The timing couldn't be better for Alfa Romeo and Honda - both carmakers are launching new models at a time when the overall new-vehicle market is showing early signs of recovery.

Alfa Romeo's new MiTo small hatchback and Honda's small City sedan comes as figures show sales in June were up 8 per cent on May.

"This is another encouraging sign that the New Zealand new car market is through the worst," says Perry Kerr, CEO of the Motor Industry Association.

"Both new car and light commercial sales increased over May's totals, which themselves were an improvement from the very low sales volumes in April, one of the industry's worst ever months."

In June, 4306 new cars were registered, compared with 3979 in May, an 8.2 per cent increase. Sales of 1812 units in the new commercial vehicle sector produced a 37.8 per cent increase in volume over the previous month.

The total new-vehicle market for 2009 looks to be about two-thirds the level of 2008, with new car and commercial sales of between 50,000 to 60,000 units expected for the full year.

Kerr says overseas trends indicate other major markets are now through the worst of the low sales volumes.

"It seems we're following these trends in New Zealand. With June's total, we're on track for these predicted 2009 figures."

Toyota continues as the market leader in both new cars and commercial-vehicle sectors. Its overall market share of 19.3 per cent puts it in front of Ford's 12.4 per cent and Holden's 8.9 per cent year to date. The Toyota Corolla is the country's best-selling model, ahead of the Holden Commodore and the Suzuki Swift.

The name MiTo is "text-speak" for Milano and Torino, the two Italian cities that are Alfa Romeo's home. The MiTo was conceived in Milano and is built in Torino.

The car is priced at $44,990 and takes its styling cues from the 8C supercar. "The MiTo is enormously important to Alfa Romeo in New Zealand, as it takes us into a whole new market sector," says Lawrie Malatios, general manager of the brand's importer Ateco Automotive.

"It is focused totally on being a performance and style-driven mini-coupe. This has enabled Alfa Romeo's stylists to produce a car that has a purity of shape and is as much Alfa Romeo as the Spider or Brera."

Only one version of the MiTo is available in New Zealand, but it is the top-range flyer, offering all the sporty DNA the Italian carmaker can muster.

The three-door MiTo has a kerb weight of around 1150kg and is powered by a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine that puts out 114kW, or 155bhp.

The engine drives the front wheels through a six-speed gearbox and a self-locking differential called Q2, an electronic version of a mechanical limited-slip diff.

There is also another driver aid dubbed the "DNA" switch. This gives the driver the choice of three settings - Dynamic, Normal and All Weather - to optimise steering, stability control and overboost according to road and driving conditions.

For example, Dynamic mode makes the steering firmer and sharpens the engine response, while adding a few seconds of turbocharged overboost.

The factory says the MiTo can sprint from zero to 100km/h in eight seconds and go on to a top speed of 218km/h. The engine's peak torque of 230Nm arrives at 3000rpm.

Expect Alfa Romeo to target the Mini Cooper S.

Originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald

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