Car reviews - Alfa Romeo - MiTo - 3-dr hatch
Alfa Romeo models
Design inside and out, roomy and accommodating cabin, smooth-road handling, five-star ENCAP safety, quality standard
Room for improvement
Not enough ride comfort despite ‘DNA’ damper controls, unpleasant gear shift, no grab handles
29 Oct 2009
REMEMBER the Alfasud?
The name is Italian for ‘Alfa south’ because the staunchly Milanese Alfa Romeo - the city's coat of arms lives on in every Alfa badge - agreed to reach out from the north of Italy to help stimulate southern Italy’s flaky economy by building a greenfield factory down there in the early 1970s. The Alfasud built there was the company’s first front-wheel drive car – and one of the most fondly remembered.
Despite catastrophic rust infestation, dodgy quality and iffy reliability, the brilliantly engineered Alfasud transcended its basic, Mini-aping configuration (Subaru-style boxer engine excepted, of course) to become one of the definitive driver’s car of the era. Nearly 900,000 customers from 1971 to 1989 also made it one of the firm’s most successful.
Now, some 25 years after the final one was sold in Australia, we have the MiTo – short for Milan-Torino – as the Sud’s long-awaited successor.
But while both occupy the same entry-level position in Alfa Romeo’s model line-up (never mind what the company may say otherwise), this is where the similarities – for good and for bad – cease.
Well, except for the timeless styling.
Not by Giorgio Giugiaro in the newcomer’s case, but still a triumph of proportion, design and freshness. The MiTo is sheer class from every angle, and a welcome respite from the blatant retromania afflicting this car’s two closest rivals, BMW’s Mini and the Fiat Group’s own 500.
No B-segment baby on earth is as beautiful to behold. Is there a light car with more luscious door handles?
Stepping inside – via the lovely yet hefty frameless windowed doors (remember those, Subaru?) that close with a satisfying ‘thud’ – you know that the same is true for the cabin.
Like the exterior, there is nothing ‘throwback’ about the interior’s styling or presentation, yet the ambience is still respectful of Alfa’s sporting heritage and mindful of Italy’s design pre-eminence.
Examples of this include the circular vents and sporty white-on-black instruments enclosed in grey metallic-like trim that also swathes parts of the console, steering wheel and door trims in this basic MiTo 1.4 turbo version. Both connect the current with the past.
From the driver’s seat, there is athleticism in the upsweep of the shallow window line, while the extended seat bases give the appearance of sports seats.
But for all of the MiTo’s supposed bespoke design, scratch the surface and you will find your regular-Joe B-segment front-wheel drive light car lurking underneath.
Now in many ways this is no bad thing – since leveraging the Fiat Punto/GM Opel Corsa supermini underpinnings (the spawn of a brief and doomed marriage between the Italians and Germans) meant that Alfa could channel much energy on that gorgeous body and interior.
Costs are thus also contained, so if you value beauty most then the price of MiTo entry – $31,490 for the base model tested here – may seem unbelievably reasonable.
And another upshot of pilfering Punto and co for all your oily bits is that this could well be the easiest ever Alfa Romeo to live with in terms of sheer practicality.
Keeping in mind the heavy Teutonic influence, accommodation is a real strong point, and not only because the MiTo is a five-seater.
There is ample space for larger folk up front, with the driver in particular benefitting from a reach ‘n’ rake wheel (of disappointingly dreary three-spoke design, it must be said) and seat-height adjustability for optimum comfort. Gone forever is that Alfa-centric long-arm/short-leg driving position of yesteryear.
Indeed, the generic vent and audio controls – aided by good airflow and air-conditioning performance for the former and handy spoke-mounted buttons for the latter – are easy to identify and operate, as is the Fiat Group-standard cruise control mechanism.
Alfa fits a sturdy centre armrest that doubles up as a storage compartment, while the door recesses and large glovebox are more than up for the everyday flotsam that owners are likely to discard in their cars.
And, hooray! Rear entry is facilitated by an easy-tilt and slide front seat mechanism – on both sides – with a memory function access is pretty much unimpeded, and once sat down in the outboard positions you are likely to be impressed with the amount of available head and legroom for a vehicle of this size and (coupe-esque) styling. And even the rear-centre spot is not a disaster if you are a pint-sized jockey-type.
