A clumsy name for a rather clumsy car. Ten years ago, Alfa Romeo took aim at the MINI (and its ilk) and missed. We plot the MiTo’s wobbly trajectory.
Alfa Romeo has throughout its long history enjoyed a distinctly patchy relationship with small cars. Pre-War, such a notion would probably have been laughable but even in the latter half of the 20th century, despite the occasional prototype, the smallest car Portello actually got round to sanctioning was the troubled Alfasud, a programme which proved aberrant insofar as it was what we would now class as a C-segment vehicle and was, by a Neapolitan country kilometre, a dynamic front-drive benchmark Alfa would never again match.
So it’s fair to say that small hatchbacks are not in the Biscione’s DNA, which makes the decision to build such a car all the more surprising. The roots of the 955-series probably go back to 2002, when Fiat Auto CEO, Paolo Canterella was ousted in the wake of several disastrous product and strategy decisions which left the Italian automotive conglomerate burning through €1 billion in losses that year, the bulk of which lay at the clay-covered feet of Canterella’s ill-conceived 2001 Stilo programme.
With Fiat’s self proclaimed product wizard gone, immediately replaced by Paolo Fresco, a great many schemes and plans went onto the bonfire, but thorniest of all was the deal Fresco had previously inked with General Motors. In 2000, Fiat sold 20% of the auto business to GM, while taking 6% of the US carmaker in return. The deal specified that between January 2004 and July 2009, Fiat was entitled to sell the remaining 80% of Fiat Auto to GM at a pre-agreed price, or to another party should the two sides fail to agree terms.
This proved both salve and sore to Fiat’s masters, who remained keen to retain control. But now, even the failing Gianni Agnelli could see how decades of complacency, an over-reliance on the domestic market’s appetite for small cars had led the company to this impasse. In 2003, former Audi CEO Herbert Demel stepped into the top job, but the boardroom dance didn’t quite end there.
At Alfa Romeo, the situation was one of continued under-achievement. Under the leadership of Daniele Bandiera, sales had slumped from 207,618 in 2001, down to 184,549 units in 2002 and then just 179,115 units in 2003. Alfa ended 2004 with volumes at their lowest level since 1997. The 955-series then was conceived under Bandiera’s watch. A model line aimed at boosting Alfa’s volumes, widening the marque’s appeal to a younger audience and taking on BMW’s all-conquering MINI.
Now there happens to be an ‘elefantino’ in the room worth exploring, in the attractive form of the 2003 Stilnovo concept prepared by centro stile Lancia under the supervision of Flavio Mazoni. Pitched as a similarly proportioned upmarket B-segment coupe/hatch, the well received design study ought to have been a shoe-in for production. Could it have been a victim of internal politics which saw product planners favouring a sportier looking Alfa-badged model to attract a wider audience? Such things happened before, but it remains conjecture.
Either way, with the 955 programme sanctioned, it fell to centro stile Alfa to clothe the modified Grande Punto floorpan and mechanicals. Working under the supervision of Wolfgang Egger, Juan Manuel Diaz was the Alfa stylist credited with the 955’s chosen design. Having completed a degree in transportation design in Turin, he continued his training with Renault, and at Pininfarina’s studio in Cambiano. His arrival at centro stile in 2002 coincided with what Alfa insiders were dubbing ‘Junior’.
Sharing elements of its silhouette and DLO outline with the Stilnovo concept, the Alfa design appears to have been a victim of Alfa management’s obsession with the 8C Competizione, whose styling features sat most uncomfortably within a front-drive, compact hatchback aesthetic. Worst of all was the nose, with its tall upright Scudetto at odds with the swept back, diamond shaped (and Thesis-esque) headlamp pods. Only the crosseyed Aero Morgan and perhaps the current generation of Bentleys have latterly presented a more unfortunate visage.
Meanwhile, as the situation within Fiat SpA worsened, Bandiera was sacked, Demel himself ousted in favour of Sergio Marchionne and a bewildering array of senior personnel entered and swiftly left through Arese’s revolving doors. With the car being readied, marketers, led at the time by Luca de Meo, hit upon a plan to generate a little excitement, asking the public to help name the new ‘Junior’ model.
This had been tried before (with almost disastrous consequences) at the 101-series Giulietta’s debut in 1950, but memories are short. The name chosen was ‘Furiosa’ but clearly this was not buttering anyone’s gnocci at the Casa del Biscione, so when the car was launched in 2008, it was christened, MiTo, to denote its shared heritage – designed in Milan, built at Stabilimento Mirafiori in Torino. Hardly the PR team’s finest hour.
With little else to shout about, Alfa made much of the MiTo’s DNA system, which was intended to give the driver control over the car’s dynamic envelope. Dynamic, Normal and All-Weather settings were selectable via a rocker switch next to the gear lever, which adjusted throttle mapping, steering effort and suspension firmness. Dispensing with anti-roll bars, the MiTo employed special shock absorber designs boasting a second, coilover spring within the damper. In addition, the Q2 Electronic system was designed to brake the inner wheel under hard cornering to transfer torque to the outer one and improve grip.
In 2008, Car magazine sent Anthony Ffrench-Constant to Turin to drive an early example, powered by the 1.4 litre TB Veloce engine with 155 bhp, and found it quick and eager (once on boost) and importantly for an Alfa, made the right kind of noises. However, both he and his fellow UK journalists found Alfa’s DNA system to be something of a gimmick. Furthermore, the MiTo’s steering was heavily criticised for offering the enthusiastic driver no appreciable feedback whatsoever – heresy in a car bearing the fabled scudetto.
The MiTo’s best year saleswise was 2009, when 62,122 examples were sold. Since then its popularity has slumped, with a paltry 11,367 cars sold last year. To the end of 2017, 265,980 MiTos have found homes. A five door variant had also been envisaged, but with the model failing to even approach expectations, such notions were shelved.
A decade since its introduction and with the sword of Damocles very much poised, the MiTo limps on. Woefully dated and hopelessly outclassed, whatever appeal it enjoyed in 2008 has well and truly evaporated. Earlier this year, What Car summed up its central dilemma as follows. “The trouble is, buy any Mito and you’ll have to put up with a pretty sub-standard car. It’s off the pace in just about every area.” And with the Mirafiori factory on partial shut down, the end must be nigh.
The idea of a small Alfa Romeo wasn’t necessarily a bad one. The bad idea of course lay in its execution. The car proved dynamically below marque expectations, and the styling fell between a number of stools. Worse, the MiTo’s entire positioning appeared confused. Was it a suave upmarket city car or a junior performance hatchback? Even Alfa themselves seemed unsure.
The car’s lack of sales success underlines the futility of the exercise, because even at its 2009 peak, the seemingly evergreen Lancia Ypsilon had it well beaten. (530,154 Ypsilons sold to date – 60,613 in 2017 alone.) It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that had Fiat instead sanctioned the prettier and more appealing Stilnovo in 2003, they would have seen a far better return on their investment.
But hindsight is marvellous and product planning remains a dark art. Darker still however, are the thumbprints all over the MiTo, which like the car itself, can probably be summed up with a single, less clumsy but equally murky word: Politics.
All European car sales figures courtesy of carsalesbase.com