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Car reviews - Fiat - Punto - Dynamic 1.4 5dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Styling, equipment, grown-up feel, eager performance, economy, comfort, practicality, individuality, quality
Room for improvement
Requires premium unleaded, Dual Logic not as good as regular automatic, Fiat resale and reputation, price for a 1.4, no stability control available

Fiat logo18 Jan 2008

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

FORGET what you may know about Fiats and Alfa Romeos these days.

Underneath the latter’s 159, Brera and Spider is a front-wheel drive platform co-devised by Opel in Germany, and the same is true too for the Fiat Punto.

Interestingly, this third-generation Punto was co-developed alongside Europe’s extremely well-received Opel/Vauxhall Corsa, and shares many of the chassis hard points with the General Motors light car.

So this is – in a nutshell – why the tens of thousands of people in Australia who bought the fine Holden XC Barina from early 2001 to late 2005 should view the Fiat as a considerably bigger, far sexier, significantly safer and better-to-drive successor… that just happens to come from Italy instead of Germany-via-Spain.

Indeed, the front-wheel drive Punto drives like a modern Opel, which means light controls, safe and sharp but not-too-communicative steering for strident handling qualities, a solid and grounded feel to the roadholding, and a supple and well-insulated ride.

Throw it into a corner and the car will lean a little but ultimately you should be impressed by the amount of composure and body control there is on offer.

From the seat of your pants, the Punto seems more like a big small car that an overgrown light car.

A word about the steering. Press the steering-wheel icon on the centre console and the turning effort becomes super-light, for easier low-speed manoeuvrability. And what little feel there is vanishes, but it makes the Punto particularly well suited to city habitats.

A 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine seems too small for our market, but it does try hard and is not the sluggard that its meagre 57kW power and 115Nm torque outputs and single-cam specification might suggest, with a smooth, quiet and revvy nature that is quite happy to be extended through all five forward gears.

That it needs expensive premium unleaded fuel to muster up this performance is pretty lame, however.

The shifter is not bad, defined by a lightweight, long-travel throw action. Some keener drivers might find it a little vague compared to the weightier and more direct shifts found on cars like the Ford Fiesta and Suzuki Swift, but there certainly isn’t anything bad about the overall quality.

We prefer the manual to the optional Dual Logic gearbox, too.

A bit like Selespeed, but considerably nicer to operate, this five-speed transmission has a nice sequential shift mechanism that can perform seamlessly smooth changes if you are unhurried.

However, when left in Auto (which can conveniently be selected through any phase of driving), the changes are jerky and slow, leaving you lurching at a snail's pace when you would be shifting at a cracking pace in the regular manual. And, if you boot it, it sends an unseemly rumble through the drivetrain at launch speeds.

Other flaws include a ‘Reverse’ that is too easy to knock into gear from ‘Neutral’, and nothing to prevent the car from rolling when stationary on an incline.

Step inside the Punto and you are surrounded by airbags – including curtain bags – that help the Fiat to a five-star ENCAP crash-test result.

There are also ABS anti-lock brakes, but no stability control option on the 1.4, while the rear brakes are drums and not the more effective discs. Still, like most of the models honed around the hills of Turin, the stoppers are certainly up to the task.

Perhaps the Punto’s biggest drawcard (besides its beautiful Maserati-like front and elegantly simple lines) is the interior’s style.

The dashboard is simple and charmingly presented in a range of contrasting trims that look expensive (although feel disappointingly hard to the touch).

For a light car, there is space aplenty, as well as five headrests and lap/sash seat belts.

The instrumentation is comprehensive, backed up by a neat (if fiddly to initially work out) trip computer, and there were no bits falling off or rattling in any of the several test cars we sampled.

Better still, nobody should find fault with the driving position, which benefits from a telescopic and tilt steering wheel function, as well as a seat-height adjuster.

Other items you may not expect in the cheapest Fiat include ‘follow-me-home’ auto headlights and cruise control.

About the only cabin-based disappointment involves the air-conditioning, which only rates as adequate in our hot climes.

Sitting on a 2510mm wheelbase, the 4030mm-long Punto is almost as long as the previous-generation Volkswagen Golf, and this shows when you are loading stuff inside the deep boot. Don’t forget that this is a family car in Italy, so practicality is a big part of the Punto’s repertoire.

We came away extremely impressed with the Punto 1.4. We’d ignore the Dual Logic and haggle hard with the dealer because price remains this little Italian runabout’s biggest hurdle.

Unless you take advantage of one of the many $19,990-driveaway deals that ran intermittently during 2007, the Punto seems overpriced against the latest Mazda 2 and Ford Fiesta.

Strike a deal, though, and you will find yourself with one of the most characterful, spacious, safest and most striking new cars you can buy for the money.

Better still, with this Fiat's Opel breeding, you can expect now reliability and durability, too.

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