Published on Friday 1 August 2014 16:36
Ten Second Review
Cars that are smaller and more efficient can also be more desirable. Alfa Romeo hopes proof can come in the form of their MiTo, one of the new breed of small yet desirable sporty premium compact models. Aimed at the MINI but offering greater practicality, value and high street wow factor, this Italian alternative is attracting a loyal following. To understand why, we've been taking a look at the efficient Multijet II diesel variant.
It took a long time for the market to see a product that properly competed with BMW's MINI. That car proved that European drivers were prepared to pay quite a premium for something three-door and compact, provided it was stylish, sporty and had the right brand cachet. Step forward Alfa Romeo's MiTo. Thirty years ago, enthusiasts on real world budgets dreamed of an Italian car packing all of Alfa's heritage and spirit into a four-metre length - and realised it with the iconic Alfasud. Today, the MiTo should satisfy their kids in exactly the same way.
We should start by explaining the name, combining as it does the first two letters of Milan (where Alfa Romeo was conceived) and Turin - or in Italian 'Torino' - (where the cars are currently made). It's also the Italian for 'myth', or legend, a nod to the ambitious future the brand has in mind that will see this model leading an ambitious charge to double its volume to 300,000 cars a year. Yes, this is a lot cheaper than the larger Alfa Romeos we're used to, but it's also still pretty profitable given that the money to develop its underpinnings and engines was already spent a few years ago on this model's close cousin, Fiat's Grande Punto. Fortunately for potential buyers, the two cars have a very different feel thanks to the MiTo-specific steering, seating, suspension and brakes. Its engines are tuned differently too and of course, there are these unique looks. So far so good.
So, to what an Alfa should be about - the driving experience. Even in this modestly-powered 95bhp diesel version, first impressions are good. You sit lower than you would in the Fiat Grande Punto that shares this car's basic structural and oily bits. But shouldn't an Alfa have its own unique engine? Sadly, in the modern world, that idea makes no sense at this price point but the Milanese engineers have done a good job in tweaking the powerplants that are available to give them some high-revving, sweet-sounding Alfa-like character. Or at least they have in the Multiair petrol models. There's only so much you can do with a diesel but this 1.3 JTDm-2 unit is certainly impressive, meeting the latest Euro 5 emissions legislation, yet offering a 0-62mph acceleration time of 11.6s.
To help get the most from the performance on offer, Alfa have turned to some sophisticated electronics to further set their car apart. The first, I'm not totally sure about. The DST (or Dynamic Steering Torque) system is supposed to give a counter-steering effect to combat oversteer and help maintain an even course through quick corners. No doubt it does but the electric whole set-up feels a little over-assisted and somewhat vaguer than I'd expect from a car of this kind. Much better thought out is the use across the range of Alfa's clever Q2 differential, which diverts engine torque to the wheel that has the grip to use it, so uselessly spinning wheels aren't a part of hard cornering. The brakes are very effective but you won't have to over-use them into bends as body roll's well controlled, a by-product of ride quality that may be a little firm for some.
The MiTo's piece de resistance however, is the DNA set-up that's laudably standard on all models for quick driver control of throttle and transmission response, power steering assistance, suspension firmness and stability control. The initials stand for 'Dynamic', 'Normal' and 'All-weather' and these three settings are accessible via this three-position rocker switch that's rather tucked away behind the gear lever. Unlike some systems of this sort, you don't need to be a professional driver to notice the difference it makes.
Design and Build
Most cars have some kind of styling brand identity but with an Alfa, the whole shape has a unique look that could belong to no other marque, from the serpent-eating-baby badge on the shield-shaped front grille to the rounded jewel-like LED tail lights. The sleek look with its slippery 0.29 Cd drag co-efficient is derived from 450bhp Alfa's 8C Competizione supercar and is one you'll either love or hate.
Unfortunately, this is a three-door-only shape, but at least there's decent space in the back for a couple of adults on shorter journeys, even if it is a little awkward for them to get in to start with. There's a lot more room back here than the pathetic berths offered by a MINI though and the 270-litre luggage bay is nearly twice that car's size, even if its opening is a little narrow with a high-ish loading lip.
Now if you're going to pay premium money for something sized somewhere between a supermini and a family hatchback, then you want it to feel pretty special inside as well as out - and the MiTo doesn't disappoint. The main dials are hooded in true Alfa-style and the carbonfibre-look dashboard covering is part of a variety of racy trim materials employed to impressively up-market effect.
Market and Model
List figures for this diesel variant suggest that you'll be paying somewhere between £14,000 and £16,000, depending on the trim level you choose. That puts this model directly up against diesel versions of its MINI arch-rival, as well as models like HDi versions of Citroen's avant garde DS3. If you're not into MINIs or MiTos, there are plenty of other diesel-powered 'warm-hatch' pretend GTi alternatives but they don't have quite the same class.
All MiTo variants come with a healthy safety provision that includes seven airbags and anti-whiplash head restraints, while apart from the DNA handling control system, a whole host of electronic driver aids have been built into the car. These include ABS brakes with EBD electronic brakeforce distribution to maximise their effectiveness, plus the VDC (or Vehicle Dynamic Control) stability system, which along with ASR anti-skid control and CBC Cornering Brake Control, will help you out in slippery conditions or if you enter a corner too fast. Air conditioning is standard, as is a decent quality MP3-compatible CD stereo, electric front windows, plus alloy wheels on most models. Downsizers with a bit of spare cash will be happy to raid the options list for some lovely extra cost items like these gorgeous leather seats.
Cost of Ownership
The Mito's Multijet II diesel is very efficient indeed, capable of 65.7mpg on the combined cycle while putting out just 112g/km of CO2. That's a decent showing considering its performance potential. Insurance? Well, your grouping will be between 3 and 6. Residual values will be better than those of mainstream rivals.
As ideal for those who simply prioritise style and performance in a compact, practical package as it is for dyed-in-the-wool 'Alfisti' enthusiasts, the MiTo appears to have the ingredients it needs to succeed. The market for trendy small cars has really taken off in recent years and this baby Alfa looks perfectly placed to capitalise, particularly in this diesel guise. It's taken the Milanese marque thirty years to produce a car like this. Many will feel that it's been worth the wait.