n these days of look-alike car design, the frisky Fiat Punto hatchback is in a refreshingly different club.
This appealing supermini is a vital component in the good news story for the giant Italian car maker. If you’re interested in making a statement, read on.
Some observers describe the new Punto as the make-or-break car for the largest car company in Italy and, at the very least, the car is a vital link in the brand’s recovery.
No-one likes to kick a bloke when he’s down, and Fiat has suffered too many woes in recent years. Some, of course, have been the marque’s own fault but it’s good to see the brand moving in the right direction once again.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, of course. Rebuilding a weak image in New Zealand won’t come easily and the road to success is long and enduring.
Australasian importer Ateco considered the new Punto so important that it is the foundation block for Fiat’s return to Australia after an absence of 17 years.
Although Fiat has never gone away in New Zealand, its presence has been nothing if not low-key.
As a remedial move, the Punto is clearly a step in the right direction though it’s just one ingredient in a complex recipe for success.
Fiat has given the latest Punto front-end treatment that differs sharply from any other small car. There may be similarities between the body design and Maserati coupe styling, which is no bad thing.
Guigiaro’s styling spin-off is clearly doing positive things for the car’s image while under the skin the level of integrity is just as good.
The wide choice of small cars in New Zealand has made selection even more bewildering but the Punto offers a real point of difference, and tossing in a fair measure of character is no bad thing.
As is the want of most car manufacturers, the Punto has grown with age to the extent that Fiat calls the model Grande Punto. Nevertheless, most of us will ignore the Grande and stick with the familiar Punto handle.
Larger than contemporaries like the Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta and Suzuki Swift, the Punto’s 4030mm length is identical to the new Peugeot 207’s and just a touch more than the Renault Clio’s.
Fiat says the Punto is the largest car in its segment – and both leg and head room front and rear are never wanting.
Significantly, three of the four models offered in New Zealand are diesel-powered.
Diesels are on the march, if only the government would get its house in order, add a few cents tax on the price of the fuel and abolish the ridiculous road user charge.
The range-topping three-door Sport has the same 1.9-litre eight-valve single overhead cam common rail diesel as the identically priced $29,990 five-door version, but is more powerful and goes up two inches in road wheel diameter to 17-inch.
It also has lower profile 205/45 tyres instead of the 185/65s fitted to the 1.9 and 1.3 diesels and the 1.4 petrol entry level Punto that just sneaks in under $23,000.
Expect a better look, of course, from the larger wheels and sharper handling, but a commensurate deterioration in ride quality.
Word is that the smaller 16-valve, twin cam diesel provides enough performance to satisfy most buyers and enjoys a $4000 price advantage. It also uses the least amount of fuel and produces lower emissions.
The 1.9 diesels each produce 280Nm of torque – a solid 40 percent more than the 1.3-litre engine, and the 66kW of power looks tame alongside the 88kW for the 120 Multijet five-door diesel and the stonking 96kW for the 130 Multijet engine in the Sporting.
With a top speed of more than 200km/h and a 0-100km/h time of 9.5 seconds, the Sporting is no slug, yet nor are the other diesel Puntos.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the car’s on-road abilities, and the solid pulling power in fifth and sixth gears.
This is despite tallish gearing, with the motor spinning at a leisurely 1800rpm in top at 100km/h, and 2300 revs in fifth.
I couldn’t get near the 5.8 litres/100km combined fuel consumption figure, however, with an average of seven litres/100km – a consequence, perhaps, of the frisky performance that is always on tap. Who says diesels are boring?
Speed-sensitive electric power steering has two operating modes, one for more feedback and driver involvement and the second offering a lighter action best suited for urban and low speed motoring.
Even though the city mode cancels out above 30km/h, the steering is somewhat stodgy, in contrast to the trim ride and handling. There’s nothing unusual about the suspension that employs MacPherson struts up front and a light torsion beam rear axle.
The track is much wider than the older Punto and general driving manners are solidly better.
Although some of the interior plastics look and feel budget, the overall finish is excellent, with details like the soft-feel handbrake and gear lever knob deserving special mention.
There are a few visibility issues, especially around the thick A pillars, but the Fiat is not alone in that.
I had some problem arranging an ideal driving position but the situation is better than it used to be in Italian cars. The steering wheel is adjustable for rake and reach and seat comfort is excellent.
The Punto scored a five-star occupant protection rating in the Euro NCAP tests and a class-best three stars for pedestrian protection.
The Sporting specification includes cruise control, side skirts and spoiler, foglights, four-wheel disc brakes, heated door mirrors and side and head curtain airbags in addition to the front bags.
There are steering wheel controls for the audio and a comprehensive braking package that includes an electronic stability programme.
The Punto has been pushing up Fiat sales in Europe, with the model running fourth best seller behind the GM Astra, Renault Clio and Focus.
The Fiat has just edged ahead of traditional hot seller VW Golf in Europe with sales up more than 50 percent over the previous model.
But in the ever-changing market, new rivals, like the Peigeot 207, are poised to make life difficult for the Fiat supermini.