Alfa enter the dual-clutch battle

The Alfa Romeo MiTo TCT Sport.
The Alfa Romeo MiTo TCT Sport. Drive

AFTER the range-topping Cloverleaf introduced the first of the Italian automotive giant's impressive 'multi-air' engines, the baby Alfa heralds the arrival of Fiat's answer to Volkswagen's DSG dual-clutch gearbox.

The unimaginatively titled TCT – effectively for twin-clutch transmission – is teamed to a second, less powerful version of the multi-air engine that swaps a more conventional double-camshaft for a single-cam arrangement with a precisely controlled electro-hydraulic solenoid valve for improved airflow into the cylinders.

Alfa importer Ateco Automotive says the new 99kW 1.4-litre turbocharged TCT variant, available in two trims, will account for 90 per cent of the 250-odd MiTos the company expects to sell in Australia in 2011.

At $31,990 the MiTo TCT starts $2000 higher than the base model, with a better-equipped Sport model priced from $34,990. That matches the sticker of the Cloverleaf but the range-topper is manual only.

The spectre of Fiat's first clutchless manual, the lurching Selespeed, looms large at the start of the local launch program, but the ghost is soon banished as the TCT proves it has more in common with Volkswagen's mostly excellent Direct Shift Gearbox.

There's the same slight hesitation as you pull away, but leave the gearlever in D and the six-speeder is adept at picking the right gear regardless of gradient.

The shifts are smooth and, although not as rapid-fire quick as the VW's system, they're fast enough to reduce the MiTo's 0-100km/h time from 8.4 to 8.2 seconds compared with the manual equivalent, with economy also improving a smidge from 7.4 to 7.3L/100km.

Steering wheel-mounted paddleshift levers are standard and, especially on windy roads, add a crucial extra dimension to the gearchanging experience for drivers who want to be in control of matching engine speed to road speed.

It helps that the gearbox has a decent spread of torque to work with. The 99kW four-cylinder isn't as feisty as the Cloverleaf's more powerful (125kW) 1.4-litre turbo, but there's an entertainingly strong mid-range despite peak torque of up to 230Nm not arriving until 4500rpm.

As with the MiTo Cloverleaf (manual only), stop-start technology is included to further improve fuel efficiency. And again there are flaws.

The engine re-ignition process – activated by stepping off the brake or flicking the upshift paddle, and accompanied by a loud cough – is longer than ideal, particularly if you're near the front of a traffic light queue.

The engine shutdown also kills the hill-start assist, so on even the slightest incline the MiTo starts to roll back as soon as you take your foot off the brake. You're left hoping the vehicle behind doesn't sit too close to your bumper.

Stop-start works with any of the three settings available with the DNA switch, though throttle response remains too doughy in Normal and, in urban driving, too sensitive in Dynamic (which boosts torque from 190 to 230Nm).

Dynamic mode is the pick for more open territory, but it won't fix a suspension that on bumpy roads behaves like a horse trying to throw off its rider, and in general driving delivers a crashy ride.

Find smoother roads, though, and you can better enjoy a car that is otherwise inherently well balanced and one that turns into, and grips through, corners with conviction.

Eyes, however, will still turn to the Giulietta, the 147 replacement due in January, to see whether the clever multi-air engines and TCT gearbox can be better enjoyed in a more convincing overall package than the MiTo.

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