intoxicatingly free-spinning jewel-like engines.

Neither too little power, nor too much, and with nailed-on sports-hatch handling or forgiving urban compliance available at the touch of a button, the MiTo is filled with charm and is simply impossible not to enjoy.

Sure, it’s not perfect; its compact size and pricing means it’s not for everyone, but it comes heavily featured with both technology and creature comforts.

And with design features drawn from of the delectable 8C Competizione, it does, and will forever, turn heads. It will also probably do better than the projected 240 MiTo and 360 MiTo Sports sales Alfa Romeo Australia is banking on over the first full year.

Here, the MiTo is going head-to-head against the MINI – there’s a pedestal that won’t easily be shaken - and, at a slight stretch, the Renault Clio Sport.

It’s a surprising package the MiTo; not only because there is just 1.4 turbo-charged litres under the bonnet; but also because of the premium configuration shoe-horned into its compact dimensions. This, and its irresistible on-road dynamism.

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And why just 1.4 litres? Because cars with engines under 1.4 litre capacity attract significant tax and environmental concessions in Europe.

As Alfa Romeo Public Relations Manager Edward Rowe said at the MiTo’s launch, “In Europe, the tax and environmental regimes that favour smaller more fuel-efficient cars, have created a new buyer segment.

“They are category jumpers. They may be coming out of larger models, but they want all the features and luxuries they had before.

“This is also the buyer that we’re targeting with the MiTo in the Australian market. It will only ever be a three door. It is designed as a niche model for style and performance with a much higher level of standard equipment built into every single car.”

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A vigorous reaching run over a combination of freeway, secondary roads and broken bitumen in both MiTo and Mito Sport models gave us a very good opportunity to put Alfa’s new super-compact warrior twins to the test.

And each shone like a beacon.

Styling

With the Alfa 8C for inspiration, the MiTo was never going to have anything other than arresting lines. It is all Alfa, and fashionably ‘different’… from its Roman nose to its pert tail, the MiTo is as spunky as all get-out.

Photos really don’t do it justice. The camera flattens the nose and the deep curves over the bonnet. In the metal, surprisingly compact, it reeks of Italian style.

With Alfa Romeo trademark shield grille, deep and wide air-dam, low nose and high ‘shouldered’ tail culminating in 8C-style round LED tail-lights, it also signals its red-blooded sporting intent.

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The MiTo – like every Alfa before it – lets the world know it is a car for keen drivers.

And whereas the MINI stands out from the crowd for its deft marriage of retro and modern lines, the MiTo makes its statement with stylish originality.

There is a single-mindedness to its lines that startle at first – those widely spaced ‘eyes’, the deep curve of the nose, the stretched low air-dam at each side of the grille – but then quickly grow on you.

To these eyes, it’s a very appealing car and one that will make anyone feel good at the wheel.

 

The Interior

Inside, the individuality and sporting theme continues, especially in the well-appointed MiTo Sport with the faux carbon-fibre dashboard, embossed buckets, satin-finish metal surfaces, and, common to both models, the well-connected and ‘just right for feel’ multi-function leather-trimmed wheel.

For the past decade, Alfa has been building some of the most appealing and stylish interiors in the business. The MiTo does not disappoint here.

It is a well thought-out and nicely designed interior. While as black as a coal-miner’s armpit in the test cars, the flow of the lines and textured surfaces throughout the interior work to create a modern and nicely integrated cabin feel.

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Too much black? Both MiTo and MiTo Sport can be ordered with coloured dash and interior inserts. A feature more widely specified by European buyers.

Ahead of the driver, behind the comfortably-shaped steering wheel, large clear instruments sit below a typically appealing Alfa binnacle.


The satin or metal-look console dominating the centre of the tactile dash – with soft-feel surfaces – carries the radio and MP3 compatible CD player.

Dial controls are soft to the touch, and, more to the point, all controls are simply used and clearly laid-out (not a feature we’ve traditionally come to expect from Alfa Romeo).

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Lower down, heating and ventilation controls are positioned in front of the gear-shift: manual air-con for the MiTo, climate-control for the MiTo Sport.

While the dash and centre-console sit high, it planes away ahead of the passenger, creating a surprisingly airy and spacious feel. Front seats can also be placed well back for even the longest legs.

After all, this is a car for ‘category jumpers’. They may be choosing a smaller car, but they don’t want to feel like they’re sitting in a matchbox.

