Car reviews - Alfa Romeo - MiTo - 3-dr hatch range
Alfa Romeo models
Quirky styling, cheaper entry price, Alfa DNA drive system, TwinAir engine
Room for improvement
Value for money, lack of standard equipment, tiny second row, turbo lag on 1.4L engine
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13 Jan 2014
A HEFTY upgrade to Alfa Romeo’s MiTo was well and truly overdue considering the current-generation model was launched in mid-2009 and, save for a minor update a year later which brought a dual-clutch transmission, the diminutive three-door remained largely unchanged since then.
Enter the new ‘Series 2’ mid-life upgrade from the famous Italian marque, which follows major price cuts of up to almost $8000 to the MiTo range made last year after Fiat Chrysler Group Australia was formed to take control of distribution of the Alfa Romeo and Fiat brands, bringing them under the same umbrella as Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge.
The pricing revisions alone have served to boost sales of the MiTo by 120 per cent – pushing it up to 350 units for 2013 – and after laying the groundwork, the Australian subsidiary has now launched the Series 2, which is headlined by a new entry-level 0.9 TwinAir model.
First seen at last year’s Frankfurt motor show, the Series 2 MiTo brings subtle cosmetic changes – barely noticeable chrome surrounds on the grille, plus restyled head and tail-lights – as well as upgrades to the multimedia system and some tweaks under the skin.
But the new base model with the two-cylinder TwinAir turbo engine – as seen in the Fiat 500 and Panda light cars – has captured our attention, the engine arriving here in its most powerful tune to date with maximum outputs of 77kW and 145Nm when set to Dynamic mode in Alfa’s DNA drive system.
More on that later.
The MiTo is now priced from $22,500 plus on-roads for the new base variant, $24,500 in mid-spec Progression manual guise and topping out at $28,000 for the Distinctive.
The premium light segment in Australia is tiny, but the MiTo has some pretty strong competition, including the segment-leading Peugeot 208 which in three-door guise retails from $26,490 plus on-roads.
Citroen’s stylish DS3 hatch ranges in price between $27,740 and $29,740 depending on the specification, while another player from the Fiat Chrysler stable – the 500 – undercuts the MiTo with pricing from $14,000 up to $20,300.
So what do you get for your money? You get a level of standard equipment including power windows, cruise control, leather-clad steering wheel and seven airbags that is average rather than outstanding.
Ergonomically, the MiTo does most things reasonably well, although passengers in the super-tight second row are forced to deal with minimal headroom and legroom.
The dash looks dated compared to the 208 but it is still stylish and features appealing colour contrasts in all grades. And everything does what it is supposed to do.
Particularly appealing is the new Uconnect multimedia system that Alfa has taken from the Chrysler side of its parent company. The system is standard across the range and is very easy to use, with the Bluetooth phone and audio streaming without issue.
The six-speaker stereo even has a neat function that lowers the volume when the car slows and eventually comes to a stop.
A major omission – especially given there is now a five-inch touchscreen standard on all variants – is the lack of reversing camera and sat-nav, even as options.
Most European car-makers offer sat-nav at least as an option, and while local Alfa executives said buyers increasingly prefer to navigate using map apps via their smartphone, we think this is surprising.
There are other quirks in the cabin, including the fact that we could not for the life of us locate the boot release button aside from the one on the key fob. Pulling the key out of the top-spec Distinctive variant also proved something of a chore, too.
The A-pillars are pretty chunky which has a slight impact on forward vision, and the small rear window means the rear visibility is also affected.
While the 270-litre boot sounds compact and is smaller than its major rivals such as the 208 (311 litres) and DS3 (285L), it managed to fit quite a bit of luggage for two people heading off for a weekend away.
The first MiTo variant we drove was the range-topping Distinctive, powered by a 99kW/206Nm 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder unit, mated with a six-speed TCT dual-clutch transmission as standard.
There is not a lot that differentiates the cabins of the three variants, and the only noticeable luxuries in the Distinctive were the red stitching on the steering wheel, dual-zone climate-control as opposed to manual air-conditioning, and more premium seat trim.
Alfa shares its small-car platform with General Motors, meaning the MiTo shares underpinnings with the Opel Corsa, Adam and Doblo as well as the Fiat Punto, longer-wheelbase 500L and forthcoming 500X crossover.
It doesn’t feel like the most solid chassis in the class and the turbo lag we experienced in this variant was shocking. This is not the car in which to dart through a roundabout or rush through an intersection, as it takes a number of seconds for the turbo to kick in and send the car in the direction you are heading.
We thought the idle-stop and air-conditioning may have affected this, and while it may have had a minor impact, we still copped that lag with the air and automatic stop-start system turned off.
The TCT dual-clutch was adequate, but when you engage Alfa’s cool DNA drive model system, it changes the behaviour of the TCT, sometimes in surprising ways.
Twice we were cruising at 60km/h and 100km/h in Dynamic mode and the transmission changed down what felt like two gears, causing it to roar and forcing your correspondent to take over the gear changes in manual mode using the paddle shifters.
In this mode it held third at higher revs around 60km/h for longer than it needed to on several occasions, but when we shifted to Natural mode, this did not occur again.
The same 1.4-litre engine is under the bonnet of the mid-spec Progression, and we drove this variant next with the five-speed manual gearbox which was an improvement over the version with the TCT.
The five-speed manual has long throws and is not flawless but works well with this engine.
Which leaves us to the pick of the bunch for us: the new base MiTo with that terrific little two-cylinder TwinAir.
In Natural mode, the engine is nowhere near as engaging and entertaining as when it is matched with the Fiat 500 or even the Panda, so unless you are desperately trying to save on petrol, keep it in Dynamic mode.
The two-pot comes to life in this mode with terrific acceleration, and while the gearbox loses a ratio as a five-speed unit, it feels better than the six-speed from the Progression.
The transmission did seem to cut out at around 6000 revs in first gear, forcing you into second, but that does not affect the overall drive experience. There is, however, noticeable torque steer when pushed from a standing start.
Independent front and torsion beam rear suspension feels very tightly tuned, meaning medium to large-sized bumps and corrugations are felt in the cabin. On a number of occasions travelling over poor quality road surfaces, there was an audible “ohhhh” from both driver and passenger.
Steering is not as direct as other light cars, even non-premium offerings such as the Ford Fiesta and Mazda2 feel more refined, but in Dynamic mode it has a heavier, more engaging feel.
Dynamically, the MiTo is fun to punt into corners, but again there are cheaper options that are just as entertaining and feel a bit more composed.
Over a couple of days of mixed driving, we recorded 6.8 litres per 100 kilometres for our average fuel consumption in the TwinAir variant which is well above the official figure of 4.2L/100km but still impressive.
With a new starting price of $22,500 plus on-road costs, the MiTo is now far better value than it has ever been, but still lacks the level of standard gear you would expect in a premium offering.
The base TwinAir is the clear standout for us and we think anyone who does pay a premium will enjoy themselves, despite other less premium light cars out there that could put a smile on your dial for less money.
But if Italian style is your thing, we would recommend having a look at a couple of other offerings from the Fiat Chrysler stable, including the identically priced Fiat Panda Lounge, the cheaper Fiat 500 Lounge ($20,300) or even the larger base Alfa Romeo Giulietta, which now retails for $24,550 plus on-roads.
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