29 July 2012 by Andrew Leadbetter
The Alfa Romeo MiTo TwinAir returns 67.3mpg with emissions of just 98g/km CO2, which is impressive for a petrol-engined car, and it also has individual Italian design. The TwinAir engine adds character and reduces CO2emissions, it is fun to drive and the ride is mostly good but jiggly over poor surfaces.
Model/Engine size: 0.9 litre (875 cc)
Fuel economy combined: 67.3 mpg
Green Car Guide rating: 9/10
The Alfa MiTo has been around since 2008 and has recorded steady if unspectacular sales figures ever since. In 2011 the MiTo was given a mid-life refresh which mostly amounted to some new specifications and lower prices but the big news for 2012 is the addition of the multi award-winning TwinAir engine.
The Alfa MiTo is a ‘premium’ supermini which means that it should be a bit plusher and more aspirational than your average hatchback. When it was launched in 2008 it only really had one competitor, the MINI, but since then this niche sector has gone from strength to strength with the popular Citroen DS3 and the Audi A1 adding to the choice on offer. The MiTo’s TwinAir engine is available in either Sprint or Distinctive trims; we tested the cheaper Sprint.
We think that the MiTo is one of the best looking superminis. With its sports car looks derived from the exclusive 8C it is instantly recognisable as an Alfa.
By the way, if you were wondering, the MiTo name is a combination of Milan and Turin (Torino in Italian) which is a tip of the hat to the heritage of the company as the two cities are the long-term homes of the design and production facilities respectively.
This is a category which has historically displayed the best and worst of Alfa. The company has an enviable reputation for designing beautiful cars which you can happily lose your heart to. When it comes to engineering integrity, the less said the better.
However, the MiTo marked a step change for Alfa as it ushered in a new generation of models which aim to appeal to the head as much as the heart. As a result the MiTo feels every bit as solid as the competition and it’s also more than skin deep as the 5 star adult occupant Euro NCAP crash rating demonstrates. In an era where 5 star ratings are common, the MiTo’s top rated ‘good’ whiplash performance is impressive given that neither the DS3 nor the A1 can achieve this despite being newer models.
A quick look at the leading independent customer satisfaction surveys suggest that Alfa really has got on top of reliability as the MiTo receives above average scores from a raft of very satisfied owners.
The MiTo also banishes the idea that all Alfas have poor ergonomics and dodgy driving positions. Slip into the driver’s seat and you’ll find plenty of adjustment in the seat and steering wheel and the pedals are right in front of you rather than offset. It gives a good first impression and allows you to sit ‘in’ rather than ‘on’ the MiTo.
The dashboard is attractive but also logically laid out, although the radio and the curious red-on-black information display in between the speedo and rev counter are notable exceptions. They look dated and aren’t particularly easy to read. The rest of the cabin fares better, with liberal use of soft-to-touch material on top of the dash being a welcome addition. The higher spec Distinctive model gets faux soft-to-touch carbon fibre effect materials which look and feel better than they sound and give the cabin a bit of a lift.
With the proviso that the MiTo is only available as a three-door , practicality is good. With 270 litres of boot space, it matches the Audi A1, it’s 15 litres smaller than the Citroen DS3, and a whopping 110 litres bigger than the MINI. As with any three-door car there is a certain amount of contortion involved in getting into the back seats, but once you get there, head and leg room is sufficient for two six-foot adults. Wisely, the MiTo comes with four seats as standard although if you really can’t do without a fifth seatbelt and headrest you can order it, although it is only really suitable for children or very short distances.
The engine is always the heart of a good car and Alfa has produced some of the greatest engines of all time – no pressure then. The TwinAir may be small but don’t be fooled into thinking that it is low tech. It combines just two cylinders with a low inertia turbocharger and the advanced MultiAir system which features direct injection and hydraulically-controlled infinitely-variable valve timing and lift to deliver big gains in power, torque and fuel economy. It really is a cutting-edge engine, and it swept the board with four awards at the 2011 International Engine of the Year Awards including taking the top prize of Engine of the Year.
