Alfa Romeos are beautiful cars, there's no denying that. With almost no exception, every decade has spawned a truly special, more-than-gorgeous model for the hardcore Alfisti out there. In the last decade, that model has most likely been the 8C Competizione. Penned by Wolfgang Egger, the retro-modern 8C and its open top "Spider" sibling, have turned quite a lot of onlookers' hearts into prisoners.
With such a great hit on their hands, the guys in charge at Alfa realized they must be on to something. Corroborated with the fact that they didn't have any competitor to the highly-successful "by BMW" Mini resurrection, a somewhat peculiar decision was made. DNA samples were taken from the 8C Competizione and then mixed with those of the Fiat Grande Punto. We'll cover more of the "DNA" concept later on into our test drive, by the way.
When BMW launched the new MINI brand in 2001 there weren't that many people who envisioned the world's first premium small car to benefit from a great deal of sales success. Well, apparently it did, therefore convincing other premium or near-premium carmakers to jump on the bandwagon.
The first to come up with a real competitor to challenge the Mini's success was Alfa Romeo, with the funky-named MiTo. Launched in 2008, it quickly became obvious that the model is more than just a Fiat Grande Punto with an Alfa 8C Competizione body kit. Apart from being an abbreviation made out of Milano and Torino (the Italian cities where it was designed and built, respectively), the name "MiTo" is also a play of words, since in Italian it means "myth". Kind of neat, huh?
Well, not entirely. A year before the official launch of the car, a naming competition for it was held in all major European countries. A lot of people voted and the MiTo was very close to be named "Furiosa", since that was the winning name in the aforementioned contest. Apparently, the big decision-makers at Alfa did not quite like it and determined that "MiTo" would be more fitting.
With these said, we took a MiTo in Alfetta red to test drive in order to see what's all the fuss about with the tiny but furious Italian hatchback. Since its other two competitors were missing at the time of our test drive (we're talking about the Audi A1 and the Citroen DS3, ed), our only way of comparing the MiTo with a somewhat similar car was to put it up against the Mini, a version of which we also tested the past week. So, let's see how the MiTo 1.6 JTD stacks up against its rival.
Not even a person who is very much into details can suspect there's actually a humble Fiat Grande Punto under that gorgeous Alfa body just by looking at it. Every family-trait in the Alfa Romeo design heritage is on the tiny but sexy MiTo. Curiously, the car's second-most outrageous road-going Alfa in history (after the 33 Stradale), the 8C Competizione, has lent much of its design cues on the little bugger we tested.
The results are more than exhilarating, since the car we drove pretty much stole every bystander's heart wherever we drove it. Never before in this segment has existed a car with so many sporty lines, luxurious design cues and, most of all, so much character. There aren't many people in the world who would consider the MiTo other than a class leader in its segment if their opinions would be based on looks only.
The front is typically Alfa Romeo, but with a twist. After the highly exclusive 8C Competizione was launched, Alfa Romeo guys immediately understood that its design lines shouldn't be confined on one model only. To capitalize even more on the supercar's successful design they took the decision to steal some of those lines and copy/paste them on another, more "down to Earth" Alfa.
The only slight letdown we had considering the design of the front might be the impossibility for the license plate to sit right in the middle of the car, since that part is "busy" with the imposing Alfa Romeo grill. The side view looks a bit too high for our taste, especially since it makes the underbody common heritage with the Fiat Grande Punto/ Opel Astra a bit obvious. Thankfully, the only resemblance with its cousins resides in the car's height, since everything else is pure Alfa.
The rear design also evokes the 8C Competizione, especially when looking at the big, round taillights using LED technology, while the over-inflated bumper looks like it has a built-in aerodynamic diffuser. Overall, this is probably one of the (if not THE) most beautiful hatchbacks currently on the market.
Compared with its main rival, the Mini, the MiTo's interior first impresses with the amount of extra space available. So as to not get the wrong impression, the MiTo's cockpit is only bigger by means of overall interior height and the volume of the luggage compartment (270 liters, or 9.5 cubic inches). Other than that, both cars are mainly to be used as two seaters since the rear bench is only fit for (really) small passengers or children on longer rides.
Just like on the exterior, the overall interior design is typically Alfa Romeo, with a nice dose of sporty and elegant lines everywhere in the cockpit. Although usually "sporty" doesn't exactly equal "practical" in family car speak, the MiTo manages to change those stereotypical perceptions. There are plenty of storage spaces available for depositing smaller items and the glove compartment is more than enough for storing your stuff.
As we mentioned before, the fact that the MiTo uses the Fiat/GM SCSS platform is quite a good thing from the point of view. With quite a lot of body modifications, the SGSS platform can also be found under the Fiat Grande Punto/ Punto Evo or the Opel/Vauxhall Corsa, which are among the most spacious cars in their class. Sure, the MiTo has a much lower overall height and only two doors, which kind of take away from the said advantage, but the basic idea remains.
Our test car wasn't the most fully equipped MiTo in the range, but we won't subtract too many points in this chapter since the present features had quite a lot of Italian flair and provided a very "racy" atmosphere. The materials used, on the other hand, weren't exactly top notch everywhere in the car. for example, the standard cloth trim on the seats appeared to feel a little cheap for Alfa's standard, while the center console benefitted from a similar treatment.
