The Alfa Romeo Mito is one half of the Italian marque's simple, two-car line-up.
Emerging in 2008 as a rival to the Mini, and more recently the Audi A1, like the British icon it continues to carry a premium for what is a city-sized car.
Despite being smaller than the Giulietta five-door that competes with the VW Golf, the pint-sized three-door Alfa Romeo Mito bizarrely has a higher starting price ($25,200 before on-road costs versus $25,000 driveaway).
It did start from $31,990, however, before Fiat Chrysler Australia slashed prices in February 2013 after securing the Alfa Romeo and Fiat brands from another importer.
The lack of a six-speed manual transmission doesn’t help the buyer’s budget, with only a dual-clutch auto teamed with the 1.4-litre petrol engine that sits under the bonnet of the entry-level Mito, the Progression.
The four-cylinder produces 99kW of power at 5000rpm and 190Nm of torque at 4500rpm in its natural state – though drivers can extract an extra 40Nm by nudging the ‘DNA’ (Dynamic, Normal, All-weather) drive mode toggle into its sportiest setting.
With the engine requiring high revs to reach either peak, progress off the line and up to 2500rpm is less spritely than you might expect in the 1145kg Mito. The engine’s stop-start system also takes its time in turning back over from rest.
North of 3000rpm the engine pulls strongly with hints of the sporting character associated with the Alfa badge. Though not a particularly sweet-sounding engine – particularly on the approach to its 6500rpm redline where our 7000km-old test car retorted with a coarse, rattly buzz – it sounds satisfyingly substantial for a city car, and is well insulated from the cabin.
The Mito’s six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission acknowledges the engine’s limitations, though its strategy of countering its lack of low-down punch by grasping onto and kicking back to low gears is often misguided and at the detriment of comfort and refinement.
Holding first gear beyond 20km/h (regardless of DNA selection) makes the Mito frustratingly lurchy in traffic to the point where upshifting with the steering wheel-mounted paddles is a necessity rather than a luxury. The gearbox is also particularly eager to downshift on hills, at times filing back multiple ratios unnecessarily, painfully flaring the revs.
To make the Mito better to drive in any situation, though, it’s necessary to select the Dynamic mode of the gimmicky DNA system.
As well as unleashing the engine’s full 230Nm, selecting Dynamic mode sharpens throttle response and adds weighting to the steering, producing a set-up that is best suited to playful punts along twisty sections of tarmac. The steering ratio doesn’t change, however, so the Mito never feels as direct as the Mini.
Alfa’s pursuit of a sporty suspension set-up also translates to a ride that feels busy on Australia’s less-than-perfect suburban roads. While its reactions are quick and precise, the Mito is too firm, jiggling over coarse surfaces and transferring small and larger bumps into the cabin.
The Progression’s grippy, low-profile tyres, which wrap around 17-inch alloy wheels, also do the ride, or road noise suppression, few favours.
This firmness benefits dynamics back on those fun roads, however, where the Mito sits flat and its chassis, while ageing – the platform is shared with the 2005 Fiat Punto and 2006 Opel Corsa – remains encouragingly tight and balanced even if you’ll have more fun, and find greater confidence, in both the Mini, A1, or a Ford Fiesta.
You’ll need plenty of freeway kilometres to get close to the Alfa’s official fuel consumption of 5.5L/100km as the parts of our test that encountered heavy city traffic saw figures in the low-9s.
The bug-eyed design of the Alfa Romeo Mito won’t work for everyone (we think the rear end looks much better), though at least it’s distinctive and instantly identifiable unlike the cabin.
There’s a surprising lack of character to the Mito’s interior, and details such as the bland silver plastic centre dashboard panel and the red stereo screen that may have looked smart in the 1990s contribute to areas that let it down.
The rubbery plastic covering the top of the dash has a quality feel, but the general texture and tactility of the surfaces is underwhelming for a city car with a premium price tag.
A Ford Fiesta’s interior is more cohesive, and a comparison against the Mini and, especially, the A1 that starts just a bit higher than the Mito would only highlight the Alfa’s shortage of quality.
Ergonomics aren’t perfect, either. The front seats are firm and lack under-thigh support, and, while not an issue for this reviewer, other members of the CarAdvice test team complained finding their preferred driving position was difficult. Rear visibility is somewhat restricted by the Mito’s wide C-pillars, while the broad A-pillars also demand to be looked around at times.
The rear seats are admirably accommodating for such a compact car, with headroom for six-footers, though legroom is unsurprisingly tight. A wide, deep 270-litre boot swallows a weekend’s cargo for two with ease, and while the 60:40 split-fold rear seats don’t come close to laying down flat, they add an extra degree of versatility to the Mito package.
A leather-bound steering wheel, gear knob and handbrake lever aim to add a touch of luxury to the baby Alfa, though the Progression trim grade otherwise offers only basics such as foglights, cruise control, a six-speaker audio and Bluetooth connectivity that shows the car’s age by lacking wireless streaming.
Another $1900 is required for the Distinctive that brings features such as red brake calipers, rear parking sensors, automatic headlights and wipers, electro-chromatic rear-view mirror, dual-zone climate control, and metal sports pedals.
Mito buyers will need a similar amount over the first four 12-month/15,000km intervals as part of a costly service arrangement, while a timing belt and water pump replacement after four years adds an extra $1200 to the service bill, taking the 48-month total to more than $3000. (Service prices estimated by a Sydney dealership.)
Positively, roadside assistance is free for the three-year/150,000km period of the Mito’s warranty.
A revised Alfa Romeo Mito arrives in late 2013 that will bring some updates such as cosmetic tweaks and a new infotainment.
For now, though, the Mito is not as easy to recommend as a Mini or A1 that nail the premium city car brief, or even cheaper city cars such as the VW Polo and Ford Fiesta.
An Alfa Romeo badge for just over $25,000, however, will of course be alluring enough for some buyers.
Alfa Romeo Mito Progression
Engine: 1.4-litre 4-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 99kW at 5000rpm
Torque: 190Nm at 4500rpm (230Nm at 4500rpm in Dynamic mode)
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
0-100km/h: 8.2 seconds
Fuel consumption: 5.5L/100km
CO2 emissions: 128g/km