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Car reviews - Fiat - Punto - hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
Price, interior in top-spec Lounge, quiet cabin, fuel efficiency, it still looks good
Room for improvement
Weak 1.4-litre engine, jolty Dualogic transmission, dynamics fall short of leaders, aged Pop cabin


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2 Dec 2014

IT’S proving to be quite the year for automotive comebacks. Think Mitsubishi’s resurrected Mirage and the return of Nissan’s much-loved Pulsar nameplate in January.

Now we can add Fiat’s Punto light hatch to the list. The obvious difference being that the Punto has only been gone for three short years while Mirage and Pulsar lovers were left pining for up to nine long years before their return to the market.

Whether or not you noticed the absence of the Punto, Fiat has sensed the opportunity for more sales in the busy light-car segment beyond its funky 500 hatch. Hence, round two.

Competition in the segment is tough, and the Punto faces an uphill battle against established favourites such as the Toyota Yaris, Suzuki Swift and Holden Barina, not to mention the updated Ford Fiesta that arrives in September.

Since taking the distribution reigns from a private importer in May last year, the Fiat Chrysler Group has implemented a fairly bullish strategy to grow sales locally, with price cuts to key models. The Punto is no exception.

Yes, Punto sales are unlikely to reach the dizzying heights the re-born Pulsar and Mirage are experiencing just months after release, but an appealing $16,000 drive-away price for the entry-level Pop manual should give it a fighting chance at making a dent.

Very little has changed mechanically since we last saw the Punto in 2010, although a mild face-lift incorporating a new front bumper and grille has given it a smoother, more appealing front end, while new tail-lights update the rear.

The Punto has always been a great looking little car and despite the fact its been around for all these years, it still makes an impression on the road, particularly when matched to the striking turquoise blue from the new colour palette.

Fiat is offering three spec levels starting with the Pop, before moving up to mid-spec Easy from $19,300 plus on-road costs and a flagship Lounge from $21,800.

The interior and equipment levels in the Pop are kept fairly basic, presumably to maintain that $16k drive-away price, but it’s still a pleasant enough cabin without bothering the best in class.

There are easy-to-use dials in the centre console and phone and audio controls on the steering wheel, while contrasting black and grey dash materials lift the cabin slightly.

Highlights of the Pop’s rather limited standard features list include air conditioning, electric front windows and Bluetooth connectivity, but it is a similar level of standard kit to entry-level variants of some competitors, including the Barina.

The front seats are flat and unsupportive but there is ample front head and leg room. Rear passenger head room is fine but legroom is minimal which is to be expected in this segment.

Fiat has included nifty storage nets in the front passenger foot-well and the Punto’s boot is adequate, with capacity of 275 litres with rear seats up and 1030 with them folded.

Fiat has carried over its 57kW/115Nm 1.4-litre four cylinder engine that was available previously. Those figures are a fair way shy of models such as the 88kW Fiesta or 77kW Polo, just to name a few.

No-one expects blistering sports performance in this category of car, or at this price point, but the engine is noticeably weak and unfortunately it doesn’t get any better the higher up the rev rage you go.

Perhaps Fiat’s ripping 0.9-litre two-cylinder TwinAir from the 500 would be a better match?The five-speed manual gearbox that is standard on the Pop (a five-speed ‘Dualogic’ automated manual is a $1500 option) is adequate if lacking a ratio, but the robotised-manual self-shifting option takes some getting used to. It hunts for gears and lacks the crispness of many new-generation units such as the VW DSG or Ford Powershift.

The electric power steering is light and lacking in feedback, without the alacrity or immediacy of many better-credentialed rivals.

But while the Punto’s 1.4-litre engine may lack punch, it at least has a characterful engine note - it is Italian after all - and the cabin remains insulated from excessive road roar in city commutes.

Stepping up to the top-spec Lounge variant is like stepping into an entirely different car. Lounge models (and the mid-spec Easy) feature a completely re-styled dash, giving the cabin a more modern and premium feel.

The smart dash design with gloss black trim, chrome highlights and soft-touch materials is impressive and up with some of the best designs in the class. A leather steering wheel, gear shift lever and beautifully supportive sports leather seats round out the luxurious touches to the cabin.

But the dour Dualogic is standard fare here, so be wary.

Still, the Punto’s small engine capacity, a relatively light weight (the Pop weighs in at 1024kg) and minor mechanical changes carried out by Fiat in 2012 to improve efficiency make for decent official fuel consumption figures of 5.7 litres per 100 km for the manual and 5.4L/100km for the Dualogic auto.

Our dash through city streets and major arterial roads in Melbourne gave us a very respectable figure of 5.9L/100km for our time in the manual and 6.3L/100km in the auto.

Fait is under no illusions about how difficult it will be to compete in the hectic light car segment in Australia, especially with an aging model, and it’s not expecting the Punto to sell at a similar volume to the Yaris.

Rivals such as the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo are streets ahead of the Punto dynamically and provide a driving experience that the Fiat can’t match.

There are cheaper options out there, including the Fiesta from $15,490, Barina from $15,990 and the Honda Jazz that starts from $14,990, but none of them offer a drive-away price and they all have similar levels of standard equipment.

So why would people consider the Punto? Fiat hopes its “Italian-ness” will keep it on the shopping lists of buyers that want something different from the norm, and frankly we can see the appeal.

But time will tell if Punto retains enough Italian charm to steal a few sales from its more popular rivals.

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