YOU'D have to have been hidden away in a cave in deepest Mongolia to be unaware that the face of the motor industry has gone through some pretty radical changes over the last few years.
It had begun even before the recession – the sledge-hammer blow of the credit crunch merely hastened the transformation.
One of the areas most affected has been the small car sector, which has taken on new importance. That's partly due to the need to trade down on a basis of money-saving and also a global demand for more economical transport to preserve fossil fuels.
The happy result is a re-invigorated small car sector with models, that though diminutive, are refined, fast and stylish with the sort of trim and quality you’d only find in a luxury car a decade ago.
Another by-product is a surge in so-called niche models which major on individuality and allow owners to personalise from the ground up.
The MINI was the first to pave the way. Now, among others, we have Fiat 500, Citroen DS and the Alfa Romeo MiTo I have been driving.
With strong style references to the marque’s illustrious past, it is nevertheless more current than retro.
And despite its elegant shape, oddly offset front number plate and clearly borrowed cues from the Alfa 8C supercar, this is a practical everyday hatchback which counts as its rivals more bread-and-butter cars like Polo, Fiesta and Corsa.
The range and choice of engines is broad. I went for the high economy diesel powered 1.3JTDm Veloce (price: £15,750) which has a creditably low emissions figure of just 112g/km and squeezes 65.7 miles from a gallon of juice – at least officially it does. My own average was 52mpg – still very good.
With 95bhp pulling the compact three-door body, performance is pretty handy. The 62mph dash is polished off in 11.6 seconds and it tops out at 112mph.
The drawback is that the small diesel is a trifle agricultural at low speeds with an old-school ‘clatter’ at tickover.
It all calms down as speed picks up, and at cruising speed in sixth gear cabin noise is well suppressed.
There’s a small lever on the central console which is designed to allow the driver to adapt the car’s responses to suit individual tastes and varying conditions.
It has three settings – normal, dynamic and all weather. It’s fun to play around with but novelty wears off after a couple of hundred miles and I settled for leaving it in ‘normal’.
I suspect most people will. Handling is generally sure-footed and sporty but the ride – even in ‘normal’ – is somewhat harsh over poor surfaces.
The cabin is heavily stylised and looks to belong to a more expensive car. The circular dials are chrome-rimmed and cowled and the fascia is sprinkled with carbon-fibre type inserts, and of course that famous Alfa symbol dominates the leather-covered steering wheel.
I was less happy with the read-out of the onboard computer which is red script on a black background – very hard to make out. The boot holds 270 litres of luggage which is about average for the class.
Alfa Romeo MiTo 1.3JTDm Veloce 5dr
Mechanical: 95bhp, 1,298cc, 4cyl diesel engine driving front wheels via 6-speed manual gearbox
Max speed: 112mph
0-62mph: 8.2 seconds
Combined mpg: 66.7
Insurance group: 11
CO2 emissions: 112g/km
BiK rating: 13%
Warranty: 3yrs/ 60,000 miles