New Car Reviews

2009 Alfa Romeo MiTo

The MiTo is a brand-new, two-door hatchback minicar (only 4.06 meters, or 13.3 feet, long) that Alfa Romeo is aiming at young people in an attempt to reconnect the brand to a new generation of buyers. Alfa hopes that the MiTo’s evocative Italian styling, its full range of electronic equipment, and its economical but sporty powertrains will set the car apart from the crowded minicar field in Europe and other major world markets where Alfa Romeos are sold. As the first new Alfa Romeo designed and built after the 8C Competizione (a limited-edition supercoupe of which only a few examples will trickle into the United States), the MiTo is a good look at where Alfa Romeo is heading in terms of future products. It is also a car that, in some future iteration, could herald the brand’s return to the United States, although Alfa officials continue to be cagey about that matter, as they have been for years. However, Alfa’s parent company, Fiat, just announced that it is entering into an agreement with BMW wherein the German company might help market and sell cars for Alfa in the United States. Under such a scenario, the next-generation MiTo could come here.

And as for the name, MiTo? It represents the historic connection between the city where Alfa Romeo was founded, Milan, and the city where Alfas have been designed and manufactured for decades, Torino (Turin).

MiTo styling: very Italian, very modern, but with a definite nod to the past.

The MiTo oozes Italian style and has a prominent shield grille that is instantly identifiable to any Alfa Romeo fan. During our test drive into the Lakes Region north of Milan, our bright red MiTo turned lots of Italian heads. Alfa designers like to point out the MiTo’s styling similarities to the 8C, such as the side window profile and the three-lobed motif of the grille, the front bumper, the headlights, and the LED taillights. The MiTo makes the rest of Alfa’s mainstream lineup – handsome, well-admired cars all – look a bit staid. But one wonders if the MiTo is overstyled. MiTo buyers can customize their cars endlessly, choosing among ten shades of paint, fourteen finishes for the headlight and taillight surrounds (shiny or satin chrome, opaque black and titanium gray, plus the ten body shades), and five styles of sixteen-inch to eighteen-inch wheels. Two versions of red paint are available: the traditional nonmetallic Alfa Red and a lighter Giulietta red, yet another reminder of Alfa Romeo’s past.

MiTo cabin: This is no econocar interior.

Like its exterior, the MiTo’s interior is a repository of modern Italian style as expressed through a bewildering array of possible color and trim combinations. Two trim packages, Progression and Distinctive, are offered, and those two styling themes also can be modified with available Sport and Premium packages. The Progression specification provides what Alfa calls a “Sprint” instrument panel finished either in black or red, while the Distinctive trim, which our test car was outfitted with, comes with a “Competizione” fabric with a faux-carbon-fiber weave. It is expertly fitted over the main instrument binnacle surround, around the circular center vents, the dash, and the door inserts. Aluminum, quality black plastics, and high-quality black leather complete the interior trim. Seating comfort in front is excellent, with good lateral support, and the rear seats have surprisingly generous foot-, hip-, and headroom. Seats for four are standard, but a middle seat in the rear, as on our test car, is optional. All seating positions have adjustable head restraints.

The MiTo keeps you connected.

The MiTo offers every conceivable electronic device that the car’s young target audience might desire. Blue&Me is an optional telematics system similar to Ford‘s Sync; like that system, it was developed in conjunction with Microsoft and allows easy use of the BlueTooth and text-messaging capabilities of mobile phones, MP3 players, and the like. Blue&Me Map is a portable navigation system that mounts into a bracket on top of the dash; you can easily pop off the entire unit and carry it with you when you leave the car. If you’ve ever tried to navigate the narrow, confusingly laid-out streets of an old European city center by foot, you’ll understand just how useful the portable nav system could be if you’re a 22-year-old trying to find Rome’s hottest new nightclub.

MiTo powertrains: Okay for now, but we’ll wait for the 1750, please.

