Alfa Romeo MiTo
Sucking up on a scale unprecedented since Jonathan Ross last interviewed Sienna Miller, the designer responsible for the fully glazed sauna constructed in the sweltering courtyard of Milan's Castello Sforzesco for the launch of Alfa's new MiTo also contrived a glass floor to cover the rollicking stream which runs through it, thus guaranteeing that - for one long, hot hour of his life at least - Alfa Automobiles CEO and Fiat Group all-round grande frommage Luca di Meo actually walked on water.
Thus deified, it seemed entirely appropriate that di Meo explained that the competition winning name MiTo not only stands for the two cities central to the new Alfa's birth - Milan and Turin - but is also Italian for 'myth', or 'legend'. In this particular case, though, I feel 'fable' might make a more apposite translation - specifically, that old children's bedtime staple, 'The Princess and the Pea'. For those not weaned on such delicacies, the story involves a princess, a pea, and a vast, every-growing tower of mattresses separating the two - the fact that she could still feel the pea through a stack tall enough to be listed under the 'Light Snacks' section of an American pancake breakfast menu serving as necessary proof of the bejewelled brat's royal status.
Substitute princess for the Alfisti of the planet's 300-odd official Alfa owners clubs, pea for the metallic red, automotive kidney bean in question and mattresses for an ever burgeoning raft of questionable new technologies hell-bent on divorcing the enthusiasm of the former from the core Alfa values of the latter and you have the MiTo.
For, despite di Meo's repeated affirmations that this new hatchback represents a return to said core values, I can't help feeling that by subscribing to the current industry obsession with Mr Creosote portions of technological trickery accompanying every new car to the table, Alfa have inadvertently interred the very values they so eagerly sought to exhume.
And, unfortunately, it's the MiTo's steering that first, and most volubly, trumpets this dubious triumph of technology over true involvement. Linked to Alfa's new 'DNA' system, which offers synchronised Dynamic, Normal and All Weather settings for steering effort, stability control, throttle mapping and turbocharger overboost, the helm is hemlock numb. I'm reluctant to wheel out the old rubber band cliché, but in this case it is entirely justified. In Normal guise the steering is too light for a car of such sporting pedigree, offering an elasticity of top dead centre-feel which is positively disconcerting when bouncing to and fro in your hands on motorways. Switching to Dynamic mode merely increases weight in an entirely artificial fashion without imbuing so much as a whiff of added involvement.
The accuracy and crisp turn-in of the appropriately quick steering rack can't be faulted when cornering, but once again a lack of feel makes it hard to develop any degree of real confidence at the sort of cornering velocities the Alfa should handle when getting into its stride. Further electronic interference takes the form of a Dynamic Steering Torque system which automatically introduces torque as a steering suggestion in moments when the edge of the dynamic envelope is explored, but I'll need more time driving the car in anger before the efficacy of this technology can be properly assessed.
Derived from the Fiat Grande Punto's entirely laudable MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension set up, the MiTo's undercarriage has been comprehensively revised to promote dynamic abilities worthy of the marque. Most notable is the addition of shock absorbers featuring coilover springs fitted within the tubes, in the manner of modern motorcycle technology. The first part of the stroke involves only the main spring, the secondary coilover spring coming into play with longer travel, thus obviating the need for anti-roll bars, which aren't fitted. The system works admirably in containing body roll, but the suspension - admirably balancing body control and a respectable degree of pliancy under most circumstances - does have a tendency to fidget quite markedly when asked to do too much at once.
As well as reducing the intrusiveness of the MiTo's legion electronic traction control techniques, the DNA's Dynamic setting also unleashes a new Q2 Electronic system which brakes the inside wheel under hard cornering, redistributing available torque to the outer wheel with the greater grip. An increase in lateral acceleration ability from 0.95 to 1g is thus promised but not, stooging the traffic glutted shoreline of Lake Como, yet realised.
With limited time behind the wheel allied to frequent fumbling with the DNA rocker switch I did learn two things. First, you cannot amend the DNA settings at speeds of over 75mph and, second, I'll need to drive the car far harder to notice any appreciable differences in suspension performance when switching between Normal and Dynamic.
Bawling for attention beneath these multiple layers of high-tech posture springing, the 1.4 litre turbocharged petrol engine powering the £14,975 Veloce version I sampled is something of a gem. Generating 155 bhp at 5500 rpm and 170 lb.ft of torque at 3000 rpm, this familiar yet heavily breathed on powerplant will propel the MiTo from 0-60 mph in 8.0 seconds dead and on to a top speed of 134 mph. Low on torque at low revs, the unit only wakes up when the turbo comes on song at over 3000 rpm, but from there to the 6500 rpm red line it's exceptionally eager, and makes a rather pleasing noise once you hit 5000 rpm to boot.
Thus armed, the MiTo feels nicely rangy and long-legged in every gear, gathering momentum with eagerness and an enthusiastic soundtrack which belies the engine's relatively humble capacity. The gearchange itself is classic Alfa, in that doesn't seem to have changed at all from the long throw, gently baggy offering - not to be used in too much haste if you don't want to lose your place - which I remember with fondness from my own Alfetta GTV6. It's just accurate enough and certainly easy to use, though stiffer springing to neutral and a shorter throw would add appeal. Unlike that lovely GTV6, the MiTo's brakes, by the way, are excellent, with bags of feel and stacks of stopping power.
That which not yet discussed is largely wholesome and, as intended, will undoubtedly tempt many girls out of their Minis. In a range competitively priced between £10,975 and £14,975, Turismo, Lusso and Veloce trim levels accompany a choice of five powerplants to the launch pad; 1.4 16 valve and 120 and 155 bhp variants of the turbocharged 1.4 litre petrol unit I sampled, as well as 1.3 and 1.6 litre turbodiesels. Standard equipment levels are high, with the likes of air-conditioning and seven airbags featuring across the board.
Predictably for a car going head to head with the Mini, personalisation options abound, with diverse dashboard and seat trim finishes complementing a range of alloy wheels and the facility to change the colour of headlamp and tail light surrounds. Body colour matching should be avoided in this case, however, making the headlamps look too small, and even further inboard and Austin A40-like than they already are.
I do have puppy-fat reservations about some aspects of the MiTo couture, convinced at one point during a head-on, after dark encounter that cartoon chum Fritz the Cat was staring back. But the interior is well made and nicely detailed, the only gently after-market feel provided by a sat' nav' screen which is positioned atop a stalk on the handsome, oxymoronic, soft-touch carbon fibre dash top. But for an irritatingly intrusive headrest, the front seats are entirely comfortable and supportive, and lashings of steering reach and rake adjustment affords a fine driving position for all, though I do wish the wheel would lower far enough to accompany the seat to the bottom of its travel. However, that is an increasingly common complaint these days.
All of which leaves me very much in two minds. The fact that you can still feel the Alfa pulse beating through all those mattresses is both encouraging and frustrating - the former because the driver is constantly aware of so much raw, Alfasud-style enthusiasm for the job lurking beneath the surface, the latter because much of it has been somewhat artlessly suppressed by layers of meddling technology. This, I suspect has much to do with Alfa consciously targeting a new princess - Mini girl - rather than a true Alfisti.
There is also a 230 bhp GTA version of the MiTo waiting in the wings, so genuine enthusiasts must hope the steering has been rigorously re-evaluated by then. After all, as the company itself says: "Apart from anything else, an Alfa Romeo has always made its personality known at the steering wheel."
Lest we forget.