Fiat's recently refreshed Punto will rely heavily on MultiAir petrol engine technology to give it an edge. Steve Walker takes a look.
Ten Second Review
People tend to choose diesel engines for their flexible performance and strong economy but the MultiAir petrol engines in the Punto Evo narrow the gap on these scores. A groundbreaking combustion system mated to stop/start technology sees the cars achieve around 50mpg, making the task of choosing between petrol and diesel trickier than ever.
If you've recently been persuaded by the advantages of diesel engines compared to their petrol counterparts, you're not alone. Diesel has been a big success story over the last few years, particularly in smaller cars where oil-burning engines have grown compact and refined enough to deliver the goods. But just when it looked like a victor was emerging in the petrol versus diesel conflict, our old friend petrol is back on the offensive and engines like the 1.4-litre MultiAir unit in Fiat's Punto supermini are in the front line. Diesel can deliver outstanding fuel economy figures but as the European regulations governing vehicle emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter are tightened in the coming years, the cost of getting diesel engines to comply is set to rise. Even today, car buyers will typically pay around £1,000 more for a diesel supermini than they will for an equivalent petrol one and the gap could widen considerably. Paying the premium currently makes sense for motorists who cover sufficient miles to recoup it in fuel savings but lower mileage drivers may find the cheaper petrol engine more cost-effective. If a petrol engine could somehow narrow the fuel economy gap while replicating the muscular performance of a diesel, then we'd really have a conundrum on our hands. Well, get your thinking caps on because Fiat thinks it's done precisely that with the Punto and its clever MultiAir petrol engine technology.
Unlike conventional powerplants of this type, MultiAir engines make do with just one camshaft. It controls the exhaust valves, while the inlet valves are instead governed by oil pressure. An electro-hydraulic valve management system can then adjust the timing of the valves to vary the fuel/air mixture in the combustion chambers according to the way the car is being driven. Conventional variable valve timing engines only have a couple of sets of parameters in which they operate but MultiAir units have six and the valve timings can be infinitely varied within this framework, giving optimum performance or economy at all times. It's clever stuff but you have to be willing to take Fiat's word for it to an extent because the strengths of the MultiAir engine don't really manifest themselves in the power and torque figures we're used to comparing. The basic 1.4-litre MultiAir engine in the Punto has 105bhp and achieves 130Nm maximum torque at 4,000rpm. That's good but not spectacular for a 1.4-litre engine in a supermini. More impressive is a 0-60mph sprint time of 10.8s but the real strength of the engine in terms of performance is its flat torque curve that equates to lots of muscle on tap at low to medium engine speeds. It's a sweet-sounding and willing engine that feels like it's larger than 1.4-litres. It's let down a little by the set-up of the Punto which isn't the sharpest in the supermini sector. The gearchange is somewhat rubbery, although the close ratios work well around town while the ride is comfortable on the flat, it can get giggly over poor surfaces. Buyers wanting more power can opt for the turbocharged MultiAir engine which can deliver 135bhp with the aid of forced induction. In this model, 0-60mph performance is a hot hatch-equalling 8.5s and maximum torque is boosted to 206Nm.
Design and Build
Whether coincidence or not, this facelifted Punto, with its remodelled body-colour bumpers, looks a lot more like the original, and deliciously stylish, Grande Punto than the subsequent fussier Punto Evo models. The tweaks maybe subtle but the result is clean and elegant, and there are three more hues to choose from: Brit Pop Blue, Tango Red and the intriguingly named Underground Grey. And should the Punto roll to a stop, you might notice that there are new designs of alloy wheels too. Inside, the quality of the plastics and fabrics used is very impressive and the introduction of what Fiat calls 'sportier' seat fabric and 'refreshed' dashboard trim inserts certainly makes the right impression. The dashboard is sculpted around its control consoles and air vents and the control systems are easy to work out. Particular mention should go to the nicely shaped steering wheel. The Punto is one of the larger cars in the supermini sector and with its lengthy wheelbase comes a spacious interior. The 275-litre boot isn't outstanding for the class but rear leg and headroom is very good indeed.
Market and Model
Expect to pay around £14,000 for your facelifted 2012 Punto 1.4 MultiAir, and a £500 premium if you want it with five doors rather than three. The MultiAir engines form the bedrock of the Punto petrol range with only the entry-level 8-valve 1.4-litre unit not using the technology. Fiat has aligned the Punto with the Panda's three-tier spec structure that equates to base, mid and high. If you fancy going out on a more distinctive limb, there's also a sportier treatment based on the mid-spec models called GBT to commemorate the sports association between Fiat UK and British Cycling, comprising sport suspension, a rear spoiler and side skirts. If you want the 1.4 MultiAir engine in your Punto, however, you also get the top level of trim. This means that, in addition to the already comprehensive kit list of the lesser trim specs, you get climate control, front fog lamps, cruise control, ambient interior lighting and electric sunroof.High spec models feature automatic dual zone climate control, leather steering wheel, front fog lamps, seven airbags, cruise control, ambient interior lighting and electric sunroof as standard. 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 Blue&Me TomTom satellite navigation. In partnership with leading manufacturer TomTom, Fiat is offering a removable satellite navigation unit that integrates seamlessly with the car's other systems and can be controlled via voice recognition or buttons on the steering wheel.
Cost of Ownership
All the Punto MultiAir models also come with Fiat's Stop&Start technology which cuts the vehicle's engine when it's stopped, restarting it again automatically when it's time to pull away. Combined with the advanced MultiAir combustion system, this makes for some very attractive fuel economy figures. Remarkably the 135bhp turbocharged engine is more efficient than the 105bhp non-turbo unit. It can achieve an excellent 50.4mpg with emissions of 129g/km while the less powerful option lags slightly behind with 49.6mpg and 134g/km emissions. If you need more leverage to persuade a disapproving partner why you really should have the extra 30bhp, there it is. A further innovation is the eco:Drive system which collects information about your driving style that can then be downloaded and transferred to a computer on a USB stick. Punto owners can then get tips on driving in a more eco-friendly manner that Fiat claims can improve fuel economy by as much as 15%.
In the recent past, Fiat has been best known for it's expertise in the field of diesel engine technology but now it's turned its hand to petrol with equally outstanding results. The MultiAir petrol engines in the Punto close the gap in flexibility and efficiency that has existed between petrol and diesel. It presents buyers with a problem but choosing between MultiAir petrol and Multijet diesel power is a nice problem to have. The Punto has one of the strongest engine ranges you'll encounter in a modern supermini and the high-tech approach doesn't end in the engine bay. All models come well equipped and as you ascend the range, the amount of technology that Fiat has crammed in becomes all the more eye-opening. It's true, the driving experience could be slicker but in almost every other respect, the Punto deserves to be on any supermini shortlist.