Alfa Romeo Mito 2013 distinctive
Owner Review

2013 Alfa Romeo MiTO DiSTInctive review

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Please note: Editorial images have been used as none were supplied by the owner

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The Alfa Romeo MiTo, or to give it its full name - the Alfa Romeo MiTo Distinctive 1.4 Turbo Benzina Multiair 135cv TCT.

I don't blame you if you've never seen one, or never even heard of the MiTo. Sales in Australia started slowly through high prices and odd spec and never really recovered, even after FCA took over importation and dropped prices in 2014.

The MiTo essentially took the place of the 3-door 147 in 2008 (2009 in Australia), the 5-door being replaced by the Giulietta in 2010. It utilised the familiar Fiat/GM platform which underpinned the Grande Punto (sold here as just Punto) and the Opel/Vauxhall Corsa D (sold here as an Opel during 2012-13). The idea - take a cheap platform and create a Mini competitor. You can see where this is going.

I bought a MiTo, partly out of curiosity. The brief was to find a small, automatic car that would live mostly in the city. Having owned two '105' series Alfas earlier in my driving life, as well as a temperamental but lovely Alfasud Sprint, I was keen to see just where Alfa had ended up in the early 21st century. Reviews were divergent (but on balance not all that encouraging), however having driven plenty of 156/GT era cars and enjoyed them, I knew not to always place too much emphasis on journo reviews of Alfas. Also, being a serial 'flipper' of cars, if it was a total shed I could jump out a year down the track hopefully without too much wallet damage.

From the outside, most people are pretty split over how it looks. I would say from some angles it looks 'sculptural', but its also patently clear that you can't take the body style of a rear-wheel drive supercar (the 8C) and try to force it onto an economy car platform. The wheelarches are huge front and back and make the wheels look comical on anything smaller than 18 inches. The nose and shield are small and contribute to a 'pinched' look at the front, exacerbated by the headlights which sit high and further back. One of the kinder descriptions are of it having the appearance of a surprised owl.

There are nice touches though - the rear from dead on looks great, impossibly wide, and with the two circular LED tailights (shared with the 4C!) perfectly sized and positioned. The car is also mercifully free of the fussy detailing typical on modern cars, so you can appreciate the design of the glasshouse and the rear window line. So while the MiTo will never get lost in the Coles car park, ultimately the Giulietta is a more mature and comprehensive expression of the design language.

Inside, there are optional leather seats by Italian specialists Frau - the material quality at least is probably higher than anything else at this price point. Shame then that the seats themselves are flat and wide and lack enough adjustment. The dash is improved in the higher trims like the Distinctive by a carbon weave look over the top surface - again a nice material quality (if glary in sunlight), but shame about the rest of the dash plastics which are of the super hard variety. The rest is also all mostly Fiat parts bin - climate control straight from the Punto, Blaupunkt stereo similar to contemporary Fiats/Opels, stalks etc.

Here again, the MiTo can't escape its origin and the 'hard points' contribute to an awkward driving position. With such a raked screen and a low roofline, you end up sitting near the middle of the car, or possibly even behind - which then puts the dash just a smidgen too far away. So you sit a bit closer and... there's nowhere for your knees. It ends up feeling quite claustrophobic as well due to the high and deep dash, and the low, sweeping roof. The infuriating Blue&Me Bluetooth and Fiat cruise control stalk aside, everything else in here, and the equipment levels (auto wipers, headlights, stop/start, climate) are pretty standard for the era. Anyone cross-shopping against a MINI back in the day however would be sorely disappointed by the overall design and functionality.

The MiTo debuted the Alfa Romeo TCT and the 'Multiair' engines. It also debuted the 'DNA' system which allowed for switchable drive modes (ESP, steering, throttle and in some cases suspension) and continues to this day in the Giulia, albeit slightly modified. The Multiair engines used hydraulically actuated variable valve timing, theoretically able to provide for infinite adjustment of the inlet valves, with the promise of improved performance and economy. There is really no evident difference for the driver, other than slightly increased tappet noise. More on the Multiair later.

The TCT was Alfa's attempt to banish the demons of the 'Selespeed' single-clutch robotised transmission, and playing catch-up to Volkswagen's DSG. In this combination, the 1.4 TB (still essentially the same old FIRE block used by Fiat for decades) produced 99kW and 230Nm. Not terrible for an 1100kg hatch. The TCT itself is a bit of a mixed bag, and here we need to bring the DNA switch back into the conversation. One of the functions of the DNA in a TCT car is to alter the shift map. In 'N' (normal) and 'A' (all weather) it does a halfway reasonable job of being an automatic transmission. The standard dual-clutch traits exist; a little dimwitted around town and occasionally confused about which gear to be in. Combined with a bit of turbo lag and acceleration from standstill tends be nothing followed by everything all at once. Still, with a bit of help from the paddle shifters you can make progress.

