Remember how McLaren dominated F1 at the end of the 1990s, before Ferrari's Rory Byrne and Paolo Martinelli took command?
Byrne designed the racing chariots and Martinelli master-minded the era’s most powerful, yet reliable, V10s.
The selfsame Martinelli left F1 at the end of 2006, specifically to head up Fiat’s engine department.
As such, he’s had a winning hand in Alfa Romeo’s new peach of a petrol plant, a lively lag-less little 16-valve 1.4-litre turbo that also does duty in the Fiat Grande Punto and Bravo, albeit with 4 kW less than Alfa’s 114.
Point is that it’s a Martinelli-polished mill.
That’s good news for any car.
But here’s the best news: henceforth, the new motor will also nestle in a spanking new 3-door Alfa Romeo supermini called MiTo.
Myth or legend?
Driving along the highways in northern Italy, you’ll notice sign-boards pointing the way to Mi-To, an acronym for Milano (Alfa’s spiritual home) and Torino (where the new baby Romeo will be built).
Yet, we suspect that the Alfa MiTo will soon elicit calls of “one for Me, Too, please”.
It’s simply that good and, above all, desirable – especially in an age of downsizing.
Look at it this way: the MiTo is Alfa’s first compact 4-metre hatch since the Alfasud of the ’70s and ’80s.
It is also Milan’s first return in the new millennium to anything less than 1.6-litre capacity – but this time with turbo power, precisely to re-capture the essence of that quaint description for true Alfissimo, namely Cuore Sportivo, or a sporty heart.
Yet, we all know the Italians. A kiss on the cheek might mean two different things, just like “mito” might mean myth, or legend . . .
So, which one will MiTo be?
Alfa going soft
Let’s face it: Alfa is not what it used to be. With the exception of the 159, 156, Giulietta and a handful of Quadrifoglio or GTA models, the brand has sadly been scarred over the last 30 years by a long and steady decline.
German cars have beaten it to the punch in all but styling.
Most shocking of all was to find that Alfa had gone soft since its brief mid-’90s renaissance.
Steering got dopey, gearchanges sloppy and ride mushy.
Sophia Loren has more control over her bouncier parts than Alfas have in hard and fast 10/10ths cornering.
Even a sports coupé as arrestingly styled as the Brera had little to offer in terms of the brand’s famed sporty character.
Over the years, Cuore Sportivo had turned into a hollow phrase indeed.
Yet, Alfisti kept on believing, sometimes against hope.
At last, though, the members of 300-plus world wide Romeo clubs can relax and take heart.
For, enter the solution: a dynamic 8C Competizione, followed by the cute little MiTo.
And not as unrelated entities, take note, but linked via the extremities of Centro Stile’s new styling language; the 8C super-coupé will serve as blue-print for future Alfa looks and technology.
Observe then, the following in both newcomers: low-shielded snooty snouts sniffing tar; neater and cleaner moustaches than Snor City’s best; deep Vs rising dramatically over dipped bonnets; rounded wings housing open, oblong headlights instead of wide clusters with flat and narrow apertures; plus perfectly rounded tail lights with concentric LED’s, the design of which has a Papal robe beaten for purity . . .
Wait, also, till you see thick trim surrounds creating smart eye-liner effects around the MiTo’s lights, especially at the back.
They happen to be especially striking in chrome (for black could also be had, depending on choice. And no, it’s not really metal, but plastic, the utterly jewel-like appearance notwithstanding).
That’s the exterior.
With air-con vents as well as an unusually wide and clear instrument cluster being capped by rounded swoops, the MiTo’s dash still presents a plethora of lines, curves and angles set mainly in Alfa black, highlighted by red read-outs and silvery fake-metal inserts.
Yet, the end product is way more classy than before.
Controls are bigger, clearer and better laid-out for a less busy, less fussy effect.
And what looks like a carbon-fibre spread tying together the dash top, instrument cluster and centre console via a single tri-angularly shaped unit is, in fact, a padded piece of extremely high-quality plastic.
Which makes one wonder about the chromed tunnel-console mounted switch for selecting one of three different driving modes: is it real metal, or not?
On top of this, seats present customary Alfa excellence in terms of shape, looks, materials, grip and support.
Add great door trim, and the overall result evokes a quality feel that no other Alfa cabin has ever been able to.
Even the rear is not too shabby in terms of space, MiTo packaging such that the boot is tall and upright, courtesy of seats having been pushed back an extra centimeter to create good leg room for a compact 3-door hatch.
An ‘upright’ boot?
Yes, horizontally it’s not deep, but vertically it is.
That’s partly as a result of the MiTo being slightly and even oddly high, relative to its width (1.44 m plays 1.72 m).
One drive on the famed mountain roads north of Milan, in the southern foothills of the Alps – where Alfas are developed – and you know why. The roads are narrow and twisty and oncoming traffic is a bane.
