Alfa Romeo MiTo Road Test
It’s Alfa Romeo’s renaissance car, the one the company hopes will occupy the same passionate place in motorists’ hearts as the hugely popular Alfasud and Sprint Veloce did three decades ago. The big question is, does it? asks Tony Bosworth.
With a whole string of successful models in its wake, Alfa Romeo has certainly never been short on style or performance but the brand suffered in Europe back in the 1980s and in to the ‘90s when no amount of sexy appeal could hide the rust creeping through the bodywork.But boy, did they drive well; lovely springy manual gearchanges, beautiful polished wood steering wheels and gear lever knobs, more grip than super-glue, and a musical engine note that made you smile – I can still easily summon the memory of the deep roar of the GTV6, a sound that stays in your mind like the roar of the sea at night. Okay, that’s enough of the poetic. What’s the Alfa Romeo MiTo Progressive – the entry-level MiTo – got going for it and does it make the grade? You never used to buy an Alfa for quality – it was the engine and performance that hooked you. Well, the good news is, this Alfa has a true quality look and feel to it.
The MiTo’s swooping lines make it look different from most of the similarly sized hatchbacks out there, and that’s definitely no bad thing. From the front there’s also a strong family resemblance that harks back to the best of Alfa design from the 1950s and ‘60s.Inside, the quality of materials is impressive. Gone is the squishy-squashy-is-that-on-or-not button array; they have been replaced by precise and nicely tactile buttons throughout. While the dials are also clearly Alfa Romeo, to me they’re a little too small and fussily marked and that means they’re not as easy to read as a VW or Ford’s. The dashboard and facia design overall though is excellent – with the exception of the too-small dials – and again the quality, fit and finish is impressive. The big seats are well made, well padded and supportive enough.Taken as a whole, it’s a well planned interior and is a welcome change from Alfas of old and it too helps to position the Alfa Romeo Mito Progressive as a credible rival in this market, but it does lack the clean logic of, say, a VW or Audi.
BEHIND THE WHEEL
Back in the 1980s and ‘90s you needed short legs and long arms to comfortably drive an Alfa. It suited me, but if you had long legs, well, you were going to be driving with your knees up.The Alfa Romeo MiTo Progressive is what I’ll call New Alfa. Driver seat and steering wheel adjustment allows almost anyone to get a good driving position. The amount of adjustment is on par with the best of hatchbacks out there. But to be honest, I miss the old Alfa driving position and I know a lot of my fellow road testers from years back feel the same, despite some of them standing six foot tall. It was all part of Alfa Romeo’s character and it felt more sports car than hatchback. Sadly today, there’s no glowing-wood steering wheel; the Mito’s is the same as any other car makers, though this one is clad in leather, so it feels nice enough.Back seat Alfa Romeo MiTo passengers get a comfy rear bench and a good amount of leg and headroom. Although the Mito would never tick the big car box, Alfa’s designers have done a fine job maximising interior space. One annoying feature though are front seat headrests which are at an uncomfortable angle. If you have the backrest up pretty straight they keep your head slightly forward, so to compensate the seatback needs to be back more than you might like.
ROOM & PRACTICALITY
Boot space is reasonable at 270-litres and you get a normal 60:40 split-fold rear seat but they don’t fold down completely flat so that limits practicality a bit. My problem with the boot though is while it’s reasonably wide there’s a fair drop down to the cargo floor, which means bending over to haul heavy items back out. I fitted a child seat and booster seat in the back and despite the lack of rear passenger doors that’s easy enough. Thankfully, once the kids’ seats are in, the front seats slide back to where they were, and the seat back resets to its original position.
I’m sorry to keep harking back to the day, but time was when an Alfa would get six, seven, even eight out of five for drive and performance. On car magazines I worked on, we’d fight for the Alfa keys. You got in and turned the key and no matter if the engine was a lowly 1.5-litre boxer or mighty V6, the engine note was what you listened to if you couldn’t afford a Ferrari. And you know what, you didn’t care it didn’t have a prancing horse badge on the bonnet, you were at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo and that was something real special back then. With the possible exception of the wallowy Alfa 6 sedan, every Alfa delivered stuff no other mainstream maker could offer in a single package – superb go-cart handling, supple ride, great steering and above all, that wonderful free-revving engine note and shattering performance.On paper, today’s automatic Alfa Romeo MiTo Progression should get the blood flowing too because it features a petrol turbocharged four cylinder engine producing 99kW of power at 5000rpm and 190Nm of torque at 4500rpm – that’s not too shabby. You can also access an extra 40Nm by turning the DNA setting – a switch by the side of the gearlever – to Dynamic (the DNA control stands for Dynamic, Normal, All-weather).Now, it’s been a while since I’ve driven an Alfa and my first thought after firing the MiTo up was, what’s happened to the engine? The spine-tingling music simply isn’t there and that is very sad indeed. Rev the MiTo and it doesn’t sound like an Alfa, it sounds like any other hatchback. And to be fair to its rivals, the MiTo doesn’t sound anywhere near as refined as a VW or Peugeot or Ford, to name just a few, it sounds a whole lot coarser.But you could live with that if this car didn’t have quite the worst gearbox I’ve experienced in 35 years of road testing. And yes, I have driven a Citroen 2CV. Alfa says the system “consists of two gearboxes in parallel, each with its own clutch, which allows the selection and engagement of the subsequent gear while the previous one is still engaged”. Hmm, maybe it’s just me but that sounds like a recipe for disaster. Alfa says the point is that the gear is changed, “with a simple gradual switch of the corresponding clutches, guaranteeing continuous torque delivery and therefore traction”. Like I said…But let me give you the real-life scenario. I live in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. We’re not talking big hills here. When I trundle the car out of the driveway and on to the road there’s a gentle downward slope. If you’re fit you can cycle back up it without running out of puff.Put the MiTo in Drive and