Beating the MINI is a thankless task but it’s also the one that’s been handed to the Alfa Romeo MiTo.
Alfa’s effort has the design flair and the desirability and now it’s got a further weapon up its sleeve in the shape of the MultiAir petrol engines. Their advanced technologies vary the combustion process to optimise economy and performance according to the driving conditions. The results are impressive, particularly in the more powerful turbocharged models.
Many people would associate Alfa Romeo with beautiful and charismatic cars but would you have the Italian manufacturer down as a leading innovator of groundbreaking engine technologies? Probably not, but that is doing Alfa a major disservice.
Not a lot of people know this but the common-rail injection technology that has been crucial in driving the improvement in diesel engines over the last decade first appeared in the Alfa Romeo 156, having been developed within the Fiat Group. Now Alfa claims to be at it again with the 1.4-litre MultiAir petrol engines fitted to its MiTo.
Engine efficiency has never been more important, with the desire for cleaner, greener cars that return lower running costs transcending market sectors. Any manufacturer that can leverage an advantage over its rivals can expect a corresponding upturn in sales but it’s in the small car markets where a stand-out combined economy figure or a super-low CO2 emissions rating has the biggest money-spinning potential. Alfa will be hoping to cash in on its MultiAir technology and it has the perfect vehicle to do so in its stylish MiTo.
The end results of the MultiAir technology are going to be of more interest to customers than the mysterious means by which they are achieved but it is worth noting that the 1.4-litre engines fitted to the MiTo differ from the norm in key ways. They make do with just one camshaft. It controls the exhaust valves, with the inlet valves governed by oil pressure. An electro-hydraulic valve management system can then adjust the timing of the valves to vary the parameters of the combustion process according to the way the car is being driven.
"The MultiAir technology found in the MiTo’s crop of 1.4-litre petrol engines has the potential to prove highly significant"
Conventional variable valve timing engines only have a couple of sets of parameters but MultiAir units have six and the valve timings can be infinitely varied within this framework either to give optimum performance or economy. There are three MultiAir engines available in the MiTo. The line-up opens with the 105bhp normally-aspirated unit, then there are the lustier turbocharged options, one with 135bhp and a 170bhp range-topper.
For small capacity petrol engines, all three produce a decent amount of torque and the turbocharged models do so low down in the rev-range where you can make good use of it. There’s 180Nm at 1,750rpm from the 135bhp car and 230Nm at 2,500rpm from the 170bhp one. Tweak the MiTo’s DNA selector into D for Dynamic and a further 20Nm is added to each total by the overboost function. Even the non-turbo MultiAir can do the 0-60mph shuffle in 10.7s and the two more powerful engines have real pace with 8.4s and 7.5s times for the 135 and 170bhp models respectively.
Rather than the contents of their engine bays, Alfa Romeos are more usually praised for the lines of their bodywork. The MiTo offers both a compact and stylish shape and some neat original detailing. Around at the front, Alfa fans will be reminded of a model from the opposite end of the motoring spectrum – the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione. The MiTo has a similar nose to Alfa’s 450bhp supercar with its protruding grille and teardrop headlights. Apparently, from the inception of the limited run 8C, the plan was always for elements of its striking styling treatment to find its way on to Alfa’s volume-selling small car. The stylists’ work has not been merely for show either. With a drag coefficient of just 0.29, the MiTo is an extremely aerodynamic vehicle.
The interior of the MiTo could well be best in the current Alfa Romeo range. It seems strongly built and the variety of racy trim materials employed to impressively up-market effect. The rear seats can accommodate two adults without much drama and the rocker switch in front of the gear lever that controls the DNA system is particularly well executed.
Alfa has positioned the MiTo at the trendy end of the small car market with the express intention of doing a number on the MINI. The MultiAir engines are at the heart of this plan and they make the car more of a realistic alternative to BMW’s baby. The 170bhp engine is being offered in Cloverleaf guise, reprising the classic Alfa Romeo performance brand from the past. All MiTo models come with a healthy safety provision that includes seven airbags, while a whole host of electronic driver aids are available on various models. These include ABS brakes, EBD brakeforce distribution, VDC Vehicle Dynamic Control, ASR anti-skid control, CBC Cornering Brake Control and DST Dynamic Steering Torque.
The MiTo MultiAir models also come with Alfa’s Stop&Start technology which cuts the vehicle’s engine when it’s stopped, restarting it again automatically when it’s time to pull away. Combined with the MultiAir combustion system, this makes for some very attractive fuel economy figures. The 135bhp turbocharged engine actually comes up with better economy than the 1.4-litre non-turbo engine. It can achieve an excellent 50mpg with emissions of 129g/km, while the entry-level car gets 48.7mpg and 136g/km. Go for the fiery 170bhp MiTo Cloverleaf and the official figures are still remarkable at 47mpg and 139g/km.
We’re usually too busy fawning over the looks of Alfa Romeo products to focus on the technological developments the brand has pioneered and as a result, the Italian firm sometimes doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The MultiAir technology found in the MiTo’s crop of 1.4-litre petrol engines has the potential to prove highly significant, giving their trendy supermini a major leg-up in the battle at the top end of the UK’s small car market.