Price: $20,900 to $26,510
2010 Alfa Romeo MiTo, turbocharged four-cylinder, petrol, five or six-speed manual transmission
So, after giving the Brera a good roasting last week in almost every respect apart from its undeniably lovely appearance, it’s time to take a look at the car that really did kick-start Alfa Romeo’s recent renaissance: the Alfa Romeo MiTo.
It’s been with us for more than two years now but the MiTo represents nothing less than a sea change in Alfa’s public perception. Which is exactly what the company has needed for more than three decades. Because, not since the cute little Alfasud of the 1970s and early 80s, has a model in its line-up had so much weight heaped on its shoulders. The recent Giulietta owes its very existence to this little car and, between the two models, there’s a fairly decent gauge of future output from this famed, historic company.
But before we consider the diminutive MiTo, it’s worth looking back even further to the truly gorgeous 8C supercar. It was – and still is – a halo model for a troubled firm that needed to recapture the imagination of Joe Public. So few were produced that the chances of seeing one are limited at best but it was a decent enough platform from which to launch an entirely different approach to building cars that, not only tug at the heartstrings, but appeal on a sensible, non-emotional level, too.
The 8C is a stunningly beautiful thing to behold. Built by Maserati and infused with the DNA of the very best of Italy, it wasn’t exactly perfect. But that didn’t matter because it’s like complaining that Marilyn Monroe might not have been a very good cook. We were all prepared to live with the various shortcomings because it was so damned sexy to look at. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Alfa Romeos have always appealed to this base instinct that exists within most of us. They’ve always been flawed – sometimes deeply so – but that’s one of the things that has made them so utterly desirable. Take a Montreal, for example, which was produced between 1970 and 1977. Has any ‘normal’ car looked so exotic yet disappointed on so many levels? It was so utterly desirable that reliability rarely factors in any decision making with prospective purchasers, even now. With styling cues from the Lamborghini Miura (just check out the shape of those doors and the tantalising vents in its C-pillars), it cannot help but cause involuntary frothing at the mouth. The 8C has the same effect.
So when Alfa Romeo decided to imbue its supermini with some of that 8C flair, not many people complained. Why would they? It would be like moaning that a MINI-sized model looked too much like an Aston Martin DB9, which even now seems like a step too far. Truth be told, the MiTo manages to combine the physical proportions of a supermini with an undeniable style that owes a great deal to the 8C – not that it looks contrived or awkward in any way.
The front end of the MiTo, even if the 8C didn’t exist, is nothing if not individual. And if you want to combine urban utility with individuality then look no further; especially the new, limited edition Turismo Sport, seen here in menacing black. When you look at the MiTo’s rivals – principally the MINI and Audi’s new Audi A1 – nothing touches it for in-your-face style. And that’s what the best Italian cars have always offered. To be able to say you drive an Alfa when someone asks you what is in the garage, is a most satisfactory moment. The problem has always been, until now at least, that it was a recipe for disaster and heartache. Does the MiTo buck a trend that’s been Alfa’s stock-in-trade for decades?
Yes it does, you’ll be pleased to know. Because, while the earliest incarnations provided as much frustration as they did joy, this little car has turned into a marvel of sorts in the past couple of years. The first models were indeed lovely to look at and as individual as you could get when it comes to city cars but the ride was crashy, fuel economy was unspectacular and the turbo lag was from another decade altogether. Not any more.
In late 2009, a full 18 months after the first MiTos broke cover, new MultiAir engines and a new attitude emerged and made the car a serious contender. MultiAir is brilliant piece of engineering, effectively offering infinitely adjustable valve timing, which means more efficient combustion, no matter how hard or fast you’re driving. And it’s perfectly suited to this little car, making a diesel engine seem somehow irrelevant because the gap in efficiency between the two fuel types is pretty much closed.
I tried two variants: the 1.4-litre Turbo which puts out 100kW and the 125kW range-topping (for Europe, at least) Quadrifoglio Verdi (or Green Four-Leafed Clover). In both variants, turbo lag has been dealt with and is practically absent. The smaller engine comes with a five-speed transmission while the QV is blessed with a six-speeder and both are perfectly suited to the characteristics of their respective power sources.
As in the Giulietta, the DNA (Dynamic, Normal and All-Weather) system is present, and it works rather well. Although you do find yourself opting for Dynamic whenever possible because it sharpens the steering and the engine note is far more vocal – it’s more fun, no matter what your speed. The Q2 ‘differential’ is here too, which is also effective at mimicking the inputs of a slippy diff.
The smaller engined car does suffer from slight steering wander at speed but it’s still an improvement over the earlier cars and in the QV it’s an absolute delight. The dampers feature internal springs to minimise body roll when cornering (in place of traditional anti-roll bars) and they do work well, providing pretty flat cornering with composure at all times. Translation? The fun factor is extremely high, which is what the MiTo needs to offer if it’s to tempt MINI customers. It still doesn’t seem to be quite as solid as BMW’s little marvel or the A1 but it’s light years ahead of Alfa’s previous output.
There’s not much to pick holes in here. The MiTo is an Alfa Romeo in the finest possible sense, inasmuch as it’s individual inside and out, it’s fun and rewarding to drive and has that x-factor which is more difficult to distil into mere words. It’s inexpensive, too, and residual values are holding up well because it’s still desirable. With the Giulietta impressing in recent months, the fact that the newly revised MiTo has managed to overcome its initial shortcomings shows how much Alfa Romeo has changed.
A guilty pleasure no more, yet still a marque that appeals to the emotional, passionate sides of our nature, it’s a fine state of affairs.