Two Cities, One Car

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.

Image credit: autokult

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.

Image credit: Alfa Romeo

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.

MiTo cabin. Image credit: Car

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.

Image credit: autocosmos

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

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

15 thoughts on “Two Cities, One Car”

  1. “Mito” means mythe or legend in Italian, so while the pun doesn’t make sense in other languages, it is an excuse for the name.

    I liked some parts of the Mito, such as the rims and the rear lights. That reinforces the author’s point of the Mito being an uncohesive car. The 8C’s styling simply doesn’t work on a short and tall car.

  2. The problem with tying Alfa Romeo to Fiat’s product plans is that the brand is then reliant on Fiat’s product plans.

    Had the Mito lasted four years, before being replaced by an all new model, it would probably be deemed a modest success. After all, it did bring a wider range of customers through the doors and gave the dealer network something to sell, so as some sort of stop gap it would have worked.

    But Fiat canned the Punto replacement, leaving it (and the Mito) to struggle on indefinitely.

    Now, finally, Alfa has the thoroughly competitive ‘Giorgio’ platform, on which the Giulia and Stelvio are based, but it still seems unsure what to do with it beyond these two models. And the small car product strategy seems as unsure as ever.

    1. Wait Fiat actually looked at a Punto replacement that was NOT based on the GM Fiat Small Platform?

  3. Hopeless, hopeless, hopeless. Apart from really high-end cars, seven years is as much as you can hope for most ordinary cars. Alfa Romeo could have tied up with a Japanese firm if they needed a platform to work on. They could have given the car some serious revision at three and six years too. I don´t have a problem with the looks. Leaving the “soft elements” unrevised is negligent. The White Hen stands like Banquo´s ghost at FCA´s table.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banquo

  4. A truly terrible car, which was a great shame as the interior at least was a very nice place to be, and the cosmetic finish was very haute couture like only Alfa can do. I had one as a loaner when our 147 Sport was in for warranty work, and was initially delighted. However it drank fuel and stalled constantly during low speed parking manouvres thanks to the ridiculous “city button” thing which I always forgot to switch on. Very embarrassing actually.

  5. The MeToo was (is?) a very strange vehicle indeed. Too small to be practical, but too big to be small, it always looked inflated and clumsy for my eyes. Even the rear lights are of over-proportional size. The only thing I could like about this car is the large variety of interior trims that can be had – at least when I last looked it up in a configurator some years ago.

  6. Even for a mediocre and cynical car, the MiTo has done shockingly badly, yet FCA persist with it.

    In Europe, sales peaked at 62,122 in 2009, its first full production year. The 2017 number is 11,367, and sales have been sub-20K since 2013.

    Out of curiosity, I checked the sales performance of a couple of the MiTo’s natural predators. 84,070 examples of the Audi A1 were sold in Europe last year. It’s never broken 100,000 in Europe – though it’s been close most years – despite offering a five door option, 4WD, and a much wider range of engines than the MiTo.

    The dark horse – but no White Hen – is the (Don’t call it Citroën) DS3. Again it peaked in its first full year, 2011, with 78,375 sales in Europe. In 2017 the continent took only 27,842, down from 36,890 in 2016.

    That number’s still quite impressive for an eight year old product which has not changed much since its introduction. It’s a rip-roaring success in comparison with the 2017 performance of its woeful range-mates: DS4 – 11,746; DS5 – 5,738; DS7 Crossback – 537. The Chinese sales are a damn sight worse, despite the development of China-only models. Has Tavares noticed? With apologies to Rabelais, it looks as if there is no grand peut-être. Tirez le rideau, la farce est jouée…

  7. Eoin,
    Thanks for giving this wonderful car some airtime.
    I am on my third Mito and cannot fault any of them.
    Previously I have owned BMW M-sports, Audi Quattros and Toyotas.
    None of them even come close to the Mito Experience.
    The Mito is true class – something you cannot buy.
    On our roads in England all I see are bland cars driven by obedient sheep who are skillfully controlled by the marketeers of global corporations.
    Thank God for the Mito.
    LS

    1. 6spot: it´s always great that people find a car they really like. Sometimes judgements about a car get conflated. There is the judgement of the car based on how the market receives it and how you personally view it. I think that sometimes people base their attitude to a car on what the market said and not on whether they like or might like such a car themselves. Many people don´t even act as if they are *allowed* to like a car the market didn´t. My view is that it´s quite a likeable car that the market didn´t like. Now that Eoin´s written about it, I find myself re-evaluating it. I still think FCA got it wrong but that doesn´t mean the car itself is without appeal. I have got used to the appearance – and I´d really have to drive one to see if it really is as described. You must have read the reviews: how do you reconcile them with your own experience?

