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Car reviews - Fiat - Punto - hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
Style, comfort, space, diesel performance and economy, sporty dynamics, individuality, sheer competence
Room for improvement
Some road noise, no full-automatic option, uncertain resale value

Fiat logo27 Jun 2006

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

PUNTO... you may already realise that it means ‘point’ in Italian.

What you may not know, however, is that after sampling two manual turbo-diesel models – the $22,990 1.3-litre JTD Dynamic and the $27,990 1.9-litre JTD Sport – it also signals the return of a welcome and unexpectedly formidable small-car player in Australia.

Indeed the latest Punto, with its state-of-the-art supermini design and outstanding value for money, has already succeeded in saving its parent from corporate disaster.

Just look at it! The Fiat’s long nose is aristocratically fulsome, and – thanks to a pair of anthropomorphic headlights for eyes – seductively Maserati-mimicking.

Giorgetto Giugiaro – he of a dozen landmark car designs, many for Fiat – has given us an athletically proportioned little car that oozes style and solidity, both inside and out.

Up until the mid-1970s Italian car cabins were often nothing less than exquisitely presented (if slap-dash in execution).

With the Punto it is as if Fiat envisaged the dash while the Germans took care of constructing. Only a loose-fitting glovebox in one example we drove detracted from an otherwise upbeat and functional cabin.

Don’t go thinking this is a cramped little buzz-box either, with space to spare for large occupants up front and a pleasant and accommodating rear bench, backed up by a huge boot area beneath the hatch.

Courtesy of the Punto’s one-box shape you’ll probably find it far more spacious than the last Volkswagen Golf, and perhaps equal to a current Toyota Corolla.

International – not Italian regional – comfort parameters were obviously consulted when the Punto’s driving position was being configured.

No oddball seating here – just supportive chairs, great forward vision, logical yet distinctive and stylish dashboard and instrumentation markings, and some very smart trim and fabric choices.

If you press the ‘City’ button on the console the steering wheel becomes ludicrously light, yet it should aid parking effort immensely.

Otherwise, in regular mode, the tiller feels tight, well weighted and smoothly responsive, if a tad dull.

Nevertheless, competent dynamics means the Punto progresses to near the top of its class for handling and roadholding pleasure, although a Ford Fiesta possesses a clear edge here that the Fiat cannot match.

As with most light cars, the Punto Dynamic 1.3 diesel does transmit a fair amount of road noise inside, but not to an intrusive level.

The Sport 1.9 sibling is far more vocal in this regard, however - although both powerplants are subdued as far as their diesel sounds go.

The same goes for their respective engine’s performance – which, considering the capacities we are talking about – rates from delightful (1.3) to outstanding (1.9).

The former does feel a tad sluggish below the 2000rpm mark, but once the turbocharger kicks in, and for the next 2000rpm, we bet you will probably prefer to be behind the wheel of the more progressive Punto unit than the more powerful but coarser Polo TDI’s 1.9-litre unit.

Meanwhile, the punchy 1.9-litre turbo-diesel Sport really does offer strong and stirring performance, matching this with sharp handling to produce a very composed small car.

But it seems that the front-end is a little too nose-heavy for hot-hatch nimbleness, while the ride can feel a little too firm in places, although the Fiat is never as hard here as the Polo GTI.

Both six-speed manual gearshifts fit their engine’s moods, with the economy model’s ease and slickness replaced by a springy yet involving selector that begs you to change gears.

Prospective buyers should realise that the Punto, in manual diesel guises at least, feels very grown-up inside and out, with mature road manners, class-leading comfort and refinement, and irrefutable levels of style and verve.

We left the Punto diesel duo wanting to drive them further, and believe that many prospective buyers of European and Japanese small cars might feel the same.

Australia has lacked an affordable Italian compact car for way too long. Have no doubts – the Punto points to a prosperous future for Fiat in this country.

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