The problems really begin in 'D', or 'Dynamic'. It now enters full psychotic Italian mode. Presumably as the TCU only really has throttle and brake inputs to determine its course of action, braking even moderately for a corner will result in multiple downchanges and flaring revs. Full throttle acceleration will see gears held interminably long. It would almost be forgivable if when you moved the selector to the left to engage manual mode the gearbox was an ally to your commands, but it just isn't. The shifts are slower than similar gearboxes from VW or Renault, and sometimes your paddle pulls are completely ignored.

Coupled with the fairly 'boosty' nature of the engine and a narrow power band, it is an entirely unsatisfying car to drive fast. Once a week, if an open stretch presented itself you could select D, control the gears yourself in anticipation of some enjoyment, but then three minutes later you would flick everything back, having been thoroughly reminded of why you shouldn't have ever really bothered in the first place. To make matters worse, in "D" mode the steering resistance becomes treacly thick, yet still without a great deal of feedback. If the system allowed you (as in an i30N for instance) to customise the settings you would take the shift map and steering weight of N, with the throttle map and ESP calibration of D.

So after a year and a bit of ownership, what's the wash up? Well, fuel consumption of 8.1 litres per 100 kilometres combined, slightly skewed towards highway. This suggests that perhaps Multiair isn't all it's cracked up to be. It needed its second - yes, second - pair of front pads and discs at 50000km after being changed at 25000km. A Check Engine light and code indicated a problem with the Multiair system - which usually means replacement of the entire Multiair module at $1500, however this appeared to be a false flag. Another Check Engine light and code indicated a problem with the throttle position sensor. Again, no other symptoms presented and it then disappeared.

According to the dash the rain sensor for the wipers didn't work for a week, however their operation during this time was just as dodgy as usual. The spring in the coin tray, which appears to be of a similar quality to that found in a clothes peg, continually pops out leaving said tray hanging in the breeze. The HVAC fan is very noisy. The turbo has a metallic vibration on the overrun. There's an undiagnosable noise at the front left. The front struts are noisy, even though they aren't worn. There are creaks and rattles - oh the creaks and rattles - on the driver's side seatbelt mount, and the passenger side door card. There's a strange rattle on the driver's side door that sounds like there's gravel inside the door, and the centre armrest creaks.

The TCT's actuation is audible when coming to a stop, which can take some getting used to. The gearbox struggles to engage the first uphill downshift on a cold morning. The demister is crap and the rear window demister element can't be used at the same time as the rear window wiper, as if there is only enough current to run one at a time. The lack of sound deadening and the rather grumbly nature of the 1.4-litre all contribute to just being a very unrefined place to sit. The short wheelbase and poor damping promote a crashy ride around town, which never really settles down on anything less than the proverbial snooker table surface. Sometimes such a trade-off could be made for agile handling, but here too the MiTo deceives by offering decent initial turn-in, then running out of grip without communicating much to the driver.

Perhaps you could forgive an Alfa's foibles when they look as gorgeous as the Brera, sound as emotive as a 147 GTA or drive with the tactility of a 1750 GTV, but in the MiTo, any fettling by Alfa Romeo fails to lift it above the sum of its parts and certainly not into the realms of a premium compact. The base models were too basic, the TCT cars like this were unrefined and the range-topping QV ultimately lacked the value, fun and pace of its talented rivals.

When historians look back over the annals of Alfa Romeo history, where will the MiTo sit? While not a terrible car, it's not a great Alfa Romeo - and as someone with history in the brand I feel like I'm qualified to say that. Despite an illustrious back catalogue including Grand Prix domination, Alfa Romeo have had more than their fair share of missteps. The Alfa 6 - an undesirable toe in the executive waters. The horrid ARNA, an unloved creation that married 80's Japanese styling at its most sombre with Italian engineering at its most unreliable. Perhaps the 166, gorgeous in body and engine but lacking in most other regards.

Perhaps history will be slightly kinder to the MiTo, though it is far from legendary in the same way as its distant predecessor the Alfasud. If anything, the MiTo is somewhat forgettable, as evidenced by Mike Stevens' confused expression when I told him I owned one. It will belong to a lost era for Alfa Romeo - sandwiched between some flawed but likeable cars (147, 156, 159) and the new generation signified by Giulia and Stelvio. This era, encompassing two purpose-built sportscars (4C, 8C) and two Fiat-derived hatchbacks (Giulietta, MiTo) was lean on product, promise and profitability. One only hopes that the PSA merger and Mr Sweater's legacy will live on in the form of good product wearing the famous Scudetto. I've already lost Saab, I couldn't bear to lose Alfa too.