Review: Alfa Romeo MiTo

Tal Bronfer
by Tal Bronfer
review alfa romeo mito

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.

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  • Ciddyguy Ciddyguy on Jan 02, 2011

    I have to agree, this is one nice looking car and sounds like it's quite a nice car to drive as well. That said, the one thing that has me hemming on Alfa is the front nose design of some of their current offerings. It's not the grill, but what they do with the rest of the front clip treatment. That said, this might be something I'd consider if I were in the market for something over $20K. That said, the mileage figures, if in hard driving getting 20mpg, that seems low, even for spirited driving as stated in the post, I'd expect upper 20's for spirited driving, unless this is spirited driving that mimics combined cycle at its worst, still, I'd expect mid to upper 30's highway under more normal conditions. In any event, I wonder if being turbo'd and pumping out 155hp might have something to do with the mileage to a degree? One thing I do like is the dash with a hint of dark maroon on the top of it, a nice touch and a sight better than what you usually see, roughly the same color plastic all over in a harmonious, teutonic fashion as found in most cars and sounds like Fiat/Alfa Romeo is working other than our rational senses on this one.

  • Mark35mm Mark35mm on Jan 27, 2012

    I'm an American living in Italy. I work in the film industry and we had an advance copy of the Mito before it hit market a few years back while I was on a project. When I first arrived on set I was like WTF and didn't like the look of it. But the more I looked at it the more it grew on me and the one day I thought to myself "what a gorgeous, inspired and unique design". I have one now and it just hit 10k so after that benchmark I feel that I've spent enough time with the car to adequately judge it. What can I say...I love it. It's a blast to drive, mileage is good (about 37/38 on the freeway) and it just puts a smile on my face every time I step into it. I considered a Mini but I wanted something different. After seeing so many on the road the Mini just looked pedestrian. It's well built and I've had no issues with it in terms of performance or reliability. No squeaks or rattling at this point. It handles great and the tech package is outstanding. It's a car that wants to be driven hard which is one of the things that makes it so fun to drive. Only one flaw in the door handle but nothing that wants to make me complain. I was in the states recently and had a Toyota Camry for a month. Even though it's a different class of car, and theoretically a great car it doesn't even come close to comparing to my Alfa. I always wanted an Alfa but I was reluctant because of all the past problems the builder had. I decided to take the plunge and happy as hell that I did. So if any of you out there are a bit scared based on past performance stick you foot in the water and you'll be pleasantly surprised how nice it is.

  • Inside Looking Out "And safety was enhanced generally via new reversing lamps and turn signals fitted as standard equipment."Did not get it, turn signals were optional in 1954?
  • Lorenzo As long as Grenadier is just a name, and it doesn't actually grenade like Chrysler UltraDrive transmissions. Still, how big is the market for grossly overpriced vehicles? A name like INEOS doesn't have the snobbobile cachet yet. The bulk of the auto market is people who need a reliable, economical car to get to work, and they're not going to pay these prices.
  • Lorenzo They may as well put a conventional key ignition in a steel box with a padlock. Anything electronic is more likely to lock out the owner than someone trying to steal the car.
  • Lorenzo Another misleading article. If they're giving away Chargers, people can drive that when they need longer range, and leave the EV for grocery runs and zipping around town. But they're not giving away Chargers, thy're giving away chargers. What a letdown. What good are chargers in California or Nashville when the power goes out?
  • Luke42 I'm only buying EVs from here on out (when I have the option), so whoever backs off on their EV plans loses a shot at my business.