Known as beautiful but unreliable, the Italian carmaker now offers quality along with style, says Kevin Hackett.
Alfa Romeo Mito: Marque's latest and smallest car a big improvement
Motoring journalism, no matter where in the world, is riddled with clichés. Ever read about a car's cornering ability being described as though it's on rails? Or a Ferrari's V8 engine note sounding like a staccato scream as it hits the red line? You probably have, even if you didn't notice it.
While we try to avoid these predictable descriptions in Motoring, it's easy to understand why people use them. How else do you describe something as potentially mundane as a car's cornering habits or the sound that comes out of its exhaust? And, in the United Kingdom at least, there's one motoring journalism cliché that has grown to more than just well worn. It's become so threadbare that it's starting to show its elbows: You're not a real petrolhead unless you've owned at least one Alfa Romeo.
Of course, this is utter nonsense. Nobody loves cars more than I, yet I have never taken the plunge and bought an Alfa and the reasons for this are numerous. Number one on my list, though, has to be that I really value reliability when it comes to my own personal transport. For decades now, Alfa Romeos have often been gorgeous to behold, most have been desirable on some sort of emotional level but - and it's a great big "but" - they've not been what you'd call well built.
But Alfa Romeo has, in the few years since that, changed dramatically. A massive investment in production facilities and a worldwide overhaul in its dealership networks have transformed the company into one that can cut it with the likes of Volkswagen, only its cars still manage to appeal to those who consider themselves driving enthusiasts. Well, that's what the press releases would have us believe, at least.
My last experience with an Alfa, a week with a new Giulietta, had shown that car to be a real contender in the medium-size hatchback segment - it was more entertaining to drive than a Golf, was better looking and, crucially, it felt really well built. I managed to drive that thing for days on end and no interior trim fell off. This was incredible progress.
And now Alfa is getting serious in the UAE, having worked hard to make its models compatible with our country's stringent requirements. The 156 has been on sale here for a year or so, but the big news is that the diminutive Mito went on sale just before Ramadan this year.
It's being marketed as a premium supermini and I have to say, even sitting in it, it's way ahead of any other Alfa I've yet experienced when it comes to the quality of fit and finish to the cabin. The dashboard is a two-piece affair, and the contrasting red and black colour scheme adds a sense of sportiness. The exterior styling appeals to both sexes (women seem to think the front is cute, while men like the rear, which shamelessly apes the style of the 8C supercar) and this thing manages to turn plenty of heads.
On the road it initially disappoints, however. The steering is way too light and the throttle has to be floored before you get anything like sprightly performance from its raspy engine. The automatic transmission seems to take too long to wake up, particularly when accelerating from low speeds, and I find myself hankering for a proper manual shifter. But if you change the drive mode from Normal to Dynamic using Alfa's DNA switch, the Mito is actually an eager performer. Seriously, this thing can bother most of those road bullies in their enormous trucks and it's hilarious to see the faces of other drivers as vehicles five times its size have to get out of its way.
With Dynamic mode, the steering weights up nicely and the suspension remains compliant, too. I find myself automatically reaching for the switch whenever I get into the Mito because it's the mode I can't help but feel the car should always be in. In Normal it just feels too sluggish, even for a city commute, and that steering just feels vague and lifeless. The tradeoff, however, is that in Normal mode the road comfort levels are extremely high, with the suspension soaking up really bad bumps with no thumps. A compromise between Dynamic and Normal would make the Mito a really, really competent little car.
Road noise is minimal, the cabin is airy and visibility is good. My only criticisms are the red digital displays, which can be difficult to read in the daytime, and the front seats, which could be a bit more comfortable. But in the big scheme of things, these are minor irritations.
It offers more boot space than a Mini, feels (almost) as well built and offers individuality - a much-prized attribute in these parts. It should do well - it deserves too. And I'm so glad to be able to see that the Giulietta wasn't a one-off. The Mito proves that a runabout can be a rewarding drive and it merits your attention if you're in the market for a small car. And that's something I never thought I'd write about an Alfa Romeo.