Alfa Romeo's new Mito hatch is a cute little car, with a big personality and oodles of talent.
Let me get this off my chest. I was disappointed to note that the Alfa people had decided not to let New Zealand have its genuine entry-point version of the gorgeous little Mito.
If they had, then maybe even I could have afforded one of the wee peanut-shaped hatches, which seem to elicit the kind of "ahhhs" usually reserved for cuddly puppies and the like.
Australia gets a normally aspirated, slightly lower-on-kit version of the Mito as a starting-point, with the all-singing and dancing turbo- charged version that we get as the flagship of the range. In Europe there are more than a dozen Mitos to be had, including diesels, and hopefully some of these might eventually reach these shores.
It's a bit churlish to complain, as we do get the T-Jet Sport, which delivers on so many levels, though its price does tend to hurt a little at $44,990, especially when you realise that the larger five-door Alfa 147 is only $2000 away. The 147 is getting old, while the Mito is as fresh as a daisy, and as willing as a puppy.What it does with just 1.4-litres on tap is remarkable.
The engine is called the T-Jet and employs a small, quick-scrolling turbo to wring an astonishing 114kW from its relatively meagre volume. It does so while providing a meaty 230Nm of torque at an easy-going 3000rpm and it all works well through the standard six-speed transmission.
Depending on what part of Alfa's DNA you tap into, the engine can be made to behave in three distinct ways. This DNA, which has nothing to do with those swirling models from our biology lectures, stands for Alfa's "Dynamic", "Normal" and "All Weather" driving modes, which can be selected by way of a three-position toggle switch to the right of the gear lever.
Each mode refers to the accelerator and steering responsiveness and the stiffness or otherwise of the damping. Drive the car in Normal, which is the default set-up you'll find the Mito in whenever you start it, and you'll feel right at home in town or commuting, when full all-hands- to-the-pumps power and torque is seldom needed, and you appreciate slightly "softer" reactions from the wheel and chassis. Thus set, the Mito is a pleasant drive, and though you can still have a little snap and crackle if you use the throttle's full travel, there's always the feeling that there's something in reserve.
This is confirmed when you put the toggle switch into Dynamic. Not only does the 1.4-litre T-Jet wake-up to its full potential - this means a sub eight-second zero to 100kmh, which is what I observed - but the chassis sharpens-up and so does the steering, to the extent that the car feels so much more immediate in its reactions to driver input. The engine note is a delightful rasp which even harks back to the gorgeous Sud model of oh so long ago. It adds to the driving experience perfectly without offending the neighbours.
On suburban roundabouts, the Mito flick-flacks beautifully and you never feel so rushed that you can't make the required indications. On wider radiused bends, the Dynamic setting produces a car that exhibits a level of incisiveness I wasn't expecting, and keen drivers will revel in the accuracy of the set-up.
As you'd expect, the All Weather setting makes the Mito react in a way so as not to upset grip and traction in the wet and on ice or snow. It certainly appeared to work well in our current batch of several seasons in one day.
Like many who were looking forward to the Mito, I was a little dismayed by early British road test reports on the first right-hand drive models, which had the car all over the place in terms of its chassis. However, it was found that the early cars were not set-up correctly and I'm glad to say that from my week with the Mito, it appears those early misgivings have been well sorted. "My" test car didn't display any of the crashing and banging over potholes reported last year. In the Dynamic setting, the wee Italian does indeed take itself up to Mini levels of communication and driver involvement.
While the Mito's overall body styling resembles no Alfa before it, being a peanut-shaped design rather than having a chiselled Pininfarina- inspired profile, like many recent cars from the brand, it does incorporate Alfa detailing perfectly and wears the heart-shaped grille well, while showing some elements around the front and rear lamps that link it to the stunning 8C Competizione supercar.
Accommodation wise, the Mito seems to have taken a leaf out of the Mini book, by concentrating on its driver and front passenger, who get a delightful environment in the forecabin, with neat and original warp and weft textures on the dash, binnacled vents and dials, as much leg and head room as they want and a great driving position with height and reach adjustable steering.
In the back, the Mito is slightly better set-up than the Mini for space - which is damning with faint praise, truth be known - and while the ultimate boot space is a little better than the Anglo-German car, the hatch offers an awkwardly narrow opening and a very high sill.
But there's no quibble about the Mito's choice of materials or the way they are put together - if only the old Alfas had been made this way.
And if only all cars had connectivity as well sorted as the Mito's. I'm no technophile, and though I have a Motorola, which is a cinch to connect up to most cars, I was still surprised to get a call before I thought I was even set-up.
While I still wish they could offer a Mito for less than $40,000, the T-Jet Sport is probably worth the $44,990 its importers ask for it, though I wouldn't like to pay more for leather over the standard plain and pin- tucked charcoal cloth. Standard items include rear parking sensors, dual climate air conditioning, delicious 17-inch alloy rims, heated door mirrors and seven airbags, along with Vehicle Dynamic Control, ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution.
Overall, the Mito is irrefutably good fun, even on the shortest trip. It's also slightly cheeky looking, but by no means beautiful, and there are some flaws like awful rear visibility and not much room in the back. But it says a lot about its potential owner, who probably likes to be different and above all enjoys being entertained, even on the way to work. Now, if only they could make one I could afford . . .
* Drivetrain: transverse FWD 1368cc turbo-charged DOHC 16v four, six-speed manual gearbox. 114kW at 5500rpm, 230Nm at 3000rpm. Max 215kmh, 0-100kmh 7.9secs (observed), 6.5L/100km, 153g/km CO2.
* Dimensions: L 4063mm, H 1446mm, W 1720mm, W/base 2511mm, Weight 1150kg, Fuel 45L.
* Price: $44,990.
* Hot: Cute looks; willing nature; well-sorted chassis; fun factor; equipment.
* Not: Costs too much; needs a twin-clutch two-pedal manual and diesel options.
* Verdict: The Mini at last gets worthy competition, from a honey of a car that I was genuinely sad to give back.