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Alfa Romeo MiTo 1.6 JTDm Lusso

Click to view picture gallery“Alfa MiTo: ‘A is for Alfa, Approval
  and Admiration. Better yet, it
s now
  available with an economical
  diesel engine that doesn
t make it
  any less entertaining to drive
...”

"WE LOVE YOUR CAR!" This is not a comment I'm used to receiving when I arrive at my regular Monday yoga class in a vain attempt to stave off stiffening limbs. I turn up in all sorts of machinery each week, from humble city car to exotic supercar, and no-one has ever made a comment before. But my yoga teacher and the rest of the class joined as one to appreciate the baby Alfa Romeo: "It looks fantastic!"

I can't argue with that. Walking around the MiTo is like examining a multi-faceted jewel, each aspect revealing more captivating detail. However, I fully recognise that my yoga class and I are not unanimous in our design appreciation — one friend said he'd spied a white MiTo in his rear-view mirror and thought he'd seen Casper the Ghost!

Personally, I'd say the MiTo is strikingly attractive rather than classically beautiful; an Uma Thurman, not a Cameron Diaz. The glasshouse in particular has real drama: rising waistline, coupe-like rear windows and sculpted tailgate glass. It's all supposed to evoke Alfa's 8C Competizione supercar — squint hard and you may just get the resemblance…

Whatever your view, you can't deny this Alfa has character. And that's a rare commodity in the supermini class these days. I've just driven the new VW Polo, for example, which resets motoring boredom to all-new subterranean depths of tedium. The MiTo is a breath of fresh air.

For Alfa Romeo, it's a completely new departure and its first-ever truly small car. It's the Fiat Group's answer to the MINI: a high-value, high-style car with compact dimensions. And it seems set to single-handedly revive Alfa's flagging fortunes.

Whisper it, but many of the underpinnings actually come from the Fiat Grande Punto. The only thing you really need to know is that the MiTo makes good use of Alfa steering, braking and suspension set-ups.

Most media attention has focused on the petrol engines in the MiTo range, particularly the range-topping 155bhp 1.4 TB. And even more attention will be focused on the petrol powerplants very shortly now that Alfa is about to fit a new range of cleaner MultiAir engines, including a 168bhp Quadrifoglio Verde powerhouse.

I've driven most of the MiTo range back-to-back and I reckon the pick of the bunch is the 1.6 JTDm diesel version. It may have 'only' 120bhp versus the 1.4 TB's 155bhp but in real-world driving, it's torque that counts. And the JTDm has tidal waves of the stuff: 236lb ft at just 1,750rpm, compared to the petrol engine's 169lb ft at 3,000rpm. In practical terms, this means the MiTo's performance is much more accessible; overtaking is a lot easier in the diesel, for instance, as is motorway cruising.

“The MiTo stands out
in a crowd —
it’s utterly
unique in the way
it looks and the
way it feels inside
...”
For the best performance, you have to push the 'DNA' switch by the gear lever forward to 'D' (Dynamic) mode. This gives the engine 'overboost' (i.e. its fullest power) while sharpening up steering feel, suspension and traction control intrusiveness.

My own view of 'DNA' is that it's just a bit of a gimmick. These switchable systems that alter the engine mapping are becoming more and more popular — but why? Simply because car companies can do it. But why not just have the MiTo with the sportiest Dynamic setting permanently on — then when you want more economy, just drive more economically? You don't need to press a button that saps power to do that.

Speaking of economy, of course the diesel consumes far less fuel. The government says I ought to be getting 58.9mpg (the petrol averages 43.5mpg). For the record, I averaged 47.5mpg in my test of the JTDm, which is pretty good I think.

Another little gripe I have is the length of the gearshift travel: it's far too long for a car with sporty aspirations and could really do with some form of quickshift kit.

What about cornering? Initially, turn-in feels a little tip-toey; the result of an over-assisted feel from the electric steering. However, the MiTo grips very well, helped by the Q2 limited-slip differential that's standard on all versions bar the base Junior. The ride quality, even on low-profile tyres, is very good on most surfaces, and the overall feeling of refinement is definitely well above average for the supermini class.

Open the door and, to my mind, the MiTo divulges its best aspect: a cabin that shines with design panache, full of elegant detailing and a level of quality that would pass for Germanic. The doors feel solid and close with that satisfying clunk VW drivers always celebrate. All the surfaces look and feel fabulous, especially the 'tech' fascia covering; the only exception is some too-shiny plastic on the centre console.

Visibility is better than the small rear window and rising side glass would suggest. It's also easy to achieve a comfortable driving position, although the seats look better than they feel and could do with a bit more lumbar support. As standard, the MiTo is a four-seater with a one-piece rear bench seat — if you want a split rear seat and third rear seat belt that will be an extra £450. There's decent space in the back, though, as there is in the boot, which is accessed by pressing the Alfa badge on the back (very neat). It's a deep boot but be prepared to give your biceps a workout since the load lip is extremely high.

There's no doubt that the MiTo ushers in a new era for Alfa Romeo. It's a satisfying all-rounder that does very little wrong. It's utterly unique in the way it looks and the way it feels inside. It stands out in a crowd and has a real quality feel to it. However, I can't help feeling that an Alfa Romeo should be more exciting to drive than this. The irony is, if you want a sharper drive, Fiat already builds it: the Abarth Grande Punto on the very same platform.

Fans of Dan Brown will want to know the 'secret' codes hidden in the name. 'MiTo' is a composite of 'Milano' and 'Torino' — the two home cities of Alfa Romeo and Fiat respectively. Fact is, there's rather too much Torino in the MiTo and not enough Milano. But it's a small car with genuine character and quality, and in that it pierces the very heart of the 21st century zeitgeist. It will, of course, be a big success. — Chris Rees

Alfa Romeo MiTo 1.6 JTDm Lusso | £14,545
Maximum speed: 123mph | 0-62mph: 9.9 seconds | Overall test MPG: 47.5mpg
Power: 120bhp | Torque: 236lb ft | CO2 126g/km | Insurance group 5