Fiat's ever evolving Punto range is having to run a little harder to keep up with the ever-improving competition. Jonathan Crouch reports from behind the wheel of a 1.3-litre Multijet diesel variant.
Ten Second Review
With refreshed styling, improved engines, better quality, revised trim levels and more aggressive pricing, Fiat's Punto is aiming to re-establish a firm foothold in the super-competitive supermini sector. Innovative TwinAir and MultiAir petrol variants have garnered the headlines but the improved 1.3-litre Multijet diesel models might still represent a better real-world choice.
The recent naming strategy of the car Fiat once simply called 'Punto' can seem a little confusing. When a bigger, more rounded Punto debuted in 2005 it was given the title Grande Punto. But when a new generation version arrived in 2009, it was renamed 'Punto Evo' which, you might imagine, would have served it well for any number of subsequent facelifts. Not so. Come the most recent nip and tuck, unveiled at the 2011 Frankfurt Show, we're back with plain old 'Punto'. So the naming strategy's gone full circle, perhaps appropriately as there's a kind of symmetry to this. This, the most recent rethink after all, takes us back to a look more reminiscent of the 2005 original, though it's all pretty subtle stuff. So 'Punto' it is, re-armed with a seven-strong Euro 5 emissions compliant engine line-up, a slightly classier looking re-trimmed interior, keen pricing, a spec structure more closely aligned with that of the new Panda and, Fiat is probably hoping, a brisk following wind. Let's put this package to the test with a frugal 1.3-litre Multijet diesel engine plumbed in beneath the bonnet.
The current generation Punto's range of modern, efficient engines has been one of its strongest cards and, with the addition of two new units - an 85bhp version of the MultiJet diesel and the turbocharged 85bhp petrol TwinAir - it looks more convincing still. We're looking at the diesel here, a unit also offered, as before, in less powerful (and curiously, also less frugal) 75bhp form. The 85bhp Multijet doesn't offer too much extra speed over its lesser-powered stablemate, improving the rest to sixty time from 13.6s to 13.1s and upping the maximum speed from 103 to 107mph. Both the diesel models pull well through the gears and offer great in-town flexibility, which means you won't have to row the thing along with the gearlever. And urban driving's also where you'll appreciate the light steering, with its clever 'City' set-up. You activate that by pressing this dashboard button that instantly lightens the steering for tight parking manoeuvres. Which is great, but when you're out on the open road with the 'City' option deactivated, it would be nice if the extra steering response you then get also gave you more of a connected take on the tarmac. As things are, it can be difficult to place this car as accurately as you might like through the bends. The ride's not bad though, unless you make the mistake of going for a variant fitted with rather over-stiff sports suspension. Ultimately, after all, this is never going to be any kind of hot hatch. Just a very credible, very efficient and in many ways rather endearing modern supermini.
Design and Build
Assuming your Punto is moving, the subtlety of this most recent facelift falls very much into the blink-and-you'll-miss-it category. Basically, the slightly remodelled front and rear bumpers are now body colour throughout the range 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, it's the same makeover lite with what Fiat calls 'sportier' seat fabric and 'refreshed' dashboard trim inserts. Qualitatively, there wasn't much wrong with the Punto's cabin as it was with plastics that, if not quite up to VW standards, were certainly on a par with the latest offerings from Ford and Vauxhall. The sculpted dash and sparingly applied chrome details continue to hint at up-market aspirations, too. The front seats are very comfortable and the driving position hard to fault with a vast range of adjustment and well thought out control ergonomics. And if you want your steering wheel to feel good, the Punto's nicely shaped and finished item shouldn't disappoint. Neither should the accommodation. With one of the longest wheelbases in the class, the cabin is very roomy and rear leg and headroom exceptional. The 275-litre boot isn't especially capacious for the class, but it is well shaped and easy to load.
Market and Model
You'll need a budget of around £12,000 to get yourself into striking distance of the list price of a Punto 1.3 Multijet - and that's for the 75bhp version. The 85bhp variant is priced from around £13,500 as its pricing begins at a higher specification level. Talking of specs, Fiat has aligned the Punto with the Panda's three-tier structure that equates to base, mid and high. If you fancy going out on a more distinctive limb, however, 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. All models come with a comprehensive safety specification that includes a full complement of airbags including a driver's knee airbag. Depending on the trim level, the car can also come with daytime running lights, adaptive cornering fog lights, a hill holder function, the Sky Dome electric sunroof and some tempting infotainment options. Standard equipment in the entry-level spec model includes remote central locking, electric front windows, driver and passenger airbags, window airbags, radio/CD/MP3 player, electric power steering and height-adjustable driