2009 Alfa Romeo MiTo

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
Engine:1.4-liter I-4
Horsepower:155 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 170 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm
Transmission:6-speed manual
L x H:160.0 x 56.9 in
Fuel Economy (European combined cycle):36 mpg
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