Fiat's improved Punto provides more style and greater value for money than supermini buyers might be expecting. June Neary reports.
Will It Suit Me?
When the latest version of Fiat's Punto supermini arrived on my drive, I was pleasantly surprised. No, it wasn't quite as smart as the Grande Punto model I spent many miles with back in 2006 but it still looked sexy and stylish, as you would expect from this famous Italian marque. Plus it also exuded a certain presence that many superminis lack these days. The Grande Punto and its uglier successor, the Punto Evo, both had a bigger car feel than the previous Punto and this improved model takes that a stage further still. With this Fiat, I wouldn't have to keep splashing out on rental vehicles every time I wanted to join my friends on a weekender up-country. This is down to a long wheelbase, which has released impressive interior room. There's also a large glass area - which gives the cabin a light, airy feel. So far so good.
This is one of the bigger cars in its class, one of few superminis large enough to provide a realistic reason not to buy a larger family hatchback. Don't get me wrong: the Punto remains a supermini rather than a Focus-sized family hatch, but it does provide enough space inside - at least in five-door form - to make longer family trips a reasonably pleasant proposition. Three can sit across the split-folding back seat, while the five-door's large boot is one of the bigger ones in this sector. Even the three-door's capacity is more than reasonable.
Behind the Wheel
As far as handling is concerned, I'd say that this Fiat is once more at or near the top of the class. It may not feel particularly sporty, but it's an easy car to drive with its light electric steering. If Fiat's objective was to create a supermini that works on a wide variety of roads, then they've succeeded. As for performance, it will depend on your choice between engines. 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. I thought two cylinders to be a bit on the light side when I first saw this unit in the brand's little 500 citycar, so in a vehicle saddled with a kerb weight of nearly 1,100kgs, you'd have to think that the technology would be tested to the limit. It is, but the confection still isn't without its appeal, especially if you accept the invitation to rev the thing and properly exercise all eighty five of its braked horses. More surprises lie further up the petrol-powered range, where Fiat's clever MultiAir technology features in a pair of 1.4-litre engines, one with a turbo developing 135bhp, one without offering 105bhp. The diesel models also pull well through the gears, both powered by a 1.3-litre Multijet engine developing either 75 or 85bhp and pokey enough in its fastest form to make sixty in 13.1s on the way to 107mph.
Value For Money
Trim-wise, you'll find that most Puntos offer some kind of air conditioning set-up, seven airbags (including a driver's knee 'bag) and various infotainment systems. ESP Stability control though, is standard only on plusher models. On the options list, the Dualogic robotised automatic gearbox is available on the 8v petrol 1.4 and depending on the trim level, your car can also come with adaptive cornering fog lights, a hill holder function and the Sky Dome electric sunroof. Fiat is particularly proud of its award-winning Blue&Me system which incorporates Bluetooth wireless technology with voice recognition, a USB and MP3-compatible stereo and the option of Blue&Me TomTom satellite navigation in the form of a removable unit that integrates seamlessly with the car's other systems and can be controlled via voice recognition or buttons on the steering wheel.
Could I Live With One?
I'd say so. Fiat has done a thorough job of evolving its popular supermini, with the interior and engine technology standing out. Other makers will sell you compact cars of this kind with hi-tech engines and plush interiors of course, but not for the kind of money that'll net you a TwinAir, Multiair or Multijet Punto. In summary, a car still well worth including on your small car shortlist.