The new Mito is economical yet powerful, with an interior that leaves you in no doubt that the pedigree is pure Alfa

It seems perfect. Alfa Romeo's Mito is compact, looks fun to drive and exudes a sort of cool-yet-hot Italianness. Its engines are small, which means economical, yet powerful thanks (in the best versions) to turbocharging. If it keeps its promises, I'll be in love. In many ways this is the future of cars as objects to enjoy. Cars need to become lighter, smaller, more efficient. And that means more entertaining. Which is excellent news.

SPECIFICATIONS

Model: Alfa Mito 1.4 T-jet 155

Price: from £14,175 (range starts at £10,975). On sale Jan 2009

Engine: 1,368cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbocharger, 155bhp at 5,500rpm, 170lb ft at 3,000rpm

Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive

Performance: 134mph, 0-62 in 8.0sec, 43.5mpg official average, CO2 153g/km

The Mito's name is a conjunction of the Italian abbreviations of Milan and Turin. In the first publicity material it was rendered as Mi.To, but that looks awful in print. This logo-isation of running prose is now officially watered down to MiTo, but that is still horrible. So, in the interests of aesthetics, we'll go with Mito. After all, Alfa itself was originally written A.L.F.A.

As for the point of the placenames, the Mito was engineered in Turin and is built there, as you would expect from a Fiat Auto creation, but Milan is Alfa Romeo's ancestral home and its styling centre will return there soon. The Mito's guts are derived from those of the Fiat Grande Punto. The Vauxhall Corsa shares some of these underbody genes, too, a legacy of Fiat's and General Motors' past resource-sharing.

But shouldn't an Alfa at least have its own engine? It's a nice idea but not one for the modern world. So the most interesting Mito, at least until the 230bhp GTA 1750 arrives next year, has a version of Fiat's T-jet 1.4, a turbo-charged unit which here shares its impressive 155bhp state of tune with the Fiat Abarth Grande Punto. Other engines include a 120bhp T-jet, a 95bhp entry-level unit and diesels of 1.3 and 1.6 litres.

Anyway, the Mito is more than a reskin of a Grande Punto. The suspension is tuned differently, for example incorporating rebound springs inside its suspension dampers to help reduce body lean in corners without making the suspension too firm. Then there are all the ingenious electronics in its steering and brakes, bits of programming that do electronically what used to be done mechanically.

With an Alfa, actually, the whole car is a badge. There's an Alfa Romeo look which extends beyond the serpent-eating-baby badge and the shield-shaped grille, flanked by horizontal intakes, that contains it. The recent Alfa 8C supercar is the biggest influence on the Mito's detailing: rounded, outlined headlights, similar tail-lights, rising waistline, wheels with (optionally) five huge holes bounded by horseshoe shapes.

Inside, too, there's a convincing aura of Alfa. You sit lower than you do in a Fiat, in a seat designed to hold you firmly. The cabin is mainly black, but you can have tan leather seats (very Italian) and the padded, carbonfibre-look dashboard covering can be in dark red if the rest of the colour scheme suits. The main dials are hooded and there are four prominent, round air-vents each made up of two horizontally-split vanes. It is three-door only, but there's proper space in the back for two adults.

My first drive began by the Monza race track near Milan, heading out on to the road via the circuit's old, bumpy banking. The suspension is firm enough for a spirited drive but supple enough not to bump or shudder.

And the engine? It sounds crisp enough to set the right tone, and once past a little softness of response at low speeds it pulls with a vigour far beyond its size. You can take it up to 6,500rpm, but its best work happens in the middle speed ranges. Six smoothly shifting forward gears help you to keep it in the sweet spot.

There's a three-position switch called, in contrived fashion, DNA. The initials stand for Dynamic, Normal and All-weather. On a straight road the Dynamic setting makes the steering stiff. In corners, though, it's better because Normal feels too lightweight. But neither setting feels quite natural. That's the Mito's biggest flaw. But then it's no worse than many of its rivals which also have electric power steering systems. Otherwise it's good fun: agile, keen, uplifting. Add those looks and a convincing air of quality, and you could be looking at the Mini's strongest rival yet.

THE RIVALS

Fiat Abarth Grande Punto: £13,000 approx



The relaunch of Fiat tuning specialist Abarth brings us this hotted-up Punto at a tempting price. Optional EsseEsse kit gives 180bhp and a hardcore drive experience.

Mini Cooper: from £13,025



Petrol-fuelled Cooper brackets Mito with either 120bhp or, at much greater cost, 175bhp as the turbo Cooper S. Good fun, huge brand image; most buyers add many extras.

Peugeot 207 GT THP 150: £14,675



Looks like a lesser 207, apart from bigger wheels, but hides a 150bhp version of direct-injection Cooper S engine. Rapid and practical but a bumpy ride with too many rattles.

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