Frugal Alfa Romeo MiTo full of fun

No road tax, 78mpg and still fun to drive – Alfa Romeo's eco MiTo surprised Andy Russell.

A few years ago the thought of a diesel Alfa Romeo would have been unthinkable to fans of this sporty Italian marque. But you have to move with the times and if you want to succeed now, particularly in the fleet market, you need to offer diesel power.

And with its refreshed MiTo compact sports hatchback, Alfa has taken the next step and gone into eco-diesel mode. Again, it sounds rather alien for Alfa to have an ultra green model.

I've always found the MiTo a cracking little car if you are looking for a sporty, stylish alternative to a supermini with badge appeal. OK it costs more than your average supermini but once you drive the MiTo you won't feel short-changed.

That said, I will admit to being concerned about the prospect of driving the new eco 1.3-litre turbo diesel and that it might dull my enthusiasm, putting high economy and low emissions ahead of any chance of excitement – a combined 78mpg and road-tax and congestion charge-dodging 95g/km of carbon dioxide emissions, helped by the fuel-saving, pollution-busting stop-start system which means nothing is wasted sitting in stationary traffic, but taking nearly 13 long seconds to reach 62mph from rest.

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The reality is it's still fun to drive.

For a small engine, this second-generation 85bhp 1.3-litre diesel is willing from low revs, picking up cleanly in the lower gears from just 1,500rpm, where it is producing peak torque, with punchy mid-range performance between 2,000 and 3,000rpm. This is where it does its best work – rev it harder the engine's small capacity shows, running out of puff with a lot more noise for not a lot more performance.

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It's no slow-coach, comfortably keeping up with traffic at motorway speeds and when stirred into life via the five-speed gearbox, with its well-spaced ratios, it feels much brisker than the figures suggest.

Even with some hard driving I was getting 60mpg running around, a best of 75mpg and mid 60s overall – short of the quoted figures but in real-world driving not to be sniffed at.

Regardless of which engine you go for – there's also 78bhp 1.4 and 105, 135 and 170bhp 1.4 turbo petrol engines and a 120bhp 1.6-litre turbo diesel – the MiTo is rewarding to drive.

The ride is quite firm but supple enough to iron out all but the worst road surfaces and the upside is that the chassis endows the MiTo with agile roadholding and a taut, flat stance through corners. The lower-powered versions might lack straight-line performance they can hack it on twisty roads.

All but the entry model and entry engine get the clever DNA (dynamic, normal, all-weather) system which, at the flick of a switch, varies throttle, steering and traction and stability control settings to suit driving style although its input is not so noticeable on the little diesel as the turbo petrol models.

The MiTo has only three doors but is spacious enough to seat four adults – five at a push with the �450 optional third rear seat and 60/40 split rear bench seat – with adequate legroom in the back provided those in front aren't greedy. Getting in and out of the back is relatively easy with front seats tilting and sliding well forward, and they return to the original position.

The deep, flat-sided, supermini-sized boot has a useful 270-litre capacity and will take a large suitcase and soft bags but you have to lift them over a high sill. The standard one-piece seat back folds flat once the cushion has been tilted upright but you might have to remove the head-restraints unless the front seats are well forward.

The driving position, despite plenty of adjustment, is not ideal for people like me with short arms so I had to have the seat further forward than normal but you get used to it. The dashboard looks good and works well with traditional clear dials, round air vents, bright-work trim and easy-to-use heating and audio systems with big, simple buttons and rotary knobs.

Alfa has streamlined the MiTo range from 17 versions to nine with entry-level Progression, then Sprint (replacing Turismo and Lusso) and Distinctive and Quadrifoglio Verde (replacing Veloce and Cloverleaf). The 1.3-litre is available only in Sprint and comes with seven airbags, remote locking, air-conditioning, automatic stop-start, electric front windows, trip computer, dynamic control, 16in alloys, Bluetooth with voice recognition, USB port and MP3 jackpoint, cruise control and front fog lights.

Having driven turbo petrol MiTos I didn't think I was going to like the little diesel but it was a pleasant surprise – stylish and ultra economical so it's a high-performance model but from a different perspective. And if you think green cars are dull, think again.

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