Alfa Romeo MiTo 1.4 T-Jet Review
By James Wong
I’ve always been enamored by the Alfa Romeo brand and the badge that represents it. There’s nothing quite like seeing a red and white coat of arms and serpent eating a child in a badge that is christened proudly on arguably one of the most gorgeous cars on the road. Alfa Romeo of late has unfortunately been unable to produce a car that can drive as well as it looks, as well as do justice to the evocative badge. It is lacking a hot hatch in its line-up now that the old (but still beautiful) 147 is starting to age in the face of new competition. Alfa Romeo also has had a rather typical line-up of the 2.2 inline-4 and 3.2 V6 mated to either the Selespeed or a Tiptronic gearbox in its range – at least, in the local market’s context.
The MiTo(known internally as 955) is a breath of fresh air, with a turbocharged engine and a manual gearbox added to the mix. It might just be the answer to Alfa’s woes.
Seeing the car for the first time, the MiTo feels like an incredibly youthful car. Its looks are a departure from the macho-looking fronts of the 159 and the Brera, instead adopting the more emotive design cues of the much lauded Alfa 8C Competizione. It works, for the side profile and rear at least, but I cannot get past the front’s bloated styling. If it had sharper lines and a more taut front profile, this takes my commendation for the most beautiful hatch on the roads today. But alas, it is always said that there is a certain degree of ugliness in stunning beauty, and that is perhaps the case for the MiTo. That said, it is still a car that will definitely attract attention, and is a far more interesting car to look at than say, a Volkswagen Golf. Alfa Romeo has intentionally made the MiTo more cheeky looking, and that perhaps explains why it looks more cute rather than aggressive.
Alfa Romeo is subtly marketing this car to the younger market too. On its website, listing down the engines available for the MiTo, they even have “an engine specially for younger drivers” – a 1.4 78hp engine that is perhaps what one might call “gutless”. Today however, we are more interested in this – a 1.4 turbocharged engine pushing out 155hp and 230Nm. Now those are some pretty impressive numbers for a 1.4, and the car feels more powerful than its paper figures would suggest. No surprise, since it is the very same engine also used in the Fiat Grande Punto Abarth. Not to mention that the chassis has been largely borrowed from the Grande Punto too. But let’s put aside those Fiat connections for a moment and appreciate the car as an Alfa Romeo.
But that is hardly possible. If you’ve read about my road trip in the Fiat Panda 1.3 Multijet, you may have noticed that I felt the car was incredibly easy to drive. Same thing here for the MiTo – the clutch is so forgiving that you can hardly call the biting point a ‘point’ – it just slips in – but that also means that clutch feel is rather vague. You don’t really balance the clutch to find the biting point but rather just let go the clutch like how you would do as a reflex action. That is okay, as it makes for relaxed city driving no matter what the conditions, but for those who desire more feel in the clutch response they may be disappointed. The gears engage somewhat vaguely, but it does the job decently enough. One much-appreciated feature built into the MiTo is the hill-hold function. It will hold your brakes on a slope for a good 2 seconds or so to prevent the car from moving backwards, giving you time to engage first and move off. I never really found how useful this feature is until I went to explore one of the steepest slopes in Singapore – it was so steep that you had the real fear that the car will topple backwards – and it gave me time to address my fears. Brilliant.
Thankfully, Alfa Romeo has sharpened up the steering and in the MiTo – it definitely feels more direct than the Panda. In fact, I was heartened to observe that the steering has improved so much. It feels much more willing to turn into the next corner, and the nose would follow obediently. In fact, it has improved so much that it surpasses the Spider’s steering feel too. Unfortunately, it is still woefully numb compared to the competition. You won’t have the fear that you cannot feel the front wheels at all, but you won’t call it perfect steering either. Alfa has put in effort here, but can do more in this department.
