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Car reviews - Alfa Romeo - MiTo - 3-dr hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
Engine performance, handling, DNA system, rear seat legroom, engine note, steering wheel, instrumentation, seat comfort, Sport model’s interior
Room for improvement
Styling, not enough steering wheel adjustment, rear seat headroom, steering feel, not enough side mirror adjustment, lack of an aux-in jack in base model, ergonomics generally

6 Jul 2009

ALFA ROMEO is adamant that its sporty new MiTo will attract fresh, younger buyers to the brand – saying that 80 per cent of customers for the three-door hatch will be new to Alfa – but our first drive at the national media launch suggests that it may appeal mainly to Alfisti, or at least fans of Italian cars in general.

The MiTo comes with all the delights and all the frustrations in equal measure that have tended to characterise Italian cars for decades, leaving you wondering how much better – yet less memorable – it would be if it had been German or even Japanese.

Styling is in the eye of the beholder, of course, so let’s just say I’m not a fan from any angle, though we’ve heard Alfa fanatics call it nothing less than gorgeous. Alfa says it’s styled on the 8C Competitizione, a limited-edition coupe not sold here, and there are some elements there, but we hardly regard that as a compliment to the wonderful 8C.

Alfa also claims the MiTo was not compromised in its styling – both inside and out – because it is a stand-alone model with a sporty edge, uncompromised by having to also have a low-cost family car derivative or to spawn a five-door version.

It’s a good point, and the exterior is certainly distinctive, although the interior is not quite as sporty and avante garde as you might expect, with quite a bit of hard plastic in the base model. Thankfully, the $6000 more-expensive Sport version lifts the ambience with a swathe of carbon-fibre-style surfaces over the top of the dash and the door linings.

If Alfa really does have ambitions in America, they may need to address the issue of having a single front cupholder, located inconveniently behind the gearshift (though it will at least be easier to get to with the forthcoming auto).

What you do get is a nice steering wheel, well-placed pedals that are made for heel-and-toe and seats that are comfortable, with long under-thigh squabs though surprisingly modest side bolsters for a sports hatch.

But getting yourself comfortable behind the wheel of the MiTo is still a challenge. Despite having both height and reach adjustment for the steering wheel, we found neither went far enough and had to employ a higher seat position than we would have liked to get the wheel to fall to hand – and still the pedals were too close, the door armrest was just out of comfortable reach and neither side mirror would adjust far enough outward.

We did like the instrumentation, though, especially as they were in Italian. Hopefully the new young MiTo buyers will understand what benzine means.

The MiTo is apparently regarded as a supermini – at the bottom end of the automotive size scale – but it is really much bigger than that and the benefit comes in the form of rear seat legroom, which is quite good and made even more pleasant by the soft finish of the front seatbacks.

However, the car’s overall styling dictates that it’s still pretty claustrophobic back there, especially with the side headlining sitting right next to your noggin. There is room for two adults – don’t even think about three – but the driver will have to be careful not to go too fast around corners.

We much prefer the Sport’s interior treatment, especially with the optional ($2500) leather upholstery, but wonder why the base model has to go without any sort of iPod input jack. And surely a car like this should have seat-belt height adjustment. And why can’t you turn the radio off?

On the road, the MiTo provokes similarly mixed reactions, boasting a wonderful pair of engines and a slick manual gearshift, yet generally disappointing dynamically.

Central to all this is Alfa’s electronic DNA system – DNA standing for Dynamic, Normal and All-weather modes – which alters the characteristics of the electric steering (electric-driven, not just electric-boosted hydraulics), throttle and suspension.

In Normal mode, the steering and ride are kept very light for trundling around town, but probably too light and lacking feel or connection to the road. At least you can get that with Dynamic mode.

While many such systems are quite subtle, even the least sensitive driver would surely notice the shift to Dynamic in the MiTo as the car sits flatter, stops floating over humps and crashes quite heavily into potholes – especially with the bigger wheels and lower-profile tyres on the Sport. The steering also feels better.

The MiTo’s prevalent handling trait at the limit is understeer, which is no bad thing in such a car, and it tucks into line with a lift of the throttle. Unlike some European hot hatches, there was no indication that it would suddenly turn to lift-off oversteer.

In the MiTo Sport, the Dynamic mode also introduces an automatic overboost function that provides about 15kW more power for a minute or so, making the car burst into life, leaping to the next corner or charging past slower cars on the highway.

The 114kW version of the 1.4-litre turbocharged engine in the Sport is particularly strong from the mid-range up to its 6500rpm redline, but the 88kW version of the same engine in the base MiTo is quite impressive.

Although giving away a fair bit of power – especially when you consider the overboost –it has strong torque (206Nm versus 230Nm) and it’s available at much lower revs, making the standard car a delight to drive in the real world. It also sounds pretty good.

It’s just a pity that the standard car has to make do with five speeds because, although both cars sing along in fifth gear at 3000rpm at 100km/h, the Sport’s sixth gear drops the revs by about 500rpm, which obviously helps cruising comfort and fuel economy.

Speaking of economy, the MiTo boasts combined average figures of 6.1L/100km for the standard car and 6.5L/100km for the Sport, but we wonder how realistic they are given that our Sport averaged about 7.0L/100km just sailing down the Newcastle expressway with the cruise control set at 110km/h.

Just like many Italians we know, the MiTo can be fun, entertaining, infuriating, bewildering and frustrating in equal measures. But never boring.

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