The MiTo deploys some styling techniques to enhance its design aesthetics including circular rear lights reminiscent of most of your favourite sports cars, frameless windows and a high window line that makes you feel like you’re sitting lower and gives a sense of security. The net result is that it does feel a bit more special than your average hatchback.
The MiTo uses Alfa’s ‘D.N.A.’ system which allows you to alter the way that the car drives; D stands for Dynamic, N for Normal, and A for All Weather. With the launch of the TwinAir models Alfa has taken the opportunity to make some very welcome changes to the system. Firstly the car now stays in the setting that it was in when it was turned off rather than defaulting to ‘N’ each time, and secondly the system will now stay in ‘D’ mode at any speed whereas before it defaulted to ‘N’ at just under 70 mph.
Normal is designed for urban use. It’s best to think of this setting as the equivalent of other manufacturers’ ‘eco’ modes. Once selected via the stylish rocker switch in front of the gear lever, engine power is reduced to 78 bhp at 5,500 rpm and torque is held back to 81 lb.ft between 3,000 to 5,500 rpm. At the same time the throttle response is dulled and the steering assistance is set to its lightest mode.
The modest power and torque outputs combined with a 1,130 kg kerb weight make the MiTo feel slightly underpowered in this mode. It does however encourage you to adopt a more laid back driving style and keep the engine at the lower end of its rev range which benefits fuel economy. Our biggest gripe with this setting is the steering weighting, the system has a numb feel around the straight ahead position and is prone to kick back.
In Dynamic mode the MiTo wakes up. Power is increased to 85 bhp at 5,500 rpm and torque is up to 107 lb.ft between 2,000 and 3,500 rpm. To go with these changes the throttle response is sharpened and the steering weight is increased. This has a noticeable effect on performance. With the TwinAir allowed to play, it is easy to see why it has won so many awards as it is an engineering marvel.
In the MiTo the TwinAir unit is paired with a close ratio six-speed gearbox and it gets a dual mass flywheel which is something more commonly found on diesels. The trick flywheel makes the engine smooth with none of the lumpiness that you might expect from a two-cylinder engine and this allows you to make full use of the rev range. With peak torque arriving at just 2,000 rpm it will pull cleanly from just 1,500 rpm. This is an important fact when it comes to fuel economy as the MiTo is perfectly happy to cruise along in a high gear without feeling laboured or becoming unrefined.
In Dynamic mode the MiTo actually feels quicker than the statistics suggest thanks to short first and second gears (second runs out at 40 mph) and a third gear that is only just good for 60 mph. The short gearing in combination with the free revving engine makes it easy to hit the rev limiter in first and second as you have to be quick with the gear changes.
The heavier steering eliminates the kick-back experienced in Normal and makes the front end easier to place. There is still a rubbery feel around the straight-ahead position but once you turn into a corner the feeling improves and there is enough information coming back to tell what the front wheels are doing.
Ultimately if you do push too hard the MiTo will understeer but the limits are well telegraphed and the understeer is easily controlled. With full power available and the weightier steering it’s fun to drive. It isn’t razor sharp but it will leave you with a smile on your face. The TwinAir plays a major role in this as it adds so much character. The engine note is unique and is a welcome accompaniment. Below 3,000 rpm engine noise is well suppressed so in sixth gear motorway journeys can be completed with admirable refinement.
In terms of the All Weather setting, although we tested this MiTo in the height of summer, we did test a diesel MiTo in the snow earlier this year and the car performed better than expected.
One area where the MiTo struggles slightly is the ride quality. The Sprint spec that we tried gets attractive 16-inch wheels with 195/55 section tyres which makes them smaller than the Distinctive. With a sensible sidewall the ride is generally pretty good, it’s firm without becoming jarring, but it can be caught out by repeated bumps which the dampers struggle to contain. This makes for a jiggly ride. Thankfully over the majority of surfaces this isn’t an issue although if you are going to get bigger wheels it would be worth a quick test drive first.