As for the driving position and the ergonomics, everything is pretty good except for one minor exception. We've noticed this in several other cars, so it's not that uncommon of a problem. The pedals are sitting a bit too close to the lower part center console, making larger drivers feel a bit claustrophobic at the legs, if such a thing is possible.
Overall, the quality and the fit and finish of a not-very-well-equipped MiTo are above average, and a bit nicer than those found on its "donor" brothers, but we can't say they're exactly premium. The sporty feeling found in almost any Alfa is more than present though, and everything from the "hugging" seats to the low-diameter three-spoke steering wheel are there to remind you that deep inside beats a "cuore sportivo".
Unfortunately, the city portion of our test drive was heavily influenced by the MiTo's low ground clearance in the front. Considering we live in a city where an over-optimistic mayor has put insanely high road shoulders on almost every street, the MiTo's front bumper is very easily damageable. Our test car had already had a close encounter with a road side curb just before we took it for a spin, so if you live in a similar town/city, you should be as careful with the MiTo as you would be with your regular 500+ horsepower supercar.
Now let's see the car's other high and low points in the city. The "high ones" aren't as many as you'd imagine, especially for a car as small as the MiTo. First of all, our test car had no parking sensors. Obviously, they would usually be pretty futile on a sub-compact hatchback, since the car practically "ends" right behind the rear windshield. The problem with them missing is the fact that the rear windshield has a rather small area and the rear roof pillars are very thick and curved, hurting quite a lot of the rear visibility. On the good side, the exterior rear view mirrors are both nicely-shaped AND large enough to fulfill their main purpose.
The very low-slung front overhang is a real pain whenever tackling higher-than-usual speed bumps and/or roadside curbs. Apart from that, the very curvy front "corners" of the car also make it hard for you to perfectly judge the correct distance towards the car in front when parallel parking. Of course, everything goes well later on after practicing enough, but without any parking sensors to guide you it's still a bit harder than it should to park in overcrowded cities.
Other than that, the 1.6-liter four-banger under the hood makes a nice pair with the six-speed manual gearbox, making for quite a sporty behavior both in and outside the city. Plus, even if hardcore Alfisti will probably not like it as much for using the wrong kind of fuel, the performance figures are still very Alfa-like. Plus, those better-than-average performance figures from traffic light to traffic light also translate into a very good mileage.
During the course of our test drive we managed to average around 6.5-7 liters of fuel for every 100 kilometers (US 33.6 – 36.2 mpg) in highly crowded traffic, which is just a little more than the official figure of 5.9 liters (US 39.9 mpg).
Yes, we know, we know, the fact that we didn't exactly test the most appropriate type of engine kind of takes away from all the "Cuore Sportivo" present on the MiTo we drove. Yes, it's a 1.6-liter diesel under that beautiful hood and yes, it only has 120 horsepower (albeit that's a pretty high number for an engine of this displacement). Truth is, the performance figures don't look exactly great on paper either. Well, it so turns out once more that you should never read a book by its cover, since "real life" performances are more than adequate on a car like the MiTo.
The official data claims a dawdling 9.9 seconds from zero to 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph) and a top speed of just under 200 km/h (124 mph), but honestly we felt it to be faster. Although after the first two minutes or so of driving it we were actually feeling a very "man, this is slow!" sensation, things immediately changed after flicking the onboard "DNA" switch from "N" to "D". Short translation: in Alfa-speak, "DNA" doesn't come from deoxyribonucleic acid but from "Dynamic, Normal and All-weather". In other words, a single flick of a switch can turn the car's behavior from slouch to athlete.
The DNA system controls the throttle's responsiveness and the amount of "power" the power steering gets at any given moment, so you can basically change the way your MiTo feels everytime you drive it. Plus, the electronic stability control also gets different settings for each of the three letters. You want fuel-efficiency, maximum active safety and the throttle response of a heavy truck, choose "Normal" or worse, "All-weather" settings. Want a car that drives and feels like a true enthusiast's Alfa? Move the controller to "Dynamic" and your whole driving experience changes.
There are somewhat similar systems - with more or less functions - at other manufacturers as well (how many of you guys have "Sport" buttons on the dash?), but on the MiTo it was the first time we actually experienced a totally different car when switching from one program to another. With this being said, we mostly drove the MiTo in "Dynamic" mode, which got the best out of the car especially on the open road.
A rather stiff suspension, short steering ratio and supportive seats combined with the aforementioned gadget can provide miles and miles of fun on a deserted serpentine road. The MiTo steers, accelerates and brakes like a true hot hatch at medium-to-high speeds. When cruising at highway speeds in a straight line things become a bit jittery though, mostly because of the stiff shocks and the very short wheelbase. In other words, if you plan to use your MiTo for long-distance traveling mostly, don't. It's made for the curves, not for the straights.
Since we mostly drove the MiTo in dynamic mode, most of our open road test consisted of higher-than average speeds and accelerations, but the fuel economy remained very good. After some highway miles cumulated with mountain serpentine roads we achieved an average of about 5-5.5 liters per 100 kilometers (US 42.8-47 mpg), which isn't half bad for a car delivering this kind of sensations.