Today’s tester is a Red Alfa Romeo. So I really shouldn’t be telling you how its name is derived from the cities of Milano and Torino. I shouldn’t be revealing that it’s based on the Fiat Punto and I really needn’t elaborate about its underhood gadgetry, because in days of yore, “Red” was all you needed to know about an Alfa Romeo. On the other hand, to paraphrase Dylan, things have changed.
Alfa Romeo exists in that rare pantheon of automotive names that inspire blind devotion from enthusiasts of the world, by virtue of decades building cars that appealed to the soul rather than the mind. But today, everyone wants aircon, power steering and enough safety aids to land on the moon. Everyone cares about the environment, platform sharing, polar bears and electronic driver aids. Perhaps even more importantly, no one wants any of the notorious breakdowns Alfas are renowned for. So we need to talk about the sensible stuff.
Enter the Alfa Romeo MiTo, which along with the Alfa 159 sedan is supposed to give the Germans a good run for their money, and is positioned directly against BMW’s Mini Cooper. Ah, but the Mini already competes with the Fiat 500, you say. But the 500 is a mini-car, significantly undercutting the Cooper in size and price. The MiTo is bigger than the Mini, but it still stickers under the matching Cooper all across Europe. Will it ever land in the US? Time will tell, as Alfa Romeo could return to North America in 2011… provided it survives its “strategic review.”
The MiTo – introduced in late 2008 – is filling a long-gone slot in the Italian company’s offerings: the supermini, also one of the most important car segments in Europe. A spiritual successor to the 70s’ Alfasud? Perhaps, but this Alfa has a lot more to do with Fiat than what you think. Not only does it share its underpinnings with the Punto supermini, but it also shares many of its components – such as engines and transmissions – with other Fiat models. Fortunately, the sporty bits – such as the suspension and brakes – are bespoke.
You certainly can’t call a badge-job judging from the exterior, which is – even by Alfa standards – gorgeous. The front borrows heavily from the Alfa 8C Competitzione – so heavily, in fact, that the result is a nose that’s a little busy for such a small car. Nevertheless, the car in general is simply a treat to the sense of sight with a sexy sloping roof and the world’s first tasteful automotive application of chrome, which surrounds the round LED lights. It really is a car you could park in the driveway and stare at for hours, admiring its sculpted alloys and even the brake calipers, carefully inscribed with ‘Alfa Romeo’ in a beautiful script. A run-of-the-mill Punto? Not so much.
Enter the cabin, and the design festival lingers on. Talk about oxymorons – there’s (optional) dark-red-soft-touch-faux-carbon which looks and feels great. The sculpted dash hides some good looking, orange-glowing dials, and Benzina is surely the sexiest title ever to grace a fuel gauge. Honestly. There’s pleasant attention to details here as well: the air vents are coated with a gentle chrome application, the tachometer displays turbo boost pressure (with no conceivable purpose or measuring units) and the windows are frameless.
On the quality front, not everything is perfect. The faux-aluminum trim on the center console doesn’t look that bad, but that changes once you touch it. Worryingly, when applying slight pressure, it also squeaks. There are some low-rent plastics hiding beneath eyesight, and every left turn something that appeared to be a screw on the run rolled somewhere in the rear of the glove compartment. Small niggles notwithstanding, the MiTo’s cockpit has an air of quality to it, if not as impressive as some of Fiat’s recent products.
In the name of style, of course, the MiTo has only two doors. While it’s roomy up front, the back seats offer little in the way of legroom, and thanks to that great looking roofline, taller individuals may find that their head strikes the ceiling more often than it is socially acceptable. It gets worse in the trunk, which offers a miserly 9-and-a-half cubic feet of displacement. Alfa’s supermini, then, is (thankfully) a win of form over function.
You can have the MiTo with a variety of Fiat Group’s ubiquitous 1.4 gas engines (or MultiJet diesels), starting with a basic 90 bhp unit, but our kitted-out Veloce tester has the top-spec turbocharged version with no less than 155 horses. This isn’t the first time this unit impressed me, and it gets even better in the Alfa, where it has a fantastic, throaty soundtrack that makes it feel considerably larger in displacement than it really is. Even on stops it produces a lofty burble – none of that turbo whistling either.
While turbo lag is barely noticeable, this is still an engine that lives in the mid-range. Sure, it revs happily to 6,500 rpm, but it’s much more at home living on main street, where it oozes with torque. Disappointingly for a supermini with such levels of power, the MiTo completes the sprint to 60 in 8 seconds, but makes up for the spec-sheet disappointment with excellent mid-range performance.
Lo and behold, ladies and gentlemen – this Alfa has a third pedal and a genuine stick between the front seats. Not a Selespeed sequential, semi-automatic devil, but a plain and simple 6 speed manual gearbox that really compliments the MiTo. Thanks to the never ending supply of torque, there’s not much rowing to be done. You can put it in third while in town and forget it. The box itself is a pleasure to use, but it could use a slightly shorter throw.
The thick-bellied steering wheel holds a special meaning for drivers. But I was afraid. Recent Fiat group products left driving experience way down on their wish list. Would the MiTo be a commercialized Alfa – one that’s meant to be a cash cow rather than provide true driving excitement?
It was a relief to find out that the Alfa Romeo MiTo is more than capable of holding itself through the bends. Yes, the steering is numb and lacks feedback, but at least it’s precise. Otherwise, it’s plain, good hearted fun – the MiTo resists understeer beautifully and progressively, so you get sufficient warning before getting into tire-squeal territory. That’s thanks, in part, to the Q2 electronic limited slip front differential. It will even throw its tail out should you ask it nicely. Brakes are good, body roll is well controlled and torque-steer is nowhere to be seen.
The MiTo has Fiat’s variable-assistance electro-hydraulic setup, and in town the steering is alarmingly light – you really could make a u-turn by coughing in its immediate surroundings. In higher speeds, the steering stiffens and becomes acceptably weighted, but still errs on the lighter side and isn’t nearly as communicative as you’d expect from an Alfa.
The MiTo also has one more electronic trick up its sleeve – the DNA system, which allows you to choose between three different modes: Dynamic, Normal and All-Weather. It won’t turn the little Alfa into a giant roaring lion within the flick of a button, but it makes all the right changes in the right places. In Dynamic mode, throttle response becomes sharper, the boost pressure climbs and the steering gets some more rubbery resistance (which contributes nothing to its feedback abilities). Traction control and stability systems are set loose – but unfortunately, although granting a fair degree of freedom, cannot be fully disengaged.
On the open road, the MiTo is a mixed bag. On one hand, the suspension manages to flatten smaller imperfections, but bumps and potholes will bring it out of its serenity. While wind noises are kept at bay, there is constant tire roar in the cabin. Fuel consumption was impressive, with the MiTo averaging 20 MPG [Ed: "enthusiast mileage," not indicative of normal-use mileage] on our vigorous test route.
The Alfa Romeo MiTo isn’t a glorified Punto. Far from it – it is a car in its own right, with a different feel, appeal and character. If you look at it as a transportation method, it’s a surprisingly thorough package – even its major flaws aren’t deal breakers, unless you want extraordinary practicality from your supermini. If you look at it as a car, it’s a quick and fun warm hatch with styling panache and plenty of character – though it’s still not a thoroughly serious driver’s car. And if you look at it as an Alfa, well, it’s red. And that’s all you really need to know.
Vehicle, insurance and one tank of fuel provided by Alfa Romeo.
This review made possible by www.icar.co.il