You might think Alfa Romeo's new baby has the face of a cartoon character, and that might not be a bad thing, given that it is intended to attract a new, young and predominantly female generation of fans to the venerable Italian marque.
On the other hand, Alfa's avowed aim was to create "the sportiest mini", and it claims that the new MiTo's appearance was inspired by the dramatic 8C Competizione supercar, the technical and stylistic mould for all future models. Look at the grilles, the wheelarches, the side windows and the tail tights. Admire the sinuous elegance of form combined with a hint of aggression. It's a pugnacious cartoon character, then.
Or is it? Image and reality have not always been easy bedfellows at Alfa, and the undeniably cute little MiTo continues that tradition. Despite claims that this a "real" Alfa, it's actually based on the Fiat Grande Punto (the MiTo name combines Milano, where its style was conceived, and Torino, where it will be built). The press launch certainly upheld Alfa custom in contriving to pack a whole two hours of driving into two days. According to the glossy road book, the 66-mile route in and around a blisteringly hot Milan was "chosen for its great diversity, allowing all of a car's features to be put through its paces [sic]. An itinerary spanning two branches of Lake Como and the legendary Monza circuit. Over these roads, tackling these bends, Alfa Romeo's test drivers have tested and awarded their seal of approval to cars like the Giulietta and the Giulia. Cars that are undisputedly icons, living symbols of Italian taste, of the Alfa Romeo-style motoring and sporting culture".
So after a delay of several minutes in the Monza paddock while an engineer with a USB stick re-set the sat-nav system in the range-topping 155bhp turbocharged 1.4-litre model (the only version available on the day), we were allowed to pause briefly for photographs on the disused banked section of the famous circuit, whose vertiginous steepness produced a loud rattle in the back of the car (a spare bolt rolling around one of the cup-holders) and disabled the DNA system that allows the driver to choose between three settings for engine response, stability control and power steering (Dynamic, Normal and All Weather). After further remedial intervention by the engineers, we eventually squeezed out of the city via a long section of autostrada that revealed another rattle, this time a loose piece of plastic undertray in front of the nearside rear wheel. Peeling off onto the narrow roads around Lake Como, we were held up by Italian sporting culture in the form of countless cyclists, joggers and even a man climbing a steep hill on a pair of wheeled skis, then crawled back to Monza through the busy Milanese suburbs.
It hardly seems fair to judge the MiTo on the basis of such a short drive in a less than brilliantly assembled development car, but a few things stood out. The interior, at least in top-spec Veloce trim, is attractive and comfortable. It lacks the distinctive style of a MINI, or indeed a Fiat 500, but is a match for any other rival, although the black fabric gaiter between the facia and the adjustable steering wheel looks like an afterthought, and the rear seats are somewhat cramped.
With 155bhp, the 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol unit offers respectable outright performance for such a small capacity unit (203kmh, 0-100kmh in 8.0 seconds, 33.2mpg Urban economy and CO2 emissions of 153g/km) although the power delivery is curiously old fashioned, with a pronounced turbo lag; even with the DNA system set to Dynamic you have to keep the revs up for a swift response and in the Normal setting the car feels anything but sporting. It may be assumed that the naturally aspirated 95bhp and 120bhp 1.4-litre petrol options and the 90bhp and 120bhp 1.6-litre diesels are even less inspiring, although the latter has significantly more torque at lower revs as well as economy and emissions advantages (123mph, 9.9sec, 47.8mpg and 126g/km). Fans of genuinely sporting Alfas will look forward to the 230bhp GTA version that joins the range next year, from which Alfa CEO Luca de Meo promised the best dynamic performance ever from a car of this size (four metres long).
Keeping the revs up in the 155bhp model isn't as much fun as it could be; the six-speed gearchange is pretty ordinary, with a long throw and an imprecise feel to the lever.
Even more disappointing is the electrically assisted steering, which is utterly devoid of feel or feedback around the straight ahead, although with fewer than three turns of the wheel from lock to lock, the ratio is suitably quick. The front-wheel-drive MiTo understeers when pushed but in normal driving it turns into and powers through corners well, the Q2 system using the powerful brakes to restrain wheelspin and maximise traction.
Building on the Grande Punto's MacPherson strut front, torsion-beam rear suspension, Alfa makes great claims for the new dampers incorporating internal rebound springs that act to minimise roll (there are no conventional anti-roll bars). The body is indeed well controlled, but the ride, on the comfortable side of firm, had a fussy, slightly jiggly quality on the roads we drove; it would have been interesting to try the higher profile tyres on 16-inch wheels fitted to Turismo and Lusso spec models (the Veloce runs on 17-inch rims).
We will get the MiTo in time for the New Year rush, with prices starting at below €19,000 for the 95bhp 1.4 petrol, rising to €24,000 for the 155bhp Veloce we drove. That's competitive with the likes of the MINI Cooper, but the MINI knocks spots off the MiTo in terms of sportiness as most drivers (of any age or gender) understand the term, and Fiat's own super-stylish 500 Abarth offers more fun for significantly less money . Alfa's people in Ireland intend to have left-hand drive cars in the showrooms in the autumn to whet people's attitude. The company claims that its prices will be "well beating the main competitor ... even the base spec will include all safety content as standard"
Alfa's marketing men may try to speak the language of the young on www.alfamitoblog.com ("a bold attempt to take control of the blogosphere") and the MiTo is a pretty little thing that is hard to dislike. But shouldn't Alfas inspire loyalty for more than their looks? Let's hope the MiTo GTA will do just that.