Driven: Alfa Romeo MiTo

As Alfa Romeo’s first supermini since the demise of the Alfasud in 1989, the MiTo has a lot to achieve. Not only does it have to bring people to the struggling brand but when they get there it has to be every bit as good as its Mini and Fiat 500 competitors. Nearly just won’t be good enough when the Italian firm only has the bigger Giulietta to fall back on.

At first glance, the MiTo should do well. Alfa isn’t hiding from the fact that the styling has been inspired by the magnificent 8C Competizione, with a clean and crisp shape being covered in little details that you keep finding day after day.

The extended rear lights pop out of the metalwork like a couple of solid rocket boosters, large wheels fill the stretched arches, silver wing mirror caps add an air of exclusivity and luxury, while the deep front V-grille harks back to Alfa’s of old. It has a distinctive, muscular and aggressive style, yet somehow manages to blend that with a softness that appeals to all.

Inside there has been very nearly as much effort. Rather than the standard plastic clad dashboard you would expect to find at this end of the market, you will find swathes of carbon fabric that adds a quality and sporty look. A two piece centre console leaves the radio easily accessible, although the climate controls are then relegated to a low level that is not entirely easy to reach.

Deep, ribbed and supportive seats hold you in place while aluminium pedals remind you of the cars sporting intentions. Directly ahead four dials tell you all you need to know, but in Italian. There’s no fuel gauge but there is a Benzina dial, likewise there’s Acqua and Giri for water and revs. It’s a tiny detail, but leaves you buying in to the brand that little bit more.

That’s all well and good, but an Alfa Romeo is to be driven and not simply stared at, although given how good the MiTo looks you could probably be forgiven. Time to fire up the 1.4 litre turbo charged petrol engine, slide the gear lever in to Drive (it’s a twin-clutch semi-automatic) and put my foot down.

I was heartbroken. I wanted to love this MiTo, hoping for something nimble, agile, almost alive. Instead I had an engine that felt like it simply couldn’t breathe enough air. Spongy and soggy, I was genuinely convinced something was very wrong with the car. I persevered for a while, prodding and pressing things in the hope that something might liven it up, at which point I discovered the DNA switch.

Presumably invented by Alfa’s marketing team, it stands for Dynamic, Normal and All-weather, each position changing the settings for the power steering, dampers, traction control, boost pressure and, vitally, throttle response. Sliding it to Dynamic, I got going again.

Touch the throttle now and the car scampers away, desperate to get moving. It almost pre-empts your inputs, begging you to go harder, faster, longer. Banging through the gears using the steering wheel mounted paddles, there’s never a break in the power, no pause while the computer works out which gear should be next. Why oh why isn’t the car set to this by default? It’s the difference between Michael Buble and The Prodigy, a hot-air balloon and an F-22 Raptor.

It might only have a small four-cylinder engine, but the DNA switch allows you to access all 135 horses, the car feeling much faster than it really is and making a glorious noise at it goes. Fortunately the chassis allows you to make the most of the now eager engine.

There is plenty of grip with a really sharp turn in, although the back-end can move around a little more than you might expect. Never was it found wanting though, at least not on public roads. It was everything I wanted from an Alfa Romeo.

Until arrived in the town centre, when dialling down my own levels of concentration meant that the fidgety ride quality started to show. Every bump, every imperfection, could be felt through the cabin, something that wasn’t sorted when switching back to Normal mode on that DNA switch. Making that change also brought back the asthmatic throttle response, but leaving it in Dynamic meant that every time I pulled away from the lights I was nearly parking in the boot of the car in front.

However, every time I popped out in the evening to pick up something unnecessary from the local shop I seemed to cover an extra 30 miles or so. What was once a four-minute drive now took an hour, but I was always grinning once I returned home.

In many ways it was the stereotypical Alfa Romeo experience. It’s great to look at, but equally enlivening and frustrating to drive. I’d be cursing it frequently but just five minutes later would be ready to put a deposit down on one at the local dealer.

Ultimately it’s a spacious, useable, practical, reasonably economical small hatchback that’s also good to drive, great to look at and pretty cheap to run. It’s a classless car, appealing as much to a 22-year-old man as it does to a 65-year-old woman, with a kerbside appeal that will even get admiring glances outside McDonald’s on a Friday evening.

Learn to use the DNA switch the moment you step in the car and there is a lot to like about the little Alfa Romeo. But before this one returns to the press fleet, I just need to get some milk.

I’ll be back in an hour or so…

Phil Huff

Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, DAD.info and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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