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Car reviews - Fiat - Punto - hatch range

Launch Story

Fiat logo27 Jun 2006

By MARTON PETTENDY

FABBRICA Italiana Automobili Torino – Fiat – is finally back in Australian new-car showrooms with the Punto, attempting to attract buyers with low prices, high equipment and safety levels, the widest diesel engine availability and European design.

On sale July 1 from $19,990 to around $30,000, the Italian-made front-wheel drive hatchback straddles the premium-light and small-car segments in both price and size.

The acclaimed Panda light car and a still-secret Volkswagen Golf-sized small car are also expected within 18 months, to slot below and above the Punto respectively.

There is also a strong chance that we will see the much-anticipated Cinquecento (500), derived from the 2004 Trepiuno Geneva motor show concept and highly reminiscent of the iconic 1957 Nuevo 500.

Fiat abstained from the Australian new-car market until its vehicles met product, performance, pricing and quality considerations.

Consequently, the Italians waited until the new, third-generation Punto (meaning ‘point’) became available.

Combined with the continuing 1999-vintage old Punto, the Grand Punto – as it is known elsewhere – is already Europe’s best-seller.

Australia is party to a three-pronged Punto punt – Dynamic and Emotion five-door and the Sport three-door.

All include anti-lock brakes, six airbags, air-conditioning, cruise control, power windows, electric and heated mirrors, remote central locking, steering wheel audio controls, a trip computer, a height-adjustable driver’s seat and a rake and reach-adjustable steering column.

A first in Australia is the electric steering’s standard ‘Dualdrive’ two-mode speed-sensitive power assistance system, which – at a press of a dash-mounted button – lightens the wheel’s turning effort to virtually feather-light, for easy round-town parking. It cannot be activated above 30km/h.

Stability and traction controls (VDC and ASR in Fiat-speak), along with a ‘Hill Holder’ device that momentarily brakes the car automatically for smoother handbrake starts on inclines, also feature in all 1.9-litre models, although they lose the full-sized spare wheel of their smaller-engined brethren.

Diesel engines dominate, with a 1.3-litre and two 1.9-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesels expecting to account for at least half of all Punto sales.

The base model is the Dynamic, powered by a 1.4-litre single overhead cam eight-valve four-cylinder Euro IV emissions-compliant petrol engine offering 57kW of power at 6000rpm and 115Nm of torque at 3000rpm.

A 70kW 1.4-litre 16-valve petrol engine is believed to be on its way inside the next 12 months, with a 1.4-litre or 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol ‘Sporting’ version also joining the range.

Of the three Euro IV JTD Multi-jet common-rail direct-injection turbo-diesels, only the smallest sports twin cams and 16 valves.

The 1.3-litre turbo-diesel produces 66kW at 4000rpm and 200Nm at 1750rpm.

Both 1.9-litre turbo-diesel units deliver 280Nm at 2000rpm, but the ‘luxury’ Emotion model has 88kW at 4000rpm, while the Sport ups that to 96kW at 4000rpm.

Right now only manual gearboxes are available – a five-speeder in the petrol Punto and six-speeders for all diesels.

From around September a variation of Alfa Romeo’s Selespeed sequential-shift clutchless five-speed manual transmission dubbed Dualogic will also arrive.

It should add about $2000 to the Punto Dynamic’s price – the only model to offer the automated gearbox.

Using the European 1999/100 EC directive to determine the Fiat’s combined fuel consumption and exhaust emission outputs, the 1.4-litre, 1.3-litre and 1.9-litre JTD units – presumably as manual gearbox cars – return 6.1, 4.6, 5.6 and 5.8L/100km, and 140, 122, 145 and 154 grams of carbon-dioxide per kilometre, respectively.

Employing the same order of engines, the 0-100km/h sprint times are 13.2, 11.9, 10 and 9.5 seconds, with each on its way to a 165km/h, 175km/h, 190km/h and 200km/h top speed respectively.

