2000s / Alfa Romeo / Italian / Road test

>Road test: 2009 Alfa MiTo.

>Based on Fiat’s Grande Punto platform and designed with the exotic Alfa Romeo 8C in mind, the Alfa Romeo MiTo (for Milano and Torino) is the firm’s answer to the Mini. Only available only in a three-door, it’s also the first in a two-part replacement of the aging 147: a new five-door only car rumored to be badged Milano will be introduced in the next few years and the 147 will be phased out at that time.

I recently had a chance to sample a gasoline-powered 120hp 1.4 T-jet MiTo equipped with a 6-speed manual transmission. When I first drove off in the car I was anything but impressed – it seemed slower than my daily driver 1997 Fiat Brava, 200cc bigger but also heavier. I was expecting it to be much faster and briefly wondered if I mistakenly hadn’t released the hand brake all the way. Once I got the rpms up it picked up a bit but as soon as I hit a roundabout and had to build up speed again I found myself cursing the acceleration.

However, this lack of performance changes thanks to the so called “DNA system” that is already in use on the Fiat-Abarth 500. A little above and left of the gearshift sits a switch that allows the driver to select between three settings: “Dynamic”, “Normal” and “All Weather”. Going from “Normal” to “Dynamic” turns the MiTo into a completely different car – it becomes noticeably faster and more responsive, the steering becomes tighter and the braking becomes more effective; with a simple flip of a switch the car is enjoyable and drives like a proper Alfa. In the aforementioned mode the engine seems to beg you to take the rpms higher and higher as it delivers its full cavalry of 120 horses. Switching modes also makes for tighter steering and more effective braking, making the MiTo a real joy on twisty backcountry roads. Alfa’s active suspension shines on tight corners and the car makes you feel as if you’re in total control of it at any given moment. The ESP (standard on all MiTos) is there to help you out if this feeling turns into an illusion.

It’s not the go-kart that the Mini is but one has to keep in mind it wasn’t designed to be; it was designed with Alfa’s heritage in mind, not Mini’s, and it’s just as enjoyable to drive as its competitor but in a different way, the Mini being a tad more on the sport side and the Alfa being just a little more on the touring side. The downside to this mode is the fuel consumption (around 8 litres/100 kilometres normally) rises. It is worth noting that the MiTo is available with Alfa’s proven JTD common-rail diesel engine for customers concerned with fuel economy.

The “Normal” mode is more for casual around town driving with optimized economy and safety. The steering is looser to aid in parking and tight maneuvers, the suspension is a bit softer to give a more comfortable ride and, as mentioned above, the car is less responsive.

The “All Weather” mode is for driving in adverse weather condition and provides more safety and grip on slippery roads by stepping up the ESP, amongst other features.

It seems Alfa has learned some valuable lessons in ergonomics in the last twenty years and all the controls are logically placed on the dashboard. Keeping true to the car’s overall design theme, the latter looks like a minimized version of the 8C’s dash. I especially appreciate the use of real gauges for the instrument cluster made up of a speedometer, tachometer, fuel gauge and temperature bath, all functions that find themselves increasingly replaced by analog units.

The equipment level is average and includes electric windows, ESP and manual air conditioning are standard on all trim levels. The list of options is rather large and can easily add thousands of Euros to the price. Available options include bigger rims (16”s come standard), a sunroof, an automated air conditioning system and some high tech gadgets such as an iPod plug-in and a way to connect your Bluetooth-equipped mobile phone.

An interesting option is the ability to order either a 4-seater or a 5-seater. With the 4-seater the MiTo turns into a 2+2 of sorts, four adults can comfortably fit in the car. The rear seats fold down as a whole in this configuration. In the 5-seater configuration, the rear seats fold down in a 40/60 manner and Alfa claims you can seat five adults back there but you can’t guarantee comfort for the guy who takes the middle seat. Trunk space remains the same in both configurations and is adequate for a car that size, the only problem with it being that the load level is too high and makes loading bulky objects tricky. Rear visibility isn’t fantastic due to the thickness of the C pillars.

Alfa paid attention to the safety of this car and numerous airbags are available, including one designed to protect the driver’s knees in the case of a crash. As a result, the MiTo scored five stars on the Euro NCAP crash test, making it one of the safest cars in its category, and it received a 3.35 out of 4.00 in a new test that determines how well the front seats prevent whiplash.

A downside is that despite the efforts put forth by Alfa, the build quality isn’t up to par yet. For example, the pull-out storage compartment on the left side of the dash was broken and the car only had a few hundred kilometers on it. It does feel much more solid than the Alfas of ten years ago, the effort put into making better-built cars is noticeable.

Starting at 15,000 Euros for a base 78hp 1.4 model without options, the MiTo is a good deal if you can do without a lot of the superfluous options (GPS, leather wrapped gearshift, back up radar, etc). If you want a loaded one, plan on making your wallet considerably lighter.

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