I love Alfa Romeo. Every time I see one passing by I will always do another take at it as these cars ooze character from every body panel. The first time I sat in an Alfa I was very, very young. This was sometime in the early '80s. My uncle had a Alfa Giulia 1300 super and it was an awsome looking car. It looked nothing like the square boxes that most sedans looked like during that period and it sounded totally throaty every time my uncle blipped the throttle. Nowadays, Alfas sound a little subdued, but they still ooze character from every panel as they are like a nicely fitted Italian suit. Even though some days you have to pray whether the Alfa would function perfectly instead of some electrical gremlin or some mechanical anomaly that would suddenly plague it for no apparent reason.
So I recently drove the Alfa Romeo Mito. In terms of looks and styling this car is a successful mix of retro and modern touches. It is a premium 3 door supermini based on the Fiat Punto Grande chassis. It is designed to compete with the BMW Mini, the soon to be released Audi A1 and somewhat with its Fiat group stablemate, the Fiat 500. According to most people, the styling is derived from the limited run Alfa Romeo 8c Competizione. To me it looks pretty successful, especially when you pair it with either a red car, black dashboard and tan seats or a white car, black dashboard and ox-blood coloured leather seats. Both on Alfa telephone dial style 17 inch rims and it looks like a million dollars. That being said, only Italians design with such flair and it shows in the Mito. It looks good for such a small car.
Now after ogling at its looks you get inside the car and find that it looks pretty sensible. There is a key which you use to turn the engine on. No start button or keyless fob but your basic key. You adjust the seat and steering (which only adjusts for height and not for reach) and then find out that it is pretty decent. No ergonomic errors (long armed short legs driving position) like in some Alfas of old. There is enough headroom for six footers in the Mito and everything seems to be in the correct position for spirited driving. There is also dual zone climate controls. But in a car this small, it is a little redundant as it seems too small to use split air-conditioning. Of course, spec-junkies would like this fact.
The material used for the interior is a mix of leather for the seats, steering wheel and the plastics used are of higher than usual quality found it your average supermini. But, that being said, I find the interior only slightly more upmarket than the Punto Grande which the car is based on. The point here is that after the stunning exterior, you only get a decent interior. Of course this isn't as bad as you think. As being a supermini and not a luxury GT it is still built to a price point.
Now we come to the all important fact of driving the Mito. This is where it goes downhill. According to the specs sheet the car I drove had the 1.4 turbo charged 4 cylinder with 155ps and 230nm of torque driving through a 6 speed manual gearbox. A Q2 torsen based limited slip differential is there to help out this Front Wheel Drive car in corners and on acceleration. The usual ABS, EBD and stability control functions are also included in the car. It also has a DNA switch, D stands for dynamic, N for normal and A for All Weather. This adjusts the throttle and steering responses of the Mito. So with all of these tech and driver's aid, it drives terribly.
Terribly? Yes, that's what I said. I started in normal mode and basically found the steering pretty fast in that N (normal) mode but too light to my liking. The throttle response was decent but one surprising thing was that on a sweeping downhill off cambered corner it felt unnerving as the tail felt like it was ready to pitch me and its tail into oncoming traffic. I was going at 80km/h at the time and I basically flicked the steering wheel like I usually did on most of the cars and it wanted to oversteer due to the quick steering response. But this was in N mode. I was expecting quicker steering in the Dynamic (D) mode and was slightly surprised by its behaviour.
After few more kilometers in N, I switched to D, and upon accelerating you could feel the electric steering weighting down a little and the throttle response much more frantic. In this mode things are still not much better. The reason for this is that while throttle response is good, meaning that the engine lets loose all of its 155ps sooner than in the other modes (0-100km/h in 8 secs), and its steering is faster than before it still feels unsorted. It was so unsorted through another downhill sweeping corner in 5th gear at around 100km/h that I was left in disbelief. The car understeered worse than a normal Suzuki Swift would and the fact that it had an LSD (the Q2 system), and large (for its size) 215/40/17 tires on the car made the experience even more disappointing. It could be because I should have been on 4th, but again, in some of the cars I have driven heavy understeer wouldn't have happened at that speeds. It could be the stability control kicking in too early. But this surely distracts from the driver having any driving pleasure. It made 155ps feel so uncontrollable. Never had 155ps and 230 Nm felt like it was so ready to overwhelm its chassis. You would never find a problem like this in a Swift Sport (sublime chassis control) or even the Alfa 147 (which rolls in corners but doesn't do understeer like the Mito at the same speeds) or on any 200bhp front wheel drive Audi/VW. So after using two of the three settings, I find out that it may oversteer without your knowledge but it also may understeer like crazy
So I ended up trying the A (All weather) mode for the final few kilometers. Somehow I liked this setting. The steering feels nicely weighted (like in D mode) and the throttle subdued like the N mode. This somehow makes the car seem decent. As if this setting is meant to extract the most grip from the chassis, even though it only changes throttle and steering settings. The car seems most settled here and this is the setting I'd use most of the time if I bought it, or till I really get used to the car's idiosyncrasies.
Of course if you're a decent, read as slow most of the time, driver then the Mito would be good for you. Cruising down Orchard Road or the Marina area it'll play its part as a stunning picture perfect little car. Cruising down the North South Highway it'll also play its part as a long distance tourer as it does not have a rock hard ride and the engine is pretty subdued most of the time (not as gruff as Alfas of old or even the 1.6 in the old 147 but due to it being a turbocharged engine, it is quieter as the turbo drowns out most of the exhaust note). After driving the car I was disappointed. It looked fabulous, but it drives like someone suffering from bi-polar disorder. At one time it wants to kill me at low speeds, the other time it doesn't want to kill me at high speeds. It cannot make up its mind on whether it wants to be sporting or not.
So in conclusion, it is beautiful to look at, bi-polar to drive and because of this fact it is still an Alfa , a flawed gem. Maybe too flawed for me to actually yearn for it. So if I was looking for a small supermini, I may go for the Mini Cooper S or the cheaper Suzuki Swift Sport. What can I say? I'm a handling freak and this car does not give me my daily dose of it.