On at least two occasions I heard my co-driver draw a sharp breath as we exited a blind corner, with traffic bearing down on us on the wrong side of the road as drivers tried to straighten out bends with a wide entry.
It was in such moments that MiTo steering proved accurate enough to place the car millimetrically between the rocky wall on the outside perimeter of the road and the oncoming car wooshing by on the inside.
Yet, in general, the electrically assisted rack-and-pinion cannot be described as razor sharp or particularly engaging, precisely because of the numbing EPS effect.
Other problems are wide A-pillars and a high shoulder line, which makes it difficult to judge apexes from the car’s lowest and most sporty seating position. Height adjustment of the steering wheel also needs a deeper setting. And the brake pedal could be positioned a bit shallower, for cleaner right foot access when lifting off the throttle.
The rest is good, with steering at least evenly weighted and the throttle quite lively in sporty mode.
Or so we were told, as Dynamic and All-Weather modes on our test car were disabled.
And that was strange, not so, given that the MiTo is touted by Milan as the sportiest mini hatch out there. Why not ensure then, that journalists will be able to engage Dynamic mode?
In this regard, it would have to beat the BMW 1 series and Mini in any case.
The MiTo is certainly good enough to take them on, even though turn-in is not nearly as sharp as the Mini’s and the One offers way more power, of course.
Yet, the Alfa is exquisitely styled and fashionably downsized, even if its face offers an odd mix of low-slung sports car aggression off-set by high cutesy bug-eyed innocence.
Bottom line is that it works in a funny sort of way.
And the rear is pure, unadulterated genius.
Ride and handling
Combine this with lusty Italian engine brio characterised by a rorty soundtrack, and the MiTo is off to a strong start. Nothing wrong with stopping prowess, either.
The brakes, interestingly enough, can be used quite effectively to set up the MiTo for lively tail-out corner entry, whilst DST (Dynamic Steering Torque) is supposed to provide a counter-effect to combat oversteer through fast corners.
The electronic Q2 diff, on the other hand, distributes torque between the front wheels, specifically by braking the inner wheel under hard acceleration out of corners, to increase traction on the outer wheel.
Alfa is confident that their rebound springs (mounted as extras in the dampers to eliminate the need for weight-costly anti-roll bars) will keep the car’s posture flat enough through the twisty bits – and from what we’ve experienced, the front’s MacPherson struts and the rear’s torsion-beam failed to upset this belief, though conditions for extreme testing never materialised.
Ride quality, in general, is also pleasing, even though front suspension compression over bad ruts might be a tad harsh, in lieu of sporty settings.
The manual gearbox has been modernised, too, with a dual cable external linkage and triple cone synchronisers in first and second gears ensuring slick shifts, although improved gears, lubrication and clutch control contribute as well.
The shift still borders on a longish and softish throw, which in slightly worse iterations would have been described as loose and sloppy. Gates though, are pretty positively defined for cog swapping to be quick and accurate enough to invariably match engine revolutions with car momentum.
And yes, the air-con works!
By heavens, even build quality and attention to detail have passed initial inspection, the deep lustre of excellent paint jobs in particular eliciting high praise.
Steering could be a tad sharper (although we have not yet tested the MiTo in Dynamic mode, which might just do the trick). Luggage-wise, the little Alfa is also a bit impractical; the load sill is high and rear seats won’t fold down completely flat.
Against this we have to mention excellent comfort and entertainment features plus top-notch safety equipment, like hill-start assist plus seven airbags as standard.
Myth or legend, then?
Our money is on legend.
Here’s a downsized compact that conveys big car confidence and refinement in terms of behaviour, attitude, safety, equipment and even space, up to a point – not to speak of space-age communication and entertainment facilities.
Besides the ensconsed effect of a high shoulder line, the MiTo never really feels cramped. Nor is it dynamically impaired or starved of performance.
In fact, it is a game little warrior with excellent modern design and features, boasting a pure and true Cuore Sportivo on top of it all.
The MiTo mini is a real Alfa, nothing less.
*The MiTo offers three 4-cylinder engine variants – a 1.4-litre petrol turbo (114 kW, 230 Nm, 0-100 in 8 s, topspeed of 215 km/h); a 1.6-litre JTD Multijet turbo-diesel (88 kW, 320 Nm, 9.9 s, 198 km/h); and a normally-aspirated 1.4-litre Junior model (58 kW, 120 Nm, 12.3 s, 165 km/h). A hot 172 kW GTA will follow next year.
*The MiTo makes its SA debut early in 2009’s second quarter. Prices are still unknown, but expect them to be stiff.
Egmont Sippel is Rapport’s Motoring Editor and SA Motoring Journalist of the Year 2007/08.