If we were being picky it would be good to be able to mix and match D.N.A. settings so that the more efficient engine mode could be selected with the heavier steering. Carrying speed through corners so that you don’t need to accelerate on the exit is a legitimate and effective fuel saving technique so it is a shame that you can’t carry speed with the same confidence in Normal as you can in Dynamic.
In the official tests the TwinAir engine allows the MiTo to steal a march on its main petrol-engined competitors as its 98g/km CO 2 rating (67.3mpg) means that it is in band A for car tax. This means that you don’t have to pay anything. In addition the sub-100 g/km rating also means that you only pay 10% company car tax, again something that the rivals can’t match.
There has been much written about the difficulty that journalists and owners have had in the real world getting near the official fuel economy of the TwinAir engine in the Fiat 500. It quickly becomes apparent why owners have struggled.
Firstly the TwinAir engine is revolutionary and it requires a different driving style to traditional engines to maximise the efficiency. It will happily roll along at 1,000 rpm, less revs than you would normally need, and it is more efficient on part-throttle than traditional engines because it uses direct injection.
Secondly it is too much fun. It’s so easy to spin the engine up thanks to its lack of inertia and short gearing; it takes real concentration to keep the revs in check. It also makes a great noise when you’re pressing on which eggs you on to use the full potential, and you naturally gravitate to the thirstier Dynamic mode as it makes the car so much sharper.
If you can bring yourself to drive the TwinAir in an efficient manner (there are fuel efficient gear change indicators) we have no doubt that fuel economy will be good but if you choose to dip into the full performance too often it will suffer.
Rather than criticise Alfa we applaud the company for producing a car that can be efficient but can also be genuinely fun as too many ‘eco’ models are one-trick ponies.
In Sprint trim the TwinAir costs £14,150 which is about £900 more than the thirstier and less entertaining 1.4 litre 78 bhp petrol engine. If you upgrade to the Distinctive model the price increases to £15,350. The differences between the two are largely cosmetic; they offer identical performance and fuel economy.
Whichever model you choose, the MiTo is competitively priced and has decent standard specification. One noteworthy option is sat nav. Alfa offers two systems, the first is a £900 factory-fitted unit, whilst the second uses TomTom’s portable unit. The TomTom costs £299, offers better functionality than the factory-fit system, and comes with a purpose-designed, crash tested cradle which is pre-wired into the top of the dashboard. The cradle is a no-cost option and ensures that the system is fully integrated with MiTo’s controls.
The MiTo range consists of four models starting at £12,500 for the 1.4 litre Progression and topping out with the £18,760 Quadrifoglio Verde performance model. Alfa has chosen to make the TwinAir engine available in the Sprint and Distinctive specifications as they see it as an aspirational choice; they believe that buyers want fuel efficiency but also want high specifications. Alfa is anticipating that the TwinAir models will make up nearly 40% of sales.
The MiTo is great to look at, well built and is fun to drive. The TwinAir engine adds even more character to a car that wasn’t short on it in the first place. It also has class-leading running costs, group 9 insurance and is competitively priced. Dispelling another longstanding Alfa myth, it also has excellent residuals, listing in the top 10 cars in the country, so you don’t have to worry about how little it will be worth when you sell it. If you are a company car user the 10% rating will be music to your ears too.
Alfa set out to build a car that appeals to the head as much as the heart and we think the brand has achieved just that; it is therefore awarded a Green Car Guide rating of 9 out of 10.
Fuel economy extra urban: 74.3 mpg
Fuel economy urban: 57.6 mpg
CO2 emissions: 98 g/km
Green rating: VED band A (£0 a year)
Weight: 1,130 kg
Company car tax liability (2012/13): 10%
Insurance group: 9
Power: 85 bhp
Max speed: 108 mph
0-62 mph: 12.5 seconds
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