Cruising on the highway was a joy, as unlike Selespeed, the gears are well-spaced, if a bit too long. Sixth gear puts the car in a comfortable 2,500rpm at 100km/h, but this also means that it is out of its power-band while on the highest gear. Overtaking requires downshifting to either fifth or fourth, and at 3,000rpm the sweet spot of the engine can be felt. Put the car in anything other than Dynamic mode in the DNA system (Dynamic, Normal, All-Weather) just doesn’t do it justice. At Dynamic, the steering and throttle response sharpens up to a exciting level, and in no way does it sacrifice comfort or refinement. When 230Nm of torque rushes in to pull the car at full boost, you wouldn’t believe it was a 1.4 engine under the hood. What’s more is that there is virtually no feeling of an on-off jerkiness associated with turbocharged cars. This engine is sweet-revving and builds up its power so linearly you could almost be fooled that it is naturally aspirated. It was like night and day comparing this fantastic gearbox and engine combination to the 2.2 mated with the Selespeed tested in the Alfa Spider previously. One nudging problem though is that the pedals aren’t really set up for heel-and-toe, so when I tried it I just kept inducing violent jerks. Nevermind that because even without a heel-and-toe, the engine revs so cleanly you won’t feel as much jerk as you expect to feel.
With the tall gearing, the car returns great fuel consumption. Driven like a bank robber on the loose, the car still returned 9.4km to the litre – that is the worst figure I got for the whole test drive. Driven frugally, I would expect the car to return 13km/l easily. This is certainly something I didn’t expect to say of the Alfa, and its roots to Fiat may be the reason why. People might lament the sharing of Fiat parts in Alfas, but benefits like this are hard to ignore.
Going to some B-roads with widths narrower than I would like, I brought the car to its paces and it doesn’t disappoint. Powering out of corners, the engine was a gem if you kept it in its power band. While its suspension is softer than I liked, which induced some bounce and reduced road-holding to quite an extent, it gives the MiTo a playful character as you know the car’s limits and can work within them. It is the tires and not the suspension which limited the MiTo’s potential – shod with painfully poor rubber that had probably worn out, they screeched even with taking corners at civilised speeds. They hit my confidence somewhat and I scaled down my driving. For such a fun car like the MiTo they should have given it better shoes from the factory.
Practicality-wise, the rear seats are accommodating and are surprisingly spacious. But the getting in and out of a two-door four seater is always going to be troublesome no matter how good the design is. The boot is however, too small for any form of long-distance travel, and even a golf bag can hardly fit in it. It also has a high loading height so carrying some heavy luggage is going to be a problem. Despite the compromised boot space, the car overall is quite spacious for seating 4, though 5 will be a bit of a squeeze. A nice aircraft-cabin touch – there are seat belt warning lights for every passenger in the car, and if one or more passengers is not holstered the bell gets alarmingly loud and distracting.
The interior is garish and attention-seeking, and the fabric-like trimming is a loathe-or-hate thing (I loathe it, for the record). Nonetheless, the red and black combination is attractive, and while hard plastics abound they are put together in the cabin rather solidly. No rattles were present throughout the drive, and the air-conditioning was surprisingly powerful for a continental car. Radio is nothing spectacular but again does its job, and the instrument panel shows its numbers clearly. A nice touch is the graphics of the car coming and driving off when you turn on and off the car respectively. Also interesting is the digital boost gauge, which can be loosely referred to as the driver’s joy meter. You do get a lot of information from the trip computer as well. The seats are supportive at the front, good for hard driving but after a whole day’s of driving I did get a backache sitting on it.
All in all, a mightily impressive car from Alfa Romeo. They have jumped by leaps and bounds in terms of driving dynamics, and is ever closer at realising the dream of building a true Italian thoroughbred hot hatch. Some of its flaws, such as a vague steering if rectified could potentially make the Mito be a class-act. Nonetheless, I cannot help but give Alfa Romeo a pat on the back for a job well done in their latest offering. I can only hope their future cars will continue the good work and hoist the Alfa flag flying high again.
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