North American Exclusive First Drive: Alfa MiTo

Click above for a hi-res gallery of the Alfa MiTo

It's Saturday night and I'm out on the town. My friend – like half of the guys in the room – is eyeing the pretty blond across the bar, but at least he knows he doesn't have to worry about competition from my corner. Because there's a smolderingly hot redhead sitting across the room, and she's stolen all of my attention. Objectively I'd have to admit the blond is the better choice, but there's just something about those fiery crimson locks that make short order of blocking out everything else. It's something that – while I've never been officially part of the club myself – I suspect I share with Alfa Romeo owners around the world.

For decades Alfa Romeo has been coasting by on its image and heritage. Buying an Alfa has long been an irrational choice, motivated by the subjective longing for that indefinable x-factor despite their many objective dynamic flaws. With the new Alfa MiTo, however, that era draws to a close. The MiTo demands no excuses and, drenched though it is with that charm that only redheads Alfas do best, the MiTo doesn't ask that you ignore its flaws because countless manhours have gone into making sure they've been eliminated.

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All Photos Copyright ©2008 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.

We could have tried to hide our excitement at Alfa Romeo's invitation to drive its highly anticipated new sport-hatch in Italy, but really now, who would we be kidding? However, we did board the flight for Milan with a healthy dose of journalistic skepticism. The styling of Alfa's new entry-level model draws directly on its range-topping counterpart, the 8C Competizione. And we haven't attempted to hide our enthusiasm for that sportscar's sumptuous styling, either. But relating a small hatchback to a limited-production supercar worth easily ten times as much (the company has yet to release official pricing) is a bit of a stretch, and we couldn't help but wonder if Alfa hadn't written a check with the MiTo's styling that its dynamic performance couldn't possibly match.

Our invitation, it's worth noting, came as part of a new initiative from Alfa Romeo to reach out to a new generation of customers. Specifically, customers like you, who read blogs like ours. We were joined by bloggers from across Europe, but Autoblog being the only American (or for that matter, English-language) site represented, ours was a bit of an exclusive. The outreach exercise also attracted the participation of some of Alfa's top marketing executives, ostensibly present to observe first-hand how the event carried off, and a team of accomplished test drivers to show us how to get the most out of the MiTo, but more on both of those subjects in later posts to follow.

Enough preamble, you say? How does the MiTo drive, you ask? Suffice it to say, despite the aforementioned overcast of years of disappointing dynamics and the hype of the MiTo's aspirational styling, the little Italian did not disappoint. We weren't, however, expected to take the company's word for it, but rather were encouraged to push the car to its absolute limits. All the while, the MiTo did not miss a beat: not under hard acceleration, quick directional changes, sweeping high-speed corners, twisty curves, hard braking, in the wet, on the dry... whatever we could throw at it, the MiTo ate it up, spit it out and hunkered down for more. The folks at Alfa Romeo clearly knew that in advance – that's why they brought us to Varano, one of the most challenging racetracks in Italy, to let us find out for ourselves. Being a front-drive, nose-heavy hatchback, the MiTo was prone to some measure of understeer, but the myriad systems onboard do a remarkable job of minimizing torque steer.

The transformation is quite remarkable, especially when you consider the MiTo's humble beginnings. Underneath all that curvaceous coachwork resides the same platform that underpins the work-a-day Fiat Grande Punto. While Alfa's sister company Abarth (both under the direction of Fiat Group rising star Luca de Meo) has by all accounts done quite a job on the Punto itself, the MiTo is another beast entirely. Part of the transformation comes down to a bank of electronic aids that would make the Space Shuttle seem old-school including everything from stability control to computerized brake-force distribution and an electronic differential. While the base versions of the MiTo won't include all these systems, our 155-hp turbocharged testers (top-of-the-line, at least until the 230-hp GTA is launched) encompassed all of these and then some.

To control all these systems, Alfa reached back into the realm of supercars, though this time it didn't run to its big brother the 8C Competizione, but rang up its cousins at Ferrari: The MiTo is the first roadcar from outside Maranello to feature Ferrari's manettino chassis control switch, which Alfa aptly calls its DNA system, selecting as it does between Dynamic, Normal and All-Weather settings. While Ferrari places its dial right on the steering wheel, Alfa put the toggle northwest of the six-speed shifter. The chassis itself is quite solid, but the electronics do a remarkable job of keeping it all together under the adverse circumstances to which we subjected the MiTo. After taking a few laps in both All-Weather and Normal modes, the difference when Dynamic (the most liberal of the three settings) is engaged is quite noticeable. The whole car feels more taut and attentive, like a circus tiger responding to its trainer's whip. The electronic nannies all take a step back and let you have some fun, but the safety net, thankfully, is still there to keep you from undesired encounters with roadside obstacles.

All this from a cabin we could get used to all too easily. It's a small car and the interior doesn't feel cavernous, unlike some of the MiTo's rivals that try to open things up with swept-back dashboards and huge windscreens melding into expansive glass roof panels. The MiTo's approach is decidedly more enveloping, more intimate in a true Italian style. The seats are upholstered in black leather, perforated in some areas and top-stitched in white on others. The dashboard, meanwhile, is covered in a trim that's more inspired by carbon fiber than trying to mimic the material, which might not be to everyone's taste but was to ours. The back seats are tight – not a place we'd want to be for a long trek – but we survived a few laps back there while a former rally champion showed us what she could do.

At the end of the day, the project leader for the MiTo asked us what we would want changed, and after a resounding silence, the only thing anyone could come up with, tellingly, was some grab handles for the passengers.

Don't be fooled: despite the 8C styling language, the MiTo is no supercar. It won't be running circles around Porsches and Corvettes. It should, however, give Europe's best hot hatches a run for their money, with the appeal to take it the extra mile down the straight.

The challenge now incumbent upon Alfa Romeo will be to follow up on the MiTo's example and make it the new rule rather than an exception. The Milanese automaker has a slew of new models in the pipeline, including the new 149 that will join the MiTo in replacing the aging 147 hatchback, the anticipated 169 flagship, and the possibility of new cabrio and crossover models, to say nothing of GTA versions confirmed for both the MiTo and the 8C. If the people at Alfa can make all of these as dynamically competent as the MiTo, it may never have to make another excuse again.

It's the weekend again, and I'm back at the bar with my friends. (If you think I have a drinking problem, you try finding a suitable replacement for the rush of driving an Italian sporthatch full out on a race track.) This time my friend has ditched the peroxide poseur and has joined me in checking out the hot redhead. "Should I go for it?", he asks. When all the right boxes are ticked, I can't think of one reason why not.

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All Photos Copyright ©2008 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.

Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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