    2. Greetings Richard,
      It is very simple my friend ” si non frangi reficere ” or even if it is not broken do not fix it.
      I started with the Jtdm, then the Cloverleaf and now the Veloce.
      You drive this car – this car does not drive you.
      There is nothing I would like improved on this current car.
      Well perhaps an F1 inspired edition with the 1750 4C engine but surely this is fantasy talk.
      All the best,
      LS.

    3. The 1750 engine would be an interesting way to spice up the car. It´s great to hear that you like it. The question is can you see why others don´t? After this discussion I have moved from not much caring for the MiTo to being an agnostic on the issue. The information has come mostly from either reviewers who don´t live with the car and the rest of us who have never driven one. The owner insight also matters – and like the other views comes with its own bias. It is true the car works for you and also incontestable that it did not work well enough for enough other people. Why was that?

  8. Dear Richard,
    I really do not understand why my friend.
    I travel 40 – 50,000 miles a year in my Mito and over my 27 years of driving have driven many different cars off and on the track.
    The fact that the Mini has been a great success and the Mito has not remains the biggest mystery to me. But at the same time I am absolutely delighted as I consider myself an individual that has a different, rare and special car.
    I am frequently stopped by people in considerably nicer motors or as they walk by my car.
    They always say the same thing – “What is that ? It is beautiful”
    I like this very much for two reasons:
    Firstly in times when people ignore each other, it is always good to engage.
    And secondly because they are right.
    All the best to you,
    Laurence.
    P.S. I am praying for a “Brawn” style first season F1 whitewash this year.
    Then we will see them fly off the shelf – just like the Mercedes have since their reign.

  9. Amongst the many things that bother me regarding Fiat two questions stand out.

    1) Given that other supermini rivals typically use 1.6 Turbo engines, why has Fiat over the years not bothered to enlarge the Fiat FIRE-derived 1368cc Turbo to around 1565-1585cc via an overbore of around 5-5.5mm?

    2) On the petrol front, why has Fiat’s mainstream models basically become over reliant on the 1368cc Turbo instead of trying to fill the void caused by the lack of 1600-2000cc petrol engines?

    Additionally the Fiat Pratola Serra modular engines were apparently based on the Fiat Twin-Cam yet would have thought there would have been a continuation of models powered by 2-litre Turbo 4-cylinder engines from 2000s onwards, instead of the mediocre 2.4 5-cylinder used in the Fiat Stilo or the 2-litre Alfa Romeo Twin-Spark that never received forced induction.

  10. Bob – the answer is here:

    The picture shows a 1242cc block with a 70.8mm bore. The 1368cc FIRE has a 72mm bore. Most of the stretch is taken up with the stroke 84mm – up from 78.9mm.

    I reckon the FIRE is on its absolute limit at 1368cc. Remember that it was originally a Fiat / Peugeot joint venture, and the French were involved in the entire development process, then decided not to produce or use the FIRE engine as it was considered too small to give adequate power while meeting future emissions regulations.

    That was what they said at the time, there may have been other reasons. Anyway, they chose instead to develop the XA ‘suitcase’ engine into the more conventionally configured TU.

    1. Thought it was Peugeot’s financial issues that caused them to drop out of the FIRE project rather than its potential capacity limitations or apparent inability to immediately readily replace the XA “suitcase” engine let alone spawn dieselized variants (unless the 1248cc Multijet is directly related to the FIRE petrol) .

      Still Fiat could have benefited from a 1.6 FIRE were it feasible, though one could argue Peugeot would have benefited from using FIRE-based engines below the Prince engine.

      Have to say the 1242cc (particularly in 72-84 hp forms) FIRE would have fitted quite nicely into the Citroen AX/Saxo and Peugeot 106 ranges (including the 1108cc and under), along with possibly the Peugeot 205 and possibly the larger Citroen XZ/Xsara and Peugeot 306.

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