The front-wheel-drive MiTo is just now going on sale across Europe, where it’s being offered with three powertrains: a 120-hp, 1.6-liter turbodiesel; a 155-hp, 1.4-liter gasoline four; and, interestingly, a 78-hp version of the gasoline engine that will be offered in Italy in a special model called the Junior. The Junior is aimed squarely at newly licensed drivers who, under recent Italian laws, are only allowed to drive cars that meet certain, modest power-to-weight ratios. We drove the 155-hp engine, mated to a six-speed manual transmission. (No automatic is offered.)

This engine is very energetic for its modest displacement and revs happily past its 5500-rpm power peak. We had no problem maintaining speeds between 80 and 100 mph on the Italian autostradas. Clutch take-up and brake feel are both good, but the gearshifter lacks precise movements.

Next year, Alfa promises a GTA model which will be powered by a 230-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. In a nod to one of its successful past models, the 1750, this engine was purposely designed to displace 1750 cc (1747, to be exact).

The MiTo is burdened with a beam-axle rear suspension but still boasts a couple of notable chassis features. First, all four suspension dampers are fitted with rebound springs inside the dampers; when the dampers are compressed, the spring helps reduce body roll. Second, the MiTo is the first recipient of Alfa’s new D.N.A. system, which is inspired by the manettino switch on Ferraris and which modifies the engine, the brakes, the steering, the suspension, and the gearbox according to each of three selectable modes: Dynamic (sporty); Normal, and All-Weather (for maximum grip). The D.N.A. system is controlled by a toggle switch near the gearshifter.

The result is a fairly stiff, well-controlled ride that can degrade to harshness over rough pavement. We thought we have bad roads here in Southeast Michigan, but some of the freeways north of Milan are as pockmarked as anything we’ve seen in Michigan. Over such surfaces, the MiTo reacted violently and occasionally hit its suspension bump stops. A little bit more compliance would be in order.

Gunning for the Mini Cooper.

The MiTo is far more entertaining to drive than most front-wheel-drive minicars, with a rigid chassis, fairly communicative steering, and very good body control. Seating position, seat comfort, and visibility are all commendable, but ride comfort is only mediocre. The gearshifter needs a more positive feel. Engine power is impressive for such a small displacement, and the engine sounds reasonably sporty. The MiTo feels very much a solid piece at speeds between 80 and 100 mph, when many small cars begin to expose their inferior dynamics. This is obviously a well-engineered, very modern car.

Can the MiTo go head-to-head with the Mini Cooper?

The MiTo’s strengths are its high-quality, roomy, and attractive interior; its energetic gasoline engine; and its solid handling. But as we drove it on Italian streets, we found ourselves wishing we were driving the Fiat Group’s other new small car, the Fiat 500. The 500 just looks right, and by comparison the MiTo isn’t quite as organic and pleasing. That said, the car really does stand out on the street.

In order for it to succeed in the U.S. market, the MiTo would need to be as entertaining to drive and as well-built as the Mini Cooper. The current car, while very fun to drive, is not quite as sophisticated as the Mini. However, a future iteration of the MiTo might be just the ticket for Alfa Romeo‘s reentry to the States. Fiat’s new alliance with BMW might mean that BMW engines that will meet U.S. emissions standards, which the current MiTo engines do not, could power future iterations of the MiTo. It seems ironic that, if it comes to America, the next MiTo might be sold through BMW’s sales channels, given that the Mini is owned by BMW and will be a direct competitor to the MiTo.

Alfa Romeo MiTo

  • Base Price (in Italy): 18,950 euros
  • Powertrain
  • Engine: 1.4-liter I-4
  • Horsepower: 155 hp @ 5500 rpm
  • Torque: 170 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed manual
  • Drive: Front-wheel
  • Measurements
  • L x H: 160.0 x 56.9 in
  • Fuel Economy (European combined cycle): 36 mpg