We need cars like the Alfa MiTo right now. If we're going to adapt, reduce, shrink and generally downsize our consumption and material ambitions, then let's do it cheerily, shall we? Let's not confine ourselves to grey cloned econoboxes. Let's have small cars that are imaginatively styled, nicely furnished and a laugh to drive. Since there isn't really an English word for zeitgeist, I don't suppose there's an Italian one, but the MiTo fits it. Mi and To, by the way, are the postcodes for Milan and Turin. The former is Alfa's hometown, the latter the place where the car is built. But less prosaically, mito is Italian for myth.
If we need this car, so does Alfa. It's still struggling to reach a truly viable size, but new models will help it grow - both replacements for the current ageing ones (there's a 149 on an all-new platform next year) and cars that go into new segments. This is a new segment, though you could argue it's the same size as the Alfasud in the Seventies, but let's not get too soppily historical. It's an over-reliance on the crutch of heritage that has, in part, gotten Alfa into its current reduced state. The MiTo has to be good enough for 2009 and beyond. It has to be good enough to credibly challenge the Mini.
It's a marginally longer car than the Mini, and it has a workable rear seat, which the Mini doesn't really. But the MiTo isn't a regular supermini either: there will never be a five-door, and the hatchback is small to make the body rigid and get the style. The MiTo shares a fair bit with the Punto, but then if it didn't, it wouldn't exist, and anyway that's not a bad place to start. Besides, a fair bit has been changed. The track is wider, several trick suspension parts are added, the body structure is different - there are frameless door windows, for instance, and a lower seating position - and in the cabin you suffer none of that feeling of wholesale parts-bin burglary.
It's a nice place to be, this interior - smartly designed with modern materials, and it feels solid and satisfying to the touch. For some reason, it took me a while to adjust the seat and steering wheel, but persistence was rewarded. It's so important to be able to address the wheels and pedals properly. The small windows give you a sense of womb-like comfort, at least until you try to see out the back to park. Reversing sensors are a must-have option.
The small windows, and the shape of them, are a result of a deliberate use of 8C Competizione design elements all over the outside of the MiTo. Please do form your own conclusions about this, but I have reservations. Remember when Porsche put the design cues of a sports car onto an SUV? They didn't fit, and we ended up with the eye-assaulting Cayenne. On a small car such as the MiTo, the cues should emphasise the width, but here the 8C's shield grille just makes it look tall, an impression heightened by the narrow-set headlights and the bulging forehead. It looks like it's bitten off more than it can chew: the cheeks are ballooning out and the eyes bulging gormlessly. In fact, the stance is strong, because the track is wide and the sides are full of interest without over-complication. The LED-jewelled tail-end is terrific too.
Behind that grille is a 1.4 Turbo engine, broadly as per the Bravo and Abarth Punto, but with a mildly Alfa-ised exhaust note and a 155bhp tune. We like. It gets percolating around 2,000rpm, hardly shows lag and sounds urgent all the way to the redline. You get to 62mph in 8.0 seconds. If that's not enough, next year's GTA, with a direct-injection turbo 1750cc engine and double-clutch transmission, will serve up 230bhp. The way the chassis deals with the 155bhp, I'm optimistic those 230 horses won't all die of tyre-smoking-related diseases.
In claiming it as ‘the sportiest small car', Alfa could have made the MiTo a hard-riding kart, out of its depth on actual roads. It didn't. There's quite a bit of suppleness in the suspension, certainly more than in the punishing Mini's. But additional springs mounted coaxially with the dampers moderate the spring rates at full wheel drop, which helps rein in the roll. The steering, though nicely weighted, is short of feel, but via the seat you get lots of sense of what the chassis is up to, and the rear wheels follow the fronts with gratifying eagerness. You can trim the attitude on the throttle a little too.
Just ahead of the gearlever is a big, beautifully made three-way switch, activating what Alfa calls DNA. That stands for dynamic, normal and all-weather, a sort of Ferrari manettino to the rest of us. It alters the thresholds for the traction control and DSC, changes the weight of the steering and brings in turbo overboost on ‘sport'. It also reprogrammes the steering's correction-assist, a gadget that during major oversteer or understeer nudges the wheel in the right direction to sort things. But don't worry, if you dislike such nannying you won't notice it, because, hey, you're good enough to get on with the correction before the nudge arrives.
But back to the usual everyday business of trundling along in traffic. The MiTo's manners are OK - the petrol engine and tyres fall quiet on a cruise. The diesel version had a slightly hiccuppy accelerator action though. Ah yes, the diesel. It's a 1.6 of 120bhp, and is a lot quieter than my usual Mini Cooper D. Unfortunately, while the acceleration is the same, the CO2 figure is 126g/km against 104, so that MiTo version won't be a tax-beater. Ah well, in late 2009 the MiTo gets a new generation of petrol engines with fancy valve gear to cut consumption significantly while adding about 15bhp.
So it'll get better later. But it's more than OK as it is. Pity the UK launch isn't until January. Because now is the time.