And they don’t want to forego the comforts they traditionally expect from a vehicle purchase at the MiTo’s two price points.

In standard fabric trim (of a higher specification in the Sport), the seats and accommodation are a cut above.

While not as sumptuous as the up-specced MINI, nor as heavily bolstered, the MiTo’s seats offer good support for press-on driving and proved effortlessly comfortable.

For first-class travel, you would option the leather of course.

Rear seat passengers naturally do not fare as well for legroom as front seat passengers, but headroom under that truncated roof-line is surprisingly good (better in fact than the much larger Alfa GT).

In all, there is little to find fault with in the interior. Perhaps the black plastics on the doors and the trimming of the boot fall a little short. But we’re nit-picking here… this is a quality small car with a robust quality feel.

 

Equipment and Features

In keeping with its premium specification, the MiTo comes with an RDS (Radio Data System) radio, CD and MP3 player, a six-speaker sound system with mid-woofers and double antennae tuner (useful when the signal is weaker on Australia’s longer stretches).

The sound system automatically adjusts volume settings to road speed and also, in the MiTo Sport, comes with the ‘Blue&Me’ Bluetooth technology.

(Blue&Me is a Fiat and Microsoft technology offering a common platform for Bluetooth and USB, MP3, WMA and WAV formats – iPod players are also supported with an AAC extension.)

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Carrying a 5-star Euro NCAP rating, both MiTo and MiTo Sport come with seven airbags - including driver, passenger, front side, window and driver’s knee airbags.

Three-point seatbelts and anti-whiplash headrests (moving the headrests closer to the front seat occupants in the event of impact) compliment an array of dynamic safety features.

These include Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC, or ESP); ABS with electronic brake force distributor; MSR (or Motor Speed Regulator which overrides driver input in low grip situations); ASR (Anti-Slip Regulation); CBC (Cornering Brake Control); DST (Dynamic Steering Torque which controls oversteer) and HBA (Hydraulic Braking Assistance for emergency braking).

Both models also come with hill-holder, a system that maintains brake pressure momentarily when taking off on a hill.

 

Mechanical Package

At the heart of the MiTo and MiTo Sport are variations of the same jewel.

Alfa’s new 1.4 litre turbocharged petrol engines, the 88kW @ 5000 rpm and 209 Nm @ 1750rpm in the MiTo, and the 114kW @ 5500rpm and 230Nm @ 3000rpm version in the MiTo Sport, are simply an unbridled delight.

Both are deliciously responsive, make a muted urgent ‘humm’ when at work, are beautifully balanced and will rev their socks off.

You are forced to wonder that such a jewel-like unit can produce such willing acceleration away from the line and such accessible torque for shooting the apexes on a winding back-roads run.

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Putting the power to the tarmac is a five-speed box in the MiTo and six-speed in the MiTo Sport. Both are slick-shifting units, the ample torque and the ‘shorter’ five speed box in the MiTo means there is not a hill of beans in acceleration times, nor in how each feels at the wheel.

The slightly rubbery gear-shift feel is not at the top of the class (certainly well-behind the likes of the Civic Type R), but it is accurate, falls neatly to hand and is fun to row along.

The MiTo pulls the 0-100km/h run in 8.8 seconds, the MiTo Sport in 8.0 seconds dead. That has the MINI Cooper S shading the MiTo Sport in raw numbers (an edge of 0.4 of a second), but there’d be scant margins in it on the road.

The smaller-engined MiTo also delivers astonishingly low fuel consumption: the MiTo returning 6.1 l/100km on the combined cycle; the MiTo Sport only marginally behind it at 6.5 l/100km.

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Aside from the spirited and remarkable turbo-charged 1.4 litre engines, the piece de resistance in the MiTo and MiTo Sport is Alfa Romeo’s DNA switchable vehicle dynamics and handling system.

With a three-position toggle next to the five- or six-speed shift, it’s switchable between Dynamic, Normal and All-weather set-ups.

The switch alters the responses of the engine, steering, suspension and gearbox. In ‘D’, for Dynamic, it firms the suspension, firms the feel at the wheel, sharpens throttle-response and allows less intrusion from the traction and cornering control.

In each setting, the car feels palpably different: in ‘D’ it becomes more alive under your fingers and more connected to the tarmac. You can spin the wheels from the line, and slide in and bring the back around in hard cornering.

Because of the bigger boots and larger alloys on the MiTo Sport (17-inch against the MiTo’s 16-inch), the Sport in ‘D-mode’ feels harder and more-focused than its less-powerful twin.