Minus points include a complete dearth of cubby holes out back save for a single map pocket and a pair of cupholders positioned about where you might rest your ankle, no overhead grab handles at all (though there are coat hooks), and a somewhat claustrophobic feeling resulting from the high waistline and small side window.
Why don’t coupes and three-door hatches have windows that you can, at the very least, crack open?
Speaking of cracks, our test car had none, developing no squeaks, rattles or breakages, suggesting a German-inspired quality control regime that can only be great news for MiTo owners present and future.
So, beyond the Alfa design there is plenty of non-Italian as well as Fiat Group engineering going on.
But what does this mean as far as driving is concerned?
Sadly, the MiTo is a lot more mundane to drive than some similarly sized models costing almost half as much, such as the Ford Fiesta, Mazda2 and even Suzuki Swift, let alone the Mini, unravelling some of the good work done on the design and cabin.
Let’s take the steering, since the any successor to an Alfasud actual or implied must have world-beating handling.
Shod with 195/55 R16 tyres, and without any interference from the standard ‘DNA’ electronic steering and damper regulator, the MiTo feels capable but somewhat dull behind the wheel.
Turn the tiller and it always goes precisely where you want it to, and backed up by quite tenacious grip, but without much feedback and normal runabout levels of interactivity.
On paper, that’s fine, because every model comes with the ‘DNA’ system that adjusts the throttle response and steering sharpness from the normal mode (‘N’) to ‘D’ for Dynamic at just a push of a console-sited toggle switch.
Do that and the steering is heavier and quicker-reacting, and the dampers feel firmer for less body movement through turns.
But the ride in Dynamic deteriorates from firm but muted to noticeably unyielding, with a loss of rebound over speed humps and other such surfaces, making for a fair degree of discomfort on anything other than smooth roads.
What’s worse, the lack of suspension pliancy makes the torsion beam-equipped MiTo a bit bouncy, leaving us longing for a good multi-link set-up as per the Mini.
Find a flawless surface, however, and the Alfa’s steering, handling and ride in Dynamic begin to finally gel, for a well-controlled and nicely behaved attitude. This is the only time when you could call driving the MiTo fun.
Why? Because the Alfa also features an electronic ‘Q2’ device that mimics a self-locking limited-slip differential set-up by using the stability control system to moderately brake the inside front wheel when powering through a corner.
Admittedly we could not sample the DNA system’s ‘A’ All Weather feature, so it was pretty much left in the default Normal mode, because putting up with ordinary steering is preferable to a hard ride.
Considering that there is only a 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder petrol engine delivering just 88kW of power at 5000rpm and 206Nm of torque at 1750rpm, the MiTo performs better than you might expect but not as well as you would hope.
The 8.8-second 0-100km/h sprint-time is reasonable, with the Alfa showing energetic and smooth acceleration without the turbo lag you might experience in other small forced-induction engines.
Find an open road and the MiTo turns into a fine cruiser, with surprisingly little wind noise to upset the general feeling of refinement inside.
On the other hand, the five-speed manual gearbox can be quite a chore. It isn’t heavy or stubborn, just long in travel and tiresomely notchy to shift between cogs. It does not feel well integrated with the clutch pedal either. Only the fourth-to-fifth gate is fine selecting the others is no joy.
We can’t complain about the strong and nicely progressive brakes, however.
If all this sounds familiar to regular readers, perhaps a quick check of any Fiat Punto review will reveal a very similar driving experience – which is fine for a $20,000 to $25,000 city car, but a bit of a disappointment for an Alfa Romeo, especially one that is pitched up against the agile, engaging and ultimately preferable Mini.
So there you have it – a gorgeous baby Alfa that is nonetheless probably the polar opposite to what the Alfasud was: practical, useable, dependable, reliability accommodating … and inferior to many of its rivals in the driving department.
There is no hiding the Punto/German Opel influence in the chassis department, so perhaps it is better after all to forget the Alfasud – as Alfa Romeo so dearly wants us to – and embrace the MiTo for what it really is … an Alfanord – the Alfa of the North!
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