Alfa Romeo delivers auto delight
I've loved little front-drive Alfas since they first graced the streets of Europe almost 40 years ago in the form of the Alfa Sud.
That car was sublime to drive and look at, but distressingly prone to dissolve, almost Alka- Seltzer like, into rain-induced rust, but as with a fabulous-but- wayward-and-flawed girlfriend, I loved it all the more for its frailties.
Sadly, small Alfas are still remembered as much for those frailties as their driving prowess, which is why every time I have one to drive, my friends shake their heads and tsk, tsk, not realising the immense strides in terms of build quality that have been taken by the Italian carmaking industry.
In this modern era of easy-to- drive turn-key Ferraris, and dependable Maseratis, not to mention Fiats and Lancias that gain no more warranty claims than other mainstream vehicles, there are now Alfa Romeos that you don't need to worry about, not to mention models that show that its makers have been looking at the market rather than their navels.
Take the wee Mito hatch for instance, which in the past few months has been including an automatic transmission in its lineup. Not so long ago, Italian cars and automatics were hardly mentioned in the same breath, heaven forbid one should actually list such a device among its options.
Truth be known, the self- shifting device used in the Mito - and soon to be introduced in the slightly larger Giulietta - is a twin-clutch manual, with electronics doing the work of the middle pedal, and steering wheel paddles allowing the driver to effect ratio changes to taste.
And it has to be said that it all works very well, with this TCT gearbox, as it is called, showing every sign of having been created to match the car's 1.4-litre MultiAir turbo engine from the outset.
It also adds to the switchable repertoire of settings available on the wee Mito, which has a snappily initialled DNA toggle- switch on its console, which remaps its throttle responses and chassis reactions to taste.
Simply, D stands for Dynamic, N stands for Normal, and A stands for All Weather; by dialling in each setting, the wee Mito can be as lively or as cosy as you need.
Having said that, I was so taken by the accelerative improvement with the 99kW 1.4-litre MultiAir motor put in Dynamic mode, that it was set that way most of the time, only being switched out when a traffic snarl came up, or when cruising on the open road.
While the MultiAir can be had in New Zealand with as much as 125kW on tap - that's 170 horsepower - my less powerful version never left me feeling short-changed in any way. The factory figures say the two cars are about half a second apart for the zero to 100kmh time, but with the responses of the TCT gearbox, I'd say my lesser model was easier to keep on the boil, and when driving along in higher gears much more flexible.
In terms of performance, I compared the figures for my TCT Mito against the manual version using the same 99kW 1.4-litre MultiAir Turbo engine, and it appears to be better in every area. Where the manual hits 100kmh in 8.4 seconds, the TCT manages 8.2, while the manual's combined fuel economy rating of 5.9 litres/100km is improved to 5.6 litres by the TCT and the emissions total was 2g/km of carbon dioxide better at 126 to 128.
The Dynamic mode setting for the DNA system has usefulness that goes beyond merely being "sporty", as it largely eliminates that heart-in-mouth lag that can occur with some twin-clutch gearboxes when taking off from a T-junction, for instance. When you opt for the Dynamic setting, suspension settings feel better too. Fortunately, while Normal will give you a more forgiving ride over bumps and rough surfaces, and noticeably so, the firmer, more sporting setting never feels raw-boned or harsh.
However, whatever your taste and preference, the Mito's chassis is one of the most engaging I've come across, in a segment that's also occupied by such handling gems as the warmer Mini and Polo offerings. In fact, for the bumpy daily commute, I found the Mito's well-damped behaviour preferable to that of either of those cars. Where the Mito is particularly pleasing is at turn-in, where instead of being over-sharp to the point of skittishness, as some hot- hatches can be, it is much more controlled and linear, with good feedback coming through the steering-wheel rim.
The Mito is a cute, rather than pretty car. I find its front-end design a little empty, despite having its family heart-shaped grille and bush-baby like headlamps. Its facial expression looks a little like something from central casting at Cars 2 rather than a proper car. But I'll forgive it that. Its side profile is nicely proportioned, and the circular lamps at the rear hint of the gorgeous Competizione 8C, although the price you pay for its crisply profiled rear-side windows and forward-angled hatch is severe rearward visibility restriction.
Inside, the Mito offers little more rear space than a Mini. The front's a different story, with lots of adjustments to make a large or small driver quite cosy thanks, though if you do opt for the manual version of the car, make sure you can live with the pedal placements, as the footwell is a touch crowded if you have large feet.
The TCT gearbox in my car, of course, covers this nicely, and with a similar problem with pedal space in the larger and otherwise brilliant Giulietta model, the new transmission would be my choice in that car, too.
When the Mito first came out about two years ago, I said I was disappointed there wasn't a sub- $40k starter model. Things have changed since then.
There's a starter manual car at $36,990, while the TCT version of the MutiAir 1.4 starts at $39,990, with a Sport version adding another $3000.
So easy to live with is the TCT model that I found myself trying to think of excuses not to return it.
Right now, I can't think of a small sports hatch that I'd rather drive. To go back to my original girlfriend analogy, it's like finding that supermodel can cook, gut fish and knit socks as well.
AT A GLANCE
Alfa Romeo Mito
Drivetrain: Transverse FWD turbocharged 16-valve 1368cc DOHC direct-injected petrol four with six-speed TCT transmission.
Performance: Max 99kW at 5000rpm, 230Nm at 1750rpm, Max 207kmh, 0-100kmh 8.2 seconds, 5.6L/100km, 126g/km CO2.
Dimensions: L 4063mm, H 1446mm, W 1720mm, W/base 2511mm, Weight 1170kg, Fuel tank capacity 45L.
Safety: Front, driver's knee, side and side-curtain airbags; vehicle dynamic control; ABS, traction control, 5-star NCAP safety rating.
Pricing: Mito 1.4 TCT $39,990, TCt Sport $42,990. Other Mitos from $36,990 to $42,990.
Hot: TCT gearbox; DNA system; cute looks; improved quality; neat chassis; great value.
Not: Polarising looks; pooh-poohing know-alls who have little knowledge of modern Alfas.
Verdict: Arguably the most characterful, fun car to be had for less than $50k, and durable with it