‘Normal’, of course, is for normal driving. It gives a softer and more compliant ride, and a lighter more-assisted feel to the steering.

The All-weather mode (‘A’), useful in more marginal driving conditions in rain, snow or when icy, increases the sensitivity of the traction control to minimise risk of loss of control.

It’s an effective system; the setting-changes are readily felt at the wheel and, when pressing on, the handling gains are immediately apparent.

 

The Drive

Few small cars feel as alive as the MiTo and MiTo Sport. Each is simply huge fun, and a quality performance drive.

It is a really quick little car, loaded with personality, as sharp as a razor on a flying run and its breeding and sporting heritage evident in the consummate way it dispatches the kilometers.

Yes, this is a car for people who love the experience of the drive as much as the arriving.

That potent small capacity light-weight engine in the nose, and the short, wide wheelbase, give the MiTo superb chassis balance. Safe and predictable, in press-on cornering it is simply a matter of lifting-off (before getting back on the nail) to slide the tail around.

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And it’s forgiving. Overcooked things going in? A rapid light dab on the brakes, then simply power out.

It might test your nerve, but the innate balance and the active technologies working for you, give the MiTo and MiTo Sport remarkable cornering performance.

For this tester, the suspension settings are just right. Nicely connected, the MiTo rides the nuances of the road; it’s firm but not jarring (not like the Alfa GT), and the feel through the wheel keeps you fully informed of what’s happening below.


Astonishingly for such a short wheelbase, it is almost unflappable even on broken secondary roads.

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It might not be to everyone’s taste, some may find the firmer ‘Dynamic’ setting – or even the MiTo Sport’s ‘Normal’ setting – a little too connected for everyday driving, but not me (and probably not you if you like a sharp performance drive).

With such a small capacity providing the ergs through the wide-track front wheels, you would not expect torque steer to be a problem, or even evident. Thanks to the electronic Q2 self-locking differential, it is barely evident, and the little there is assists the feel at the wheel.

Torque steer, when it’s just right, like in the MiTo, is self-centering. If there was no ‘tug’ at all, if it was entirely absent, we’d drive front-wheel-drive cars wrong. Best to get in deep, lift off rapidly, bring the back around, then fire out.

Road and wind noise? Well, yes, there is some tyre noise, but the MiTo is at the top of its class for refinement.

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Wind noise is all-but absent, and, while the sound of the tyres on the road is present, it is well-muted and none of the more unpleasant tyre-shearing frequencies find their way into the cabin. (Smart work by the acoustic engineers.)

So, did we love the drive at the wheel of the MiTo? That’s an “is the Pope a catholic?” question.

This is a car that can get into your head. More to the point, spend a bit of time with it and your heart will also be lost.

The Verdict

Interestingly, the wonderful Alfa Guilia 1300 Ti was just 1290cc… would that the MiTo endure as long in the hearts of car enthusiasts.

It is a luscious little unit this car. Youthful, zesty, and great fun at the wheel, it deserves to succeed, but its fortunes will rely on Alfa Australia getting the word out to a market traditionally suspicious of small capacity engines.

For the MiTo in Australia, that will likely mean finding a new demographic.

Sure, younger buyers who value style and performance will be a likely target. But Alfa will also need to find those ‘category jumpers’ - those who put a premium on the environmental and fuel-efficiency advantages of a smaller powerful engine, but who also value quality and are not shopping at a price-point bottom line.

Here the MINI has a head start, but the stylish and fashionable MiTo is a genuine contender.

Starting at $31,490 plus the various on-road and statutory charges for the entry level model, rising to $37,490 for MiTo Sport, it’s a premium small car purchase.

But with the MiTo, Alfa has produced a small car with irresistible appeal. If style by the bucket-load and razor-sharp driving dynamics is important to you, this is one to put on the list.

It is a car for the ‘pashionistas’, those who want to be reminded – every time they drive – of why they enjoy driving.

 

Likes:

  • Original, high-fashion ‘hug-me’ style
  • Fabulous jewel-like turbo-charged engines
  • The innovative DNA switchable vehicle dynamics
  • Pin-sharp handling and on-road balance
  • Astonishing fuel economy
  • Interior style and ergonomics
 

Dislikes:

  • It’s no give-away (is quality its own reward?)
  • Door plastics a little out of kilter with premium interior
  • Slightly rubbery gear-shift
  • MiTo Sport needs leather as standard
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