The $22,990 1.3-litre six-speed manual turbo-diesel model has achieved 3.9L/100km in an ‘out of town’ European economy cycle (that’s 72.4 miles per gallon), placing it deep into hybrid frugality territory.

Currently the Punto leads its light-car peers in the Euro NCAP crash test results, scoring five stars overall and three stars each for child and pedestrian protection.

Matching the Toyota Yaris is the option of a driver’s knee airbag (adding to the standard front, side and curtain items), while a ‘follow-me-home’ extended headlight illumination after the car has been parked and locked at night is included.

If this Fiat sounds suspiciously un-Italian in its (over) achievements, consider that Germany’s Opel had a big hand in the Punto’s development, courtesy of Fiat’s now-defunct liaison with General Motors.

Offering Australians a tantalising glimpse of what the next European Barina might have been, the Punto has a fraternal twin with the just-announced next-generation Opel Corsa light car.

With around five million kilometres of prototype testing, both companies injected significant engineering input.

Dimensionally the Punto is as large as some small cars, with its 2510mm wheelbase coming within 1mm of the previous-generation Volkswagen Golf’s, and it is 52mm taller at 1490mm. The Fiat is only 48mm narrower at 1687mm and 119mm shorter overall at 4030mm.

It also shares a similar suspension set-up to this VW MacPherson struts and an anti-roll bar up front and a torsion beam rear-end. The Sport adds firmer springs and a rear anti-roll bar.

A full-length glass sunroof and metallic or pastel paints are options, with Bluetooth connectivity, dual-zone climate control air-conditioning, parking sensors and a CD stacker to follow in the future.

With a keen eye on global export markets, Fiat is expected to introduce further Punto bodystyles in the next few years, including a four-door sedan, wagon and mini people-mover variants.

High performance petrol and diesel models, to match the likes of the Renault Clio Sport, are also on the cards.

Fiat is aiming to shift 600 Puntos in the last six months of this year, with around 1400 sales slated for 2007.

Currently 20 dealers (almost all being Alfa Romeo franchises) are signed up. This should rise to about 25 by year’s end.

Volkswagen is a major rival, with the 1.4 petrol and 1.3 diesel models aimed at the Polo 1.4 and TDI ranges, while the Punto Sport and Emotion diesels are clambering for Polo GTI and Golf TDI buyers respectively.

Reflecting this, importer Ateco Automotive refers to the Punto’s positioning as "Golo" or "Polf". Peugeot and Renault are further key opponents.

With bright colour palettes, modern styling and keen pricing, Fiat says that young buyers are the main target audience, although it also acknowledges that the over-45-year-old demographic are also good prospects.

The latter, Fiat explains, should fondly recall the popular Fiat cars of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, such as the Nuevo 500, the 850, 1100, 1500, 124 and 128 models.

1980s sales duds like the Argenta, Regatta and Croma are conveniently ignored, with the latter, along with the Bertone X1/9, having the ignominy of leading to the brand's demise in Australia in July 1989.

The Punto comes from a long line of small front-wheel drive Fiats.

The 1971 127, sold unsuccessfully in Australia, catapulted Fiat to the supermini (light car hatchback) big-league in Europe.

Its Uno replacement from 1983 proved to be a revolution, introducing upright styling (by original Golf designer Giorgetto Giugiaro – also responsible for the new Punto) for better interior packaging, creating the modern light-car template.

This was replaced in Europe by the 1993 Punto Mk1, which continued the Uno’s stylistic theme and popularity.

However, the 1999 Punto II, with its more conservative styling, failed to meet sales expectations, conceding leadership to rivals such as the Peugeot 206.

According to Fiat Cars Australia general manager David Stone, Ateco made the right decision to wait for the all-new Mk3 Punto.

"The timing couldn’t be better," he says, pointing to the burgeoning light and small-car segments, as well as the inexorable rise in diesel sales in Australia.

"The Punto is a great product, with great performance and handling, well priced and well put together.

"Fiat is here to stay," he adds.

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