| Week at the Wheel | Alfa Romeo MiTo |
Inside & Out:
Some call it bug eyed. Others call it a near-identical abatement of the stunning Alfa 8C Competizione. We say it's both, sort of. Park a MiTo and an 8C side-by-side and the similarities are striking. However, from the front, in real life, where there is no rare Italian supercar to compare with, the MiTo's droopy headlamps are slightly gormless. It's a striking little car though, and has the same sort of androgynous, cross-gender appeal as the MINI
does - a mixture of cute and sporty that either sex can appreciate. It's quite unlike any other small car, and very cool indeed.
The cabin isn't quite as inviting as it perhaps could be though, which is mostly down to the fact that it's built from less-than-alluring materials. A popular shortcut to the feeling of quality that's so important to any car masquerading as 'premium' is to swathe parts of the upper dash and door cards in a soft, textured material. The MiTo adopts this approach. Whether it works or not is up to you, but for us there's still too much hard, black plastic - a common feature of current Alfa interiors - that will ultimately scratch and look rather unpleasant. Saying that, a raft of improvements are due early in 2010. The design is suitably racy though, and like the MINI, from the driving seat it has a proper big car feel because of its driving position and high sill lines.
Engine & Transmission:
A range of five power outputs - two diesel and three petrol - are available, with the current big boss dog boasting 155bhp from a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol unit. A 120bhp version of the same unit sits in the middle of the petrol range, with a naturally aspirated 95bhp 1.4-litre as low as you can go. The two diesels - 1.3-litre MultiJet and 1.6-litre JTDm - have 90bhp and 120bhp respectively. The Fiat Group petrol units are fizzy and the diesels punchy and the 155bhp TB unit of our test car manages to be both.
Despite falling short of the head of steam the MINI Cooper S
can build up, the 155bhp four-pot turbo is just about quick enough to justify a 'hot hatch' billing. That's not necessarily due to its turn of pace - brisk as that is - but more because of the 'DNA' switch that comes as standard on the MiTo - a USP masterstroke.
DNA changes the car's dynamic behaviour three ways via a metal toggle switch beside the gear lever. Its name is both an acronym of its three settings (Dynamic, Normal and All-weather) and an indication as to its overall purpose: it changes the very nature of the car at the flick of a switch. Active chassis management is not unusual any more - but it is in a car so small, and it's especially nice to see it standard across the range so that all buyers benefit. Although its settings encompass the engine - by switching on a torque overboost function in Dynamic mode - its measures are mostly linked to handling characteristics. The six-speed shift is, of course, unaffected and remains slick to use, if a little too long of throw.
Ride & Handling:
DNA then. As you'd expect, Normal mode is the 'everyday' one, but it's easier to explain in the context of what the Dynamic setting does. We'll leave the All-weather mode, because it essentially sends the car into full Italian dictatorship form by turning all the driving nannies up to 11 for heavy snow and such like. You'll probably never touch it. Dynamic mode does the opposite, slackening off the electronic stability systems, weighting up the steering, stiffening the suspension, sharpening the throttle response and, as we've already mentioned, adding a few moments of torque overboost for an extra shove in the back.
The result is a tangible and quite startling shift of character, from something docile to an altogether friskier, weightier little car - a million miles away from the slightly floaty feel of the Fiat Punto
on which it's based. The effect is largely positive, but not without flaw. For a start, the whole 'tightening up' of the car feels a little, well, fake. The steering seems to be actively resisting inputs rather than having a truly 'natural' weight - and it's desperate to jump back to the straight-ahead too, like the column is made of stretched pizza dough. The damping too - which utilises a clever 'spring-in-spring' system with an extra coil inside the shockers - loses most of its ability to protect the body from surface deviations. It becomes so firm that it pulls the body over every ripple with it, amplifying them as it does so. That's great for on-the-limit feel, but it also unsettles the body too much.
Ultimately, the verging-on-vicious change that flicking the switch from 'n' to 'd' facilitates is impressive, but as opposed to giving the MiTo a more organic, visceral feel, it actually seems to 'digitally enhance' the car in a slightly odd way. However, the MiTo is absolutely an engaging piece of kit on one hand, and a lovely, largely comfy runabout on the other - so it fundamentally succeeds in its aims.
Equipment, Economy & Value for Money:
It's a canny move gunning for the MINI. Fiat's other MINI Killer, the 500, isn't actually that cheap, but looks so because the MINI is that
expensive. So too it is with the MiTo, which looks good value against its chief rival, but still requires a substantial outlay. Our range-topping 'Veloce' test car lists at just under £15k, but even that's easy to furnish with a good few options, adding a couple of grand before you know it.
All cars get air conditioning and the DNA switch, all the safety nannies (including the Q2 electronic 'differential'), loads of airbags, electric windows and an MP3-reading CD player. You'll have to go to mid-range 'Lusso' for alloys (£11,545 for a 95bhp 1.4 petrol), and to be honest that's where you're going to want to be, because it also adds the carbon-effect silky dashboard layer, chromed exhausts, chromed headlight surrounds and front fog lights.
It's important to note too that the MiTo is significantly more practical than the MINI, so you are buying more space and usability by picking the Alfa. It's no family car but, unlike the British-German, the Alfa will briefly accommodate adults in the back and something bigger than a packet of pork scratching in the boot. Also impressive is the economy of the 155bhp petrol engine, at 43.5mpg combined. That's a lot of performance for relatively little fuel.
Alfa's MiTo isn't quite as impressive as we hoped it would be; not in the handling department nor in possessing that bit of extra character that separates it from common-or-garden small cars. The MINI sells itself on the latter unknown quality. The MiTo is still a good car though: great to look at, fun to drive, well put together and usefully packaged, but it sadly feels more like a grandiose Fiat than a boiled down Alfa. Weird steering lets it down dynamically and lack of sparkle in the cabin stops it feeling really premium, yet it's still easy to recommend; still weirdly loveable; still enjoyable. Actually, very much an Alfa Romeo then.