We mourn some cars like fallen heroes and bust out our finest moves on the graves of others. But there’s a third class – those we don’t miss at all. News that the Alfa Mito has fallen off its perch is likely to be met with the sort of shrug that would mark the passing of a distant relative who made it to an unexpectedly ripe old age. The biggest surprise is likely to be learning that, until recently, the baby Alfa was still alive at all.
Okay, so the final Mitos were actually produced mid-way through last year, but the car is still listed on Alfa UK’s website and the presence of at least one still-unregistered example in the PH classifieds proves it’s not too late to realise the dream of owning Alfa’s supermini. Yet, while the Mito certainly wasn’t a great car – and definitely outstayed its welcome – nor was it anything like as bad as some of the snippier reviews suggested.
Alfa was in the depths of one of its periodic funks in the mid-noughties. The 156 had driven the brand to unprecedented success at the turn of the millennium, something the heavier, frumpier 159 hadn’t been able to continue. Annual sales of the pudgy saloon and estate peaked at barely more than half the 100,000-odd that the 156 had managed. The handsome 147 hatchback stayed popular for longer, but – having been introduced in 2000 on a cut-down 156 platform – was expensive to produce compared to similarly sized rivals. The Brera, Spider and GT added some sparkle – a very modest amount in the case of the GT – but sold in volumes that would be regarded as rounding errors by the Germans.
Which is why Alfa took the decision to boldly enter an entirely new part of the market in search of some much-needed volume, spinning a car from the same platform that underpinned the Fiat Grande Punto and – at a more distant remove – the tubby abomination which was the 2006 Corsa. You can argue about whether the Mito was the right answer, but Alfa was certainly asking a sensible question.
In engineering terms the Mito was almost entirely unremarkable, but Alfa managed to turn the process of naming its new baby into a soap opera. Whist being developed it was known as the Junior, a name with strong reference to the brand’s past, but using it would be too simple. Instead Alfa launched a Europe-wide competition to help come up with a moniker, with voters allowed to choose between a limited number of options; so there would be no Alfa McAlfaface shenanigans. In November 2007 the company proudly announced that Furiosa had won, on the back of strong poling in Italy and France. (Brits had preferred Fira, which sounds more Vauxhall-ish.)
All sorted then? Of course not – cue your grandfather’s favourite joke about the Italian love of reverse gear – Alfa then decided to completely ignore the results of its own competition and announced it was going with Mito instead. A formulation dreamed up – doubtless at considerable cost from a swanky agency – to celebrate the fact the new car had been designed in Alfa’s home city of Milan but would be assembled in a Fiat plant in Turin, Torino in Italian. Still, at least Furiosa wasn’t wasted, with George Miller giving it to Charlize Theron’s one-armed ass-whupper in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Alfisti have always had a high tolerance for the sort of flaws that buyers of other brands would regard as unforgivable, but much less acceptance for boring cars. Which is, pretty much, what the launch spec version was. The mono-nostril styling gave a very slight resemblance to the 8C, but the Punto underpinnings meant a torsion bar rear axle and a range of deeply unthrilling Fiat Group powerplants. The most exciting engine at launch was a 120hp version of the rev-averse 1.4-litre turbo, one which gave a 0-62mph time that only just dropped below nine seconds.
Contemporary road testers commented on a high seating position, stiffish ride, limited steering feedback and a front-endy handling balance which made faster progress an exercise in understeer management. The modest dynamic thrills on offer came from joggling between the modes of the switchable DNA system, which adjusted steering weight and throttle mapping. On the plus side, construction felt impressively solid by brand standards and the Mito scored well on kerb appeal. But excitement was conspicuous only by its absence, and against the better-rounded charms of the ‘R56’ Mini, the Alfa started life as an also-ran.
Too harsh? Well the Mito certainly got better over time. The engine range filled out at both ends, with a punchier 155hp version of the 1.4 and – in 2011 – Fiat’s charismatic TwinAir, which added some much-needed character at the bottom of the range, and which was also slow enough to give the Mito some attractively low insurance premiums for yoof in search of something a bit classier than a DS3 and more imaginative than a Mini.
There was never a truly hot version, but the Quadrifoglio Verde got close. Launched in 2010 this used a 170hp version of the 1.4 and got various chassis tweaks and upgraded Brembo brakes. It wasn’t a dynamic scalpel, but it took impressive punishment without complaint. I took a QV from the UK to Monza for a ‘Speed Days’ track session where €40 bought 50 minutes on the circuit. The Mito did back-to-back stints without complaint, holding its own against a variety of more potent machinery and never ran short on retardation.
The Mito’s likeability is a long-term one, something that has won it a small but enthusiastic following and a fan club keen to defend its honour. But sales were never more than disappointing. At peak it moved less than half what the Mini was managing in Europe, by 2013 volume had collapsed to a dismal 17,000. Small wonder that Alfa cancelled a proposed five-door version early on. There was also meant to be a 240hp GTA, which would have been aimed squarely at the Mini JCW and featured both a 1.8-litre engine and active suspension, and was even previewed by a production-ready concept at the 2009 Geneva Show. Sadly, it was canned too.
Alfa’s changing strategy – and determination to move itself upmarket – meant there was little internal love for the Mito. Developing the rear-drive Giorgio platform that underpins the Giulia and Stelvio cost a huge amount, leaving little in the kitty for less important projects. That’s why, with minimal tweaks, the Mito was allowed to trundle on for as long as it did. It’s also why Alfa’s first supermini will almost certainly be its last. So, wake or party?