19 Jan 2013

Alfa Romeo Mito - Alfa's supermini

Does every petrolhead needs to have owned an Alfa Romeo at least once?  James Parker thinks that's true - so he bought an Alfa Mito.

The automotive industry has always been a mad fascination of mine, I was looking at car related magazines before I could walk or even talk, and therefore the love from that point in time blossomed for anything that had 4 wheels and was seriously quick. Of course in the real world getting your “dream car” (personally speaking a 997 GT3 RS4.0) as it were, is extremely hard from a petrol heads perspective, so most have to settle with what we can afford until that Lottery dream turns into reality.

Of course the automotive market is vast and when not on an unlimited budget (unfortunately) it can be easy to get lost in what you truly want from a day to day car. Personally speaking in my near 3 years on the road I have owned two cars (pre current one), a 2005 Mark 2 Fiat Punto Sporting and most recently a 2004 BMW 318i, before my love affair with Bavaria started to wear thin. Both never really ticked my boxes in the way I thought they would and therefore both were sold.

I suppose that brings me nicely on to the car I currently own then, the car of which this whole article is subject to, and for the past month or so have thoroughly enjoyed driving – the Alfa Romeo Mito. Thanks to a certain Mr Clarkson, who pronounced on television to millions of people “you are not truly a petrol head until you have owned an Alfa Romeo”, it has sparked debates up and down the country amongst fans of everything on 4 wheels. Whilst many self proclaimed “true” petrol heads will rubbish Jeremy’s opinion as void and uneducated, I do feel he does have a point, and over the few minutes I will try to explain why, from owning one myself.

The Mito range is not huge or Porsche-esque, its petrol engines are all limited to 1.4 of N/A and Turbo configuration, with some so/so diesel options and no apparent GTA in the pipeline as of yet until this dastardly recession blows over and economic conditions improve – it shows I suppose Alfa Romeo is enforcing some common sense for once, which is nice! The turbo models (what everyone secretly wants) vary from the standard 120hp, to a 155hp version and then the range topping “cloverleaf” 170hp variant, (cloverleaf the badge for Alfa’s race cars since 1922) for people unaware of the cloverleaf relation to Alfa Romeo.

So to my car in question then, unfortunately due to insurance and fuel restrictions, although my heart said Cloverleaf my wallet said standard 120. Which, much to my dismay (or so I thought), I had to settle with. But although, perhaps it isn’t the rip snorting, tarmac shredding beast, like other hatches such as the VXR Astra GTC, it isn’t the speed or power that first drew me to the car. The car is an 09 plate, with 9000 miles on the clock, finished in a magnificent Metallic Black which is tinged with shades of red in the sun.  It is fair to say it has been beautifully looked after inside and out, and that perhaps is where I should start. Alfa’s have a long tradition of beauty, a certain form over function, and you only have to look at their attempt of a supercar – the 8C Competizione to understand where their priorities lie, the 8C a living breathing work of art.

When you step back and look at the Mito, with its wide rear end flowing gloriously into flared arches, it produces an aggressive stance, borderline menacing, not in the way of a Carrera GT or Enzo for example, but there’s a certain purpose to it. Styling tips from the 8C in terms of the front end and alloys top off the sporty look, and whilst perhaps it doesn’t have the same trousers to match, it is no slouch either.

The model I picked up boasted the Veloce trim level in the range. Much like BMW with their, ES, SE and M Sport models, Alfa’s range consists of Turismo, Lusso and Veloce. Turismo is of course the base model with Lusso making up the “mid range” with a few extras such as alloys, and leather interior, and then of course we have the Veloce spec with all the bells and whistles attached, including all of the above, Sports suspension, front spoiler and side skirts. With the Mito however, there are couple of additional extras that instantly stood out to me, which to me separates it from other hatches in its bracket. Most door mirrors and light surrounds in the range are body coloured, however in Veloce spec all are in a Satin finish as standard, which for me alongside the Chrome grill, although fairly minor in the grander scheme of things, really gives the car something more in terms of appearance – makes it rather unique and “fun” compared to other hatches from Alfa’s rivals.

Now being a huge Karting enthusiast from a young age, and having a severe case of the petrol head bug, I do like the occasional “enthusiastic” drive. In my opinion there is nothing better than finding a gem of a B Road to yourself on a Sunday afternoon, and then releasing your car off the leash for a few intoxicating minutes as you remind yourself why exactly you love driving. Whilst the Alfa is a thing of sheer beauty (infact I could sit there and look at it all day) I did have my doubts when it came to the dynamics, asking myself the same questions – Can it handle? What’s the balance like? Is 120hp enough in a car like this? And to my amazement I was genuinely surprised by this little car.

Of course I was not expecting the chassis of a Megane RS and, over the course of the first couple of weeks, I spent my driving time just getting used to the car in general. But these past few days I have found myself a couple of golden opportunities to really grab the Mito by the scruff of the neck and see how it copes. Although 120hp is relatively low from the 1.4L turbo, (unlike the 155hp verison), the Mito is no lard arse (1145kg dry weight) and the torque comes in extremely low (1750rpm). Whilst it does start to run out of puff towards the 6k mark (I found the best time to change is around 5k), you can really drive the car off the corners and let the torque do the work. Power delivery is quite brash between 2-2500rpm and you really need to play with the throttle mid corner to gain the most traction, it almost beckons you to hit the sweet spot and slingshot yourself on to the next ribbon of Tarmac.

It was here that I got to play with the new “DNA system” that Alfa has introduced, a switch that changes the cars behaviour depending on how you want to drive or what the road conditions are like. A stands for “all weather” and whilst I have yet to use it, the manual assures me that throttle response is muted, traction control is fully engaged and torque is reduced. N stands for “Normal” and is all you want on the day to day roads; however what I was really interesting in trying was the “Dynamic” mode or D (essentially a sport button).

Once engaged, the Mito does feel a completely different animal, the suspension is stiffened, throttle response is incredibly sharp and the traction control is backed off somewhat, (In the 155/170 models peak torque is increased too). Although perhaps even in D, the traction control does decide to cut in just a tad early (infact I have yet to find how to turn it off completely) understeer is not a problem and there is a lot of front end grip when you initially chuck the Mito into a bend, the balance overall very good considering what the car is and it does feel light on its Michelin shod feet.

In normal mode the feedback through the steering wheel is incredibly vague; it is light with no feeling and is truly the weakest part of the car. In “Dynamic”, the steering becomes heavier, and generally produces a lot more feel, rather than guessing how much steering input I needed to put in I could start to gauge through the front wheels feedback. On my brisk drive through a country road, I felt myself pitching the car into the apex of corners with a lot more confidence; I could feel what the front wheels were doing underneath me, when traction was lost and when the surface of the road changed. It was in fact so much better than N I have contemplated whether to drive in D everywhere. On reflection however, the driving experience overall is slightly lessened by that steering, although it does improve in the “D mode” it just doesn’t produce the raw feeling you crave when you want to stretch your legs a bit on the road, and that is the only real downside of the car in terms of its dynamic ability.

Mileage wise I usually do between 20-30 miles a day. Fuel consumption can vary depending on how zealous are with your right foot, but on average my trip computer likes to remind me currently that I am able to achieve 37.8 MPG. I like to put around £30 in when I visit the petrol station and in the Mito that will normally last me around 6-7 days. Of course that is with sensible and enthusiastic driving being taken into account, and am sure once I fill up and reset the computer I could easily get into the 40’s with some comfort, but being an Alfa Romeo do you really want to drive everywhere “normally?”

I regularly hear people bang on each week about how Monday mornings are such a chore and, let’s be honest here, no-one likes them, they are cruel, painful things which we all have to unfortunately endure. However since owning the Mito I have found the Monday morning drive to work become much more enjoyable, and it is all down one single thing – the car’s interior.

It is a beautiful place to sit, with a carbon effect dash on the passenger side gloriously weaving its way into a polished aluminium centre which houses the radio/CD player. The seats are brutally brilliant, figure hugging and snug but at the same time not harsh or uncomfortable in any way. Little touches such as the Alfa crests on the seats, Aluminium / leather stitched steering wheel and frameless doors help the interior spring into life almost, you can sit there in the driver’s seat after a long day at work, take a deep breath and instantly feel happy. It’s what we’ve come to expect from the Italians, and with the Mito there is no exception.

When you look at its other rivals such as the Mini Cooper they simply just cannot compare.  The Mito in a completely different league, and something the Germans have yet to really conquer. Space inside is not the greatest, and if you are a fairly large person you would struggle to sit comfortably, but considering the size of the car that does not really come as much of a surprise. If you are a person who comes with a lot of baggage, i.e. - sunglasses, drinks, bags, there are ample cubby holes to explore, including one under the centre unit, next to the drivers steering wheel, a cup holder, and one amongst the arm rest in the centre which can fold back when you want to engage in some playful driving (I find it is too high to be comfortable when working the car).

The boot is for the size of the Mito is extremely surprising. I was of course not expecting Volve estate acres of space in the back, but what you do get is an incredibly deep boot which is more than adequate for a person’s everyday shopping – personally I easily managed to fit £200 worth of food shopping in comfortably with not much effort at all. When you look at the rivals such as the C2 or Mini Cooper the vast chasm in space is clearly evident – the other two simply cannot compare – however there is a downside to the boot in that the sill is relatively high which might not be to some peoples taste, especially with heavy boxes or bags that need to be lifted in.

Perhaps the biggest drawback when driving in terms of everyday practicality however is the visibility. From the front it is brilliant, with a fairly wide and sloping windscreen combined with the relatively short nose makes it incredibly easy to park. However when it comes to the rear it is a completely different story. Due to the frameless doors and coupe style body (very low slung rear passenger windows) rear visibility is, well, difficult at best.

The rear and side windows are incredibly small, leading to numerous blind spots the most hazardous of which I have found at T Junctions on bends, and reverse parking when you are relying on your rear side and back windows to judge where traffic is and, when reverse parking, your position. In terms of parking, the truly huge mirrors (one of the best parts of the Mito) do make up for the blind spots in the rear and offer you ample amount of viewing towards the back of the car. But there still lies the problem regarding visibility out of the side windows when on the road, it is just a niggle however and is one I can certainly live with.

But after attempting to explain what living with this car is like, I do think I have yet to touch on something which I feel is crucially important to all of this, and more importantly Alfa Romeo ownership in general, that being what it feels like to own and drive. You do not buy an Alfa Romeo for practicality, for speed, fuel efficiency or for reliability. If you want those specifics you have ample amount of alternatives on the market to satisfy those needs. What you are doing when purchasing an Alfa Romeo is buying into a part of that magnificent history they hold, a history which stems back all the way to 1906.

You are giving the proverbial two fingers up to normality and choosing the mad and the quirky, and for that, no-one perhaps does that greater than Alfa Romeo. In the month and 2 days that I have owned this little car, it has given me more satisfaction and fun than the BMW did in the entire 11 months I owned it. If I was paid £1 every time a person commented on how nice the little Mito looked I would not be sat here writing this today, I would currently be off in the Caribbean sitting on a yacht sipping some expensive champers. I guess that is the pure essence of this, I love the Mito not because it is the best car in its category or even the world, which it’s not, but because it is simply unique, beautiful, something different, and for those reasons alone it is truly magnificent.

To this day I have still yet to climb into the car, have a drive and come back without finding myself grinning from ear to ear. Every journey is an occasion, and when you arrive you simply just don’t want to get out. It is something perhaps some people on this site might not agree with me on, but unless you own one and experience the Alfa “spark” or “zing” they all possess, you will never fully understand just how it makes you feel and for that alone here’s to many years of happy motoring.

By James Parker

Hardcore Petrolhead having had a long passion for cars and Motorsport which stretches back some 15 years ago when I first started watching BTCC and Formula 1. Currently a proud Alfa Romeo owner, who is Head of Business Development at Motorsport Merchandise website www.grandprixmerchandise.co.uk I also am senior editor of the GPM blog dedicated to big Motorsport talking points.