What a peculiar experience. I’ve just test driven the new MultiAir Alfa Mito in its Middle East specification, and the car’s numerous character flaws have me fooled and smitten. How can you not clench your hands, drop your eyebrows, tilt your head and go “Aww,” when you see a three-legged puppy valiantly hopping along?
I love the Mito. I have since I first drove a 155bhp version three years ago, complete with an analog six-speed manual in a digital age of double-clutch automatics. The memory is still with me, mostly because since that time I’ve tested maybe… hmm… five cars with manual transmissions? Six at a push: Oullim Spirra, Toyota 86, Evo X, Peugeot RCZ, V12 Vantage, Carrera GT3. That’s an average of two a year, which is pathetic. My right hand and left leg have gone completely limp due to lack of blood circulation. I walk lob sided and use one hand to type.
You can imagine my excitement then after a quick call to Gargash Motors, the sole Alfa Romeo dealer in the UAE since 1992, promised a Mito available for a pick-up the next day. After all, Alfas only ever come with stick shifts. The brand’s UAE marketing division even admitted that most Alfa Mito buyers insist on a manual model, which is wonderful to hear. Like Henry Ford, every time I see an Alfa drive past from now on I shall have to tip my hat. Except I never wear hats nor do I ever see Alfas driving past.
But never mind that, because I was presented with the key (black and red, and shaped like an Alfa Romeo grille) to my steed for the next few days, and stepped in to promptly kick my left leg into the firewall. No clutch pedal to prop it up… PRND+- to the right… What the heck is that supposed to mean? Am I stupid and those are just Roman numerals for one to six? No, it really is an automatic… “Taxi!”
Just kidding, I did test drive it.
Since the Mito was the first model to come out of the brand’s Milan design house after the 8C Competizione (Mito is an abbreviation of Milano and Torino, where it was styled and is manufactured, respectively), it looks brilliant. The car could use a lower waistline to accentuate its flared arches, but even still the front end is beautiful with the Mito’s three-part ‘trilobo’ design motif and those round taillights at the back. It’s a masterclass in elegant simplicity for a supermini segment that’s usually brimful with either kitsch, or just gallons of beige.
The interior is inviting too, availing customers with plenty of personalisation options and contrasting colour, taken to extremes in our tester with its black and bright red cabin. You sit high in the Mito, and the steering wheel doesn’t drop down far enough meaning there are still hints of that typical Italian driving position in this Alfa. It doesn’t quite call for ape arms due to a near-horizontal wheel as was tradition in the past, but I never got fully comfortable. The centre stack is missing a six-or-so inch display, instead doing with a simple layout and a dated infotainment system. How dated is it? Try tuning into the radio and you’ll start lip-synching to Bananarama.
The materials are fine, the dashtop pleasingly springy, and the transmission tunnel narrow to increase both front and rear room. There is a traditional handbrake lever and a round gear knob begging to be thrust around, meaning this will be a great place to spend time once Gargash calls me back about that promised manual.
Lastly, on the interior front, the air conditioning is fantastic, which shouldn’t surprise because Alfa Romeo undertook an extensive testing programme in the Middle East as part of the Mito’s pre-launch evaluation.
The key difference between the laugh-a-minute Mito I drove three years ago (a top-spec model) and this new model (which is in its base trim here) is what’s under the bonnet. Instead of 155bhp I’ve now got 135 horses to play with, because the four-cylinder displaces just 1.4 litres, however utilising a turbocharger and Alfa’s MultiAir technology. The valvegear sounds a bit rattly because of this stuff, but in essence MultiAir uses hydraulics to do away with a traditional throttle valve and precisely control the intake valves. It saves fuel, increases power by about a tenth and decreases fuel consumption by around the same amount.
It’s great, but the electronics in the Mito dampen the experience, since in normal mode the car is sluggish and reluctant to ever venture out of the turbo’s lag zone. You’ll save a lot of fuel if you keep Alfa’s DNA toggle switch in this mode, but that’s because you won’t be going anywhere. The best thing to do is stick it in Dynamic, and rev the bolts off the little four-pot. The 230Nm of torque levels off from 1,750rpm, but the power peaks at 5,000rpm, which is your indication of the minimum number of revs you should be pulling at any given time. Coupled to a low weight of just over 1.1 tonnes, wringing everything out of an Italian engine spells out F-U-N, or S-P-A-S-S-O in the Mito’s case, matching its sassy Italian on the gauges: Benzina, Acqua, Giri…
Oh and I almost forgot: this MultiAir Mito comes with stop-start technology, but it’s more a case of stop, than start.
And now for that twin-clutch six-speed automatic: I’m sure it’s a fine gearbox, yet its mapping leaves much to be desired as it fails to keep me in a usable power band in normal mode, but goes absolutely berserk in Dynamic mode holding the revs forever and refusing to shift up believing you’re obviously busy going through Variante Ascari at Monza, rather than just trying to pick up your take-away pizza. It’s a case of two extremes, although the latter is pretty awesome.
The Mito handles well, but is let down with the base-spec Bridgestones measuring 195/55 R16. Turn-in is reactive, the power-assisted steering on the heavy side, and the weight balance near ideal for a front-wheel driver since the Mito demonstrates a chassis too good for its rubber. It wants to bite, but the tyres give up and aim for the outside kerb a bit too early. I know it will be a hoot if you just spec the bigger 17s. Still, I can’t help but love this puppy. Three legs and all…