let it go and the gearbox stubbornly refuses to change up as you go downhill. The engine screams as it holds the car back. In a manual you’d only ever hold on to gears like this twin clutch auto does if your name was the Marquis de Sade. I have to say, at first I thought there was something wrong with the gearbox, but PM Editor Isaac Bober had already driven the Mito and he too had the same head-shaking opinion – this is how it’s meant to be.So, you reach for the gearchange paddle above the steering wheel and flick it several times quick as you can to manually select a higher gear and yes the ‘box changes up, but leave it to its own devices and it soon kicks back down again. It’s infuriating. The only way to solve this is to grit your teeth, put your foot down and push it through the gears. If this was my car I’d be seriously concerned at the damage this would do long term. No one should treat an engine like this.Over my week with the MiTo I tried everything to make it perform more smoothly and that included switching between the normal driving set-up and Alfa’s DNA which dials in different engine, gearbox, steering and essentially drive settings. I drove it gently, I drove it madly, but as Editor Bober pointed out, “you don’t want to have to rev the proverbials off it all the time to get the most out of it”.It is best to select the Dynamic setting because that gives you the extra torque, upping it to 230Nm, but it also provides quicker throttle response and a bit more weight to the steering. The problem is, even on a flat bit of road unless you’ve got the loud pedal pinned to the floor the gearbox will, given half a chance, drop down into a lower gear. It makes for very tiring driving. And coming back home up the hill the ‘box is always hunting for a lower gear. You know, this wouldn’t be half as bad if the Mito had what I’d call a typically Alfa engine note, but it doesn’t – it’s coarse when pushed and there’s just nothing musical about it.
RIDE & HANDLING
Gearbox aside – and sadly it’s hard to separate that from the overall driving experience – the 1.4-litre petrol turbo is a fine engine, performing with – as the Italians would say, brio. Once it’s on a flat road and on song it does pull strongly and one major plus is the work Alfa has done on the front driving wheels because grip is amazingly good. Quite simply this is one of the best front-wheel drive cars I’ve driven. The front boots are big low profile 17 inchers – and they don’t skip about or torque steer (the tugging sideways pulling action when you push a front-wheel drive car too hard), they simply grip and pull the car forward without scrabbling. Even in the wet the level of grip is impressive.The ride is mostly good too even over the rough country roads where I live, and it sits solid at motorway cruising speeds, but the low profile tyres do add to road roar and they feed bad road surfaces back at you more than lesser tyres might.There is some body roll when you chuck it through corners but it’s mostly at the front where this car feels a touch front-heavy, pitching into corners at speed until you get used to it. It feels more like there’s a diesel under the bonnet than a smallish 1.4-litre petrol, but part of that feeling is down to the steering which in the straightahead position feels a tad wooden and lacking in feel. On the definite plus side, the turn-in is quick, the car does go where it’s pointed, and ultimately it is a hard vehicle to unstick, so underneath it all there are some good ancestral Alfa traits showing through.
There are plenty of popular motoring clichés. This is Alfa’s: the only person who wants an Alfa Romeo is someone who has never owned one. In the glory days, died-in-the-wool Alfa owners were well aware of that but they accepted the marque’s shortcomings because they knew driving their car would put a smile on their face before they were at the end of the road. Well, I don’t see MiTo Progression owners smiling too much, not unless they like wrangling a gearbox down the road.Of course, that’s not to say the MiTo is unreliable, and to prove it, Alfa confidently backs the Progression with a three-year 150,000km warranty and free roadside assistance during that time. On top of that, when Fiat Chrysler took over responsibility for sales recently from another importer, they chopped the price from a tad under $32,000 to $25,200, which seemed like a good move (well, except for those poor souls who’d bought at the previous price…) because there is no way the Progression is worth $32,000.The fact is, Alfa Romeos have not had a good reputation for reliability over the years, but I think that’s largely a thing of the past. I say that because the Progression is a much more clinical car than I expected. You know what though? I miss the Alfa Romeo character. I’d swap the switchable DNA button for real Alfa Romeo DNA any time, but time allows you to forget the bad moments; like when you were standing by the side of the road in the rain, a victim of stuttering Italian electronics. So I think reliability has improved but the price you pay appears in part to be a stripping away of character. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. If you look at an Audi A1, Ford Fiesta or Mini, you get some character and reliability too.
PRICING & EQUIPMENT
After the recent hefty price cut, at $25,200 (+ORC) the Alfa Romeo MiTo Progression represents fair value for money in terms of on-paper performance and equipment, If this car were to be judged on its perceived value alone it would be right up there against any rival in this heavily contested price range, but that twin clutch gearbox puts a big dent in this car’s desirability.Standard equipment is far from lavish though – you need to step up to the Distinctive model badge for more than cruise control, electric windows, air con, leather wrapped steering wheel and gear selector, central locking, auto door locks (common on most half decent cars today) and height adjustable front seats. Still, at this new price point, it’s a fair list, I suppose.
The Alfa Romeo MiTo has a five-star Euro NCAP rating achieved in part because of each model’s seven airbags and good crash protection. There’s SBR (Seat Belt Reminder), visible seat belt warning, anti-whiplash devices on the seats, double pretensioners on front seat belts, a collapsible steering wheel, and the steering column is designed to absorb impact energy in a controlled manner. You also get ABS anti-lock brakes with EBD, Vehicle Dynamic Control (Alfa’s version of Electronic Stability Control), Anti-Slip Regulation which gives best traction at any speed with the help of the brakes and automatic engine control, and Cornering Brake Control which controls braking if the MiTo starts to loose grip because of high speed or poor road surface.