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July 19, 2009
An Alfa in Chrysler Auditions

TURIN, Italy

ON a scenic rural stretch of autostrada between Milan and Turin, an Alfa Romeo MiTo in luscious Rosso Giulietta paint merged onto the expressway. It pulled alongside, paused, then sped away in a blatant invitation to race — perhaps because I, too, was driving a red MiTo.

Despite my vow not to send any more euros to the operators of Italy’s speed cameras, I must confess that I managed to keep the other red MiTo in sight.

Over the kilometers, sometimes the driver would slow down, inviting me to pass. Then he would zoom ahead again. This leap-frogging continued until we reached a toll plaza outside Turin. He cheerily waved “arrivederci” and veered off at an exit.

This guy was just the sort of driver this new Alfa is aimed at: an active, thrill-seeking, performance-minded 20-something.

There are plenty of young Americans who meet those criteria as well, and they will have a shot at sowing their wild oats in a MiTo, too. Since the Fiat Group acquired a stake in Chrysler this year, it announced that the MiTo and the Fiat 500 would arrive in American showrooms in 2010.

“The MiTo is going to help us re-establish the Alfa brand in the United States,” said Richard Gadeselli, vice president for communications of the Fiat Group, in a recent interview at the company’s headquarters here.

Though Alfa Romeo left the American market in 1995, the MiTo hatchback will not really be the first new Alfa to appear in the United States since then. The 8C Competizione and Spider have been available through select Ferrari and Maserati dealers since last year. Considering the stratospheric prices of the limited-edition, hand-built 8C, the MiTo will be the first new Alfa intended for general audiences.

Both the MiTo and the 500 will be sold at Chrysler — not Ferrari — dealerships, though they will still wear Alfa and Fiat badges. American-market prices have not been announced, but $20,000 or so seems likely for the MiTo and mid-teens for the 500.

The autostrada connecting Milan and Turin was an appropriate venue for a test drive; the MiTo, which is pronounced me-TOE and sounds like an athlete’s foot remedy, is in fact a melding of the names of those cities. Milan, where Alfa was founded in 1910, is the location of the Centro Stile design studio where the MiTo was conceived, and Turin — Italy’s Motor City — is where it is built.

Mito is also the Italian word for myth or legend.

A public naming contest was held for the car in 2007, after it was introduced as a design study. “Furioso” was the winning name, but intervention by the marketing department resulted in MiTo instead. Catchy, huh?

An Alfa Romeo in Giulietta red — which sounds vaguely Shakespearean — would seem to fit the dictionary definition of sports car. But while the MiTo is sporty, it is no sports car; Alfa calls it a three-door “supermini.” Interestingly, the MiTo — whose footprint is similar to a VW New Beetle — is built on the Gamma small-car platform developed by General Motors during its short-lived venture with Fiat (which G.M. paid $2 billion to exit). The Fiat Punto and Opel Corsa also use this versatile front-drive platform.

Don’t be fooled by photos that make the MiTo look sleek; up close, it’s a jelly bean. The fish-eye headlights and arrowhead grille provide retro touches. The Mini Cooper is its likely target.

The front buckets looked up-market and they were sporty, well contoured and inviting. Two people — perhaps three in a pinch — will fit in back. Controls were nicely laid out, although the optional navigation system is an odd, tiny-screen thing mounted on a pedestal atop the dash.

The instrument panel had a textured faux-carbon-fiber pattern — an appealing way to make economical materials look richer. The tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel could be easily adjusted. But the steering felt rubbery with a dead zone at high noon. The MiTo handles competently despite a basic beam-axle rear suspension and MacPherson struts in front.

There’s an adjustable DNA switch — it stands for Dynamic, Normal and All-Weather modes — that recalibrates the engine, brakes, steering and suspension for each condition. Over all, the MiTo tracks with accuracy, though it is fairly unforgiving on rough pavement.

My test car had a 6-speed manual transmission mated to a 1.4-liter turbocharged gasoline engine, with 155 horsepower and the promise of 0-to-60 m.p.h. sprints in eight seconds. I averaged about 36 m.p.g. over 1,200 miles of varied driving.

Coming this fall will be Fiat’s Multiair technology, which optimizes the engine’s air-fuel mixture to increase horsepower and torque, improve mileage and reduce emissions. A 237-horsepower 1.8-liter engine is in the works, and it may be what Americans get. If so, 0-to-60 times for the 2,500-pound car could drop to five seconds flat.

Performance like that may help pave the way for other Alfas. But, fellow Americans, shouldn’t we get our own naming contest?

Wherefore art thou, Furioso?

LINK w/picture:
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