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Fiat Punto Easy

 

Fiat is now offering a taste of Italy for less than $20,000 with the Punto supermini. We test the mid-range Easy version.

Base price: $19,990.

Powertrain and performance: 1.4-litre petrol four, 57kW/115Nm, 5-speed automated manual gearbox, front-drive, Combined economy 5.4 litres per 100km.

Vital statistics: 4065mm long, 1490mm high, luggage capacity 275-1030 litres, fuel tank 45 litres, 15-inch alloy wheels.

We like: Sharp looks, sharper pricing and warranty, engaging to drive.

We don't like: Average build quality, Dualogic gearbox requires work.

How it rates: 7/10

WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW? Let's get one thing clear: the Fiat Punto is not a new car. In fact, give or take a minor facelift or two, it dates back to 2006.

So why are we interested? Well, Fiat Chrysler New Zealand has relaunched the model in three different specifications at some very sharp prices. The entry-level Punto Pop sells for just $17,490, and that includes an automated (but not automatic) gearbox and five-year warranty.

Our test car is the mid-range Easy, which gives you $10 change from $20k. There's also a sportier-looking Lounge, which costs $22,990.

So no, the Punto is not the newest supermini on the market. But it still looks stylish and at these prices it commands attention.

WHAT'S IT LIKE TO DRIVE? The Punto is typically Italian to drive. Or should we say typically Italian small-car to drive. It has very little power and torque, worryingly light steering (even in the heavier of two pushbutton settings you can choose) and lots of grip.

So it's designed to be driven flat-out, redlined in every gear and thrown into corners with maximum commitment. It's not fast, but it does feel eager.

The most controversial aspect of the car will be its Dualogic transmission, which is an automated single-clutch unit quite similar to the Selespeed transmission fitted to Fiats and Alfa Romeos of years gone by.

In these days of super-smooth automated dual-clutch gearboxes like Volkswagen's DSG and Ford's PowerShift, Dualogic might cause a bit of head-scratching on a test drive around the block. You can drive it in full automatic mode, but it's pretty jerky – like a learner-driver is at the wheel.

The correct way to drive Dualogic is like a conventional manual: shift the gears yourself and feather the throttle while you're changing cogs, just as you would in a three-pedal car. Do that and you'll find the Punto an engaging urban companion – all of the involvement of a proper manual (for those of us who still want that) but without the tired left leg in traffic.

Dualogic can't manage the rapid upshifts of dual-clutch gearboxes, but it does do a snappy downshift when required. Shame it's so ponderous when you're changing from forward to reverse gears during parking manoeuvres.

Like other automated-clutch transmissions, Dualogic is just as efficient as a conventional manual – perhaps more so when you consider the Combined fuel economy figure of 5.4 litres per 100km (the three-pedal manual version returns 5.7 litres).

IS IT EASY TO LIVE WITH? This car might have been called 'Grande Punto' when it was launched back in 2006, but it's still classic supermini size at four metres in length. So it's fine for two adults and occasional rear-seat passengers. The boot is usefully deep and you get over 1000 litres of loadspace if you fold the seats down.

The interior has been tweaked a few times over the last nine years and it still looks fresh, albeit sitting firmly in the cheap-and-cheerful category. It's not cartoonish like the Fiat 500, but there plenty of interesting shapes and textures, which are necessary to distract you from the rather cheap materials. Hey, what do you expect for $20k?

Opt for the Easy over the Pop and you get leather trim for the steering wheel and gearlever, power rear windows, driver's footrest, a front armrest, plus USB input for your phone or media player. Oh, Bluetooth too: yes, the entry car is one of few on the market not to offer cellphone connectivity.

One intriguing option fitted to our test car was the TomTom sat-nav unit, which is a portable device that's attached to the car with a special dock. It costs $345.

When it's plugged in it acts as sat-nav, Bluetooth and media player control screen (the latter functions can also be handled on the steering wheel controls).

It's a pretty awkward setup compared with newer rivals like the Honda Jazz, which has all of those functions fully integrated into a massive colour touch screen in the centre console. But the Fiat solution is novel nonetheless and allows sat-nav to be added to any model very easily.

Easy also scores over Pop on safety equipment, with a driver's knee airbag.

SHOULD I BUY ONE? There are lots of reasons not to buy the Punto: it's ancient in automotive terms, and its build quality and dynamics are well behind more modern Japanese, Korean and German rivals. After all, this is the age of the $$23,000 Volkswagen Polo.

At best, the Punto fills a quirky niche. But it still has a certain amount of charm to see it through: it looks stylish, the powertrain is engaging providing you put the work in and at under $18k for the entry model it's ridiculously cheap.

EQUIPMENT CHECKLIST

  • Air conditioning: Manual
  • Audio: CD, iPod compatible
  • Automatic lights/wipers: No
  • Blind spot warning: No
  • Bluetooth: Yes
  • Cruise control: No
  • Driver footrest: Yes
  • Head-up display: No
  • Heated/ventilated seats: No
  • Keyless entry/start: No
  • Lane guidance: No
  • Leather upholstery: No
  • Parking radar: Rear
  • Power boot or tailgate: No
  • Power seat adjustment/memory: No
  • Rear ventilation outlets: No
  • Remote audio controls: Yes
  • Satellite navigation: Optional
  • Seat height adjustment: Yes
  • Self-parking technology: No
  • Split/folding rear seats: 60/40
  • Steering reach adjustment: Yes
  • Stop-start: Yes
  • Trip computer: Yes

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