Fiat's ever evolving Punto range is having to run a little harder to keep up with the ever-improving competition. Jonathan Crouch drives one.
Fiat claims at last to have perfected its Punto supermini, with an affordable package promising sleeker styling, clever technology and more efficient engines, most notably an innovative twin-cylinder TwinAir petrol unit that's unique in this segment. These days, this Italian contender probably won't be the first model you think of in the small car sector but it remains a smart, stylish and sensible choice.
Fiat is very good at small cars, especially this one, the Punto supermini. It's a model that's rather drifted off the radar for buyers in this segment in recent years but with the revised version we're looking at here, its appeal seems to have been rejuvenated with almost all of the important boxes ticked. There's enough advanced engineware beneath the bonnet to satisfy the more demanding technophobe, so running costs are right up with class leaders who haven't anything to match the headline powerplant, a 0.9-litre TwinAir unit needing only two cylinders to develop a revvy 84bhp. The interior at last has a sheen of quality to it. And the styling too has been tweaked for return to chic, cheeky looks that are reminiscent of the original. It's all enough to create a car that needs no apology, no 'Grande' or 'Evo' preface to its name, no desperate dealer offers. Once again sold simply as a 'Fiat Punto', it is at last the kind of car you'd expect two decades of development to have been able to create. Which is just as well for it must compete against a whole range of more fashionable higher profile supermini rivals.
Is the original Punto's driving spark back in this much improved model? Well, it depends very much upon which variant you happen to end up driving. There's nothing very remarkable about the entry-level 8-valve 1.2 and 1.4-litre petrol models, unless you particularly want the Dualogic semi-automatic gearbox offered as an option on the 1.4. Further up the range though, things are very different, most notably with the variant I tried, the latest Fiat to be equipped with the brand's award-winning two cylinder 0.9-litre TwinAir petrol engine. This confection is a little noisy but not without its appeal, particularly as it's mated here to a six-speed manual gearbox. As usual with this powerplant, you have to get used to an engine note that on first aural acquaintance sounds like you've a hole in your exhaust but ends up feeling rather sporty and fun. Especially if you accept the invitation to rev the thing and properly exercise all eighty five of its braked horses, enough (provided you don't push the 'Eco' button on the dash that cuts the torque by 25%) to take you from rest to sixty in 12.7s on the way to a top speed of 107mph. More surprises lie further up the petrol-powered range, where Fiat's clever MultiAir technology features in a normally aspirated 1.4-litre engine developing 105bhp. There's also an 85bhp 1.3-litre Multijet diesel pokey enough to make sixty in 13.1s on the way to 107mph.
Italian design always has been and always should be about style. The very first Punto was no great looker but it did have a cheeky charm that small families loved. The MK2 model was smarter and more sophisticated but one of Fiat's finest moments came with the introduction of the third generation version, the Grande Punto, in 2005 with its mini-Maserati looks. And it's these that have supplied the inspiration for the car we have here. Redesigned body-coloured bumpers front and rear reprise the clean, effective styling that made the Grande model great and helped buyers to overlook its aging engines and plastiky cabin. Problems that this improved Punto is thankfully no longer saddled with. Take the interior with its revised diamond-embossed dashboard. In actual fact, there wasn't too much wrong with the original design that a better choice of colour, trim and materials wouldn't have put right, so that's exactly what's been tweaked. It's a spacious cabin too, courtesy of one of the longest wheelbases in its class. That makes a genuine difference to rear seat accommodation with this Punto offering good legroom, if not quite enough space to comfortable seat three adults. If there's a problem, it's that the extra wheelbase has favoured people rather than packages, so the 275-litre boot capacity is slightly less than is boasted by some rivals. It's worth pointing out though, that if you flatten the rear bench, the resulting 1030-litre load area is one of the very biggest in the class.
This Punto may these days be a relatively minor player in the British supermini sector but Fiat still offers a sprawling range of trim and engine options priced in the usual £10,000 to £15,000 bracket common to most Fiesta and Corsa-class cars. There are four main trim levels - Pop, Easy, GBT and Sporting. Whichever model you end up deciding upon, the equipment basics should be in evidence. That means electric front windows, a height-adjustable driver's seat, a trip computer, remote central locking, daytime running lights and an MP3-compatible CD stereo. As long as you can avoid the entry-level variant, you can also expect to find niceties like alloy wheels, air conditioning and electric mirrors, as well as the 60/40 split-folding rear seatback that really should be standard across the board. I'd also want to keep back some cash for the clever Blue&Me infotainment set-up, accessible through a removable 4.3-inch colour touchscreen which plugs into the dash top or can be removed to be used as a portable navigation system. Using this, you can Bluetooth and voice-activate your 'phone, connect auxiliary devices into the stereo with USB and AUX-in sockets and control a TomTom LIVE satellite navigation system, either with your voice or through buttons on the steering wheel. As for safety stuff, well all models get twin front and curtain airbags and there's a driver's kneebag too. A pity though, that you have to pay extra for side airbags and ESP stability control on most models.
When it comes to running costs, the rather curious theme that's common throughout the Punto portfolio is that the more powerful engines cost less to run. So, for petrol people, the 85bhp two cylinder TwinAir model is much cleaner and more frugal than either the 69bhp 1.2 or the 77bhp 1.4: expect 67.3mpg on the combined cycle and 98g/km of CO2. That's provided you press the 'Eco' button on the dashboard which reduces the pulling power of the engine by about 25%. Power also equals parsimony when it comes to the 1.4-litre petrol MultiAir model, the 105bhp normally aspirated unit delivering 49.6mpg and 133g/km of CO2 here. Of course, if cost of ownership really is top of your list of Punto priorities, you'll be needing a diesel. Fiat certainly knows a thing or two about building for the black pump, having developed the first direct injection diesel engine in the Eighties, before pioneering Common Rail technology in the Nineties. Today, its second generation 1.3-litre Multijet diesel is also industry-leading in 85bhp form. Here, you get 80.7mpg and 90g/km. All these figures are aided no end by the standard inclusion of a Start&Stop system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, say when you're stuck at the lights or waiting in traffic.
So, over two decades and eight and a half million sales on from the launch of Fiat's original Punto, this is where we've ended up. And although much has changed, much too has also remained the same. Just like the 1993 original, there's still a cool class-less character here that usually evades most mainstream superminis, this one of the few small cars that would fit in at any social engagement with no justifications sought nor required. Which is why this car makes so much more sense in the metal than it will do on the pre-conceived page of your supermini shopping list. You'll have started that by considering more modern designs - Peugeot's 208 perhaps, Kia's Rio, maybe the latest Fiesta - overlooking perhaps just how much this Punto has lately been perfected with class-leading engines, a smarter look and extra equipment. Fiat, I think, have done enough for you to give this car a second look. Try one and you might be glad you did.
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