It’s not inconceivable that one day you will find yourself in a head-vs-heart decision where you know that a solid, well-built, premium-feeling hatchback is what you really need, and yet your heart desires something a little different, with abundant character and quirkiness.
And that is the kind of scenario where you may find yourself looking at the VW Polo – revised in 2014 and promising economical engines, good equipment levels and a premium-feel interior – and the undeniably pretty Alfa Romeo MiTo, with its relative exclusivity and Italian flair.
In these situations it’s easy to let the heart run riot in the decision making process, which is where we step in. We’ve considered what the experts think, and our head-to-head comparison should help you supply your head with the all-important facts and figures so it can help you decide which of these cars is the right one for you.
But then you might just fancy an Alfa…
The term “as different as chalk and cheese” is perhaps overused in some circumstances, but it’s justifiable when comparing the Polo to the MiTo.
Volkswagen never intended the Polo to be anything other than a small practical supermini, which is why its always presented itself conservatively – if you bought one in 2009 it won’t look much different from the photos in this article. But there’s no denying that it has a mature, smart air about it – the stylish touches are subtle and restrained, typical for Volkswagen.
But then you just need to take one glance at the MiTo to realise that the Italians simply know how to style a car in a way that will ensure that the owner will not be the only person able to spot where it’s been parked from a great distance.
Its bulbous arches, round and seemingly cheerful headlights, and striking lines down both sides give it a stance and a personality all in one go.
Of course, the risk with giving any car significant styling touches is that they will not appeal to everyone – the asymmetrical number plate will irk those who like order, and some may feel that it’s trying too hard to be a Mini with those lights.
Interior and practicality
This chalk-and-cheese theme can be conveniently extended to the interior, too. Alfa Romeo wants you to feel special when you sit inside the MiTo, and it does a good job. But Volkswagen knows that quality is just as important.
Sit inside the Volkswagen and you’ll find there’s little that you would remember after getting out of the car, but critics note that it feels like an interior taken from a more expensive car. Soft-touch materials have a quality and long-lasting feel to them, and small changes from the previous model have enhanced a cabin that was already rated highly anyway.
It can happily seat four adults in comfort and refinement – headroom and legroom is good for a car of this size – and the 280 litre boot is also reasonable.
Alfa Romeo concentrated on giving a sense of occasion to people who clamber into the MiTo, which has been largely successful, but unfortunately experts feel that it does not have the same level of cohesion as the exterior.
Quality issues are noticeable – some of the trim looks and feels cheap and doesn’t feel as robust as the Polo, or indeed a number of other alternatives. The poor refinement continues when on the road as the poor sound-proofing lets in a lot of road and engine noise.
It also falls a little short of the Polo in providing space for rear passengers thanks to the sloping roof line, and rear legroom is also a bit tight for taller passengers. At 270 litres, boot space is almost the same as the Polo but the high lip makes loading larger objects a little awkward.
Experts do not find either the Polo nor MiTo particularly fun or inspiring to drive. This might be expected of the Polo – we’ve already gathered it’s focussing on providing a mature, big-car feel that is easy to drive rather than exciting.
The MiTo, however, is packaged differently, and those expecting it to be as fun to drive as it is pretty to look at may be disappointed – one critic noted that it provides an ordinary driving experience at best.
The Polo tends to receive quite a lot of criticism because it is consistently compared to the Ford Fiesta, which sets a very high bar. Despite not being able to quite hold a candle to the Ford’s superior chassis, any criticisms of the Polo’s handling tend to be offset by praise for its refinement and ride comfort in all but the smallest-engined models.
Reviewers found themselves using the word “vague” a lot to describe the MiTo’s steering – the precision isn’t that good, even if the response is quick, and there isn’t much in the way of feedback. Experts found themselves having the best time with the “DNA” driving mode switch in “D” for Dynamic, which improves the weighting and feel of the steering.
The MiTo doesn’t really pick itself up by providing a particularly comfortable ride, either. Described as firm by more than one disappointed critic, it tends to feel crashy over speed bumps and road imperfections.
Neither car will leave you feeling particularly excited should you regularly commute across country, but the Polo’s superior ride comfort will ensure you reach your destination feeling like you’ve just made the same journey in a larger pricier car.
The MiTo’s engine range is extensive and the experts are impressed with the diversity and efficiency on offer. The Polo’s engine range is similarly extensive and unsurprisingly most of them are touted as being refined and frugal as well.
Both cars have a tiny-engine option. The MiTo is available with an impressive 875cc two-cylinder turbo-charged unit (called TwinAir) that produces more than 100hp, and the Polo with two 1.0-litre three-cylinder options that have around half the power of the MiTo and aren’t particularly favoured by experts. Having said that, Alfa Romeo’s claim of 67mpg from the TwinAir is wildly optimistic, with 40mpg being barely achieved by reviewers who tested it.
Diesel options for both cars are better choices over the tiny petrol engines for those seeking to maximise economy and minimise running costs. The MiTo has a 1.3-litre diesel that costs nothing to tax and can do over 80mpg, although it doesn’t have much go to it – experts preferred the 1.6-litre which is a little less frugal, costs £30 per year to tax but has more oomph.
VW’s 1.4-litre diesel can be had in 74hp or 89hp tune, both capable of 67mpg, but eyes are on a soon-to-be-released 1.2-litre BlueMotion diesel that will be free to tax and has a claimed fuel economy of more than 90mpg.
Both cars have 1.4-litre turbocharged party-piece engines that critics feel are the best compromise between fuel efficiency and performance. The MiTo provides two options, one with 133hp and the other with a more potent 168hp, also capable of 50mpg as well as a brisk sub-eight-second sprint to 60mph. The Polo’s unit is even more impressive thanks to Active Cylinder Technology which shuts down two cylinders when driving gently – a top speed of 130mph yet a claimed 60mpg efficiency make a compelling argument for petrol over diesel.
Value for money and running costs
Considering the findings of critics and experts, one might argue that the Polo sounds more like a premium package overall, and is therefore clearly much better value for money.
It’s not quite a simple as that, however – the £11,250 base line price is for a rather poorly equipped Polo “S” model with the least desirable 1.0-litre engine. Reviewers strongly suggest aiming for an “SE” spec model or above, and should you want to go for a frugal diesel model, you will need to part with closer to £15,000.
The cheapest MiTo diesel in a comparable specification is the 1.3-litre Lusso model, which is listed at £14,555.
Given that both cars are very frugal and cheap to run, it comes down to how well each one holds its value, and this will be the Polo, despite the relative exclusivity offered by the MiTo.
Those wanting the performance models instead will also find themselves considering similar asking prices of around £20,000 for either the 1.4-litre Polo TSI ACT BlueGT or the 1.4-litre MultiAir Quadrifoglio Verde – again the Polo has the best running costs in the long run and will retain more value for longer.
Considering what the experts have said about both cars, it might be surprising to some than the MiTo isn’t lagging that far behind the Polo on the wowscores.
It cannot provide the same level of quality and refinement as the Polo, inside or on the road, and it’s not the choice of vehicle for those wanting to chuck it down B-roads.
But the experts are clearly still swayed by the MiTo’s quirky Italian styling and interior, and the decent punchy petrol engines and frugal diesel engines provide an opportunity to have a good-looking car that doesn’t cost the earth to run.
It’s hard for us to recommend the MiTo in this situation given that a decently specced Polo costs the same to buy, is a classier place to sit in and provides more space for passengers and luggage, is more competent and comfortable on the road and costs as much if not less to run.
That’s not to say at all that the MiTo is a bad car, or a poor choice by any means, but in this particular situation your head should be telling you that the only reason that you could reasonably cite for choosing one is that any flaws it may have just happen to be wrapped in that rather pretty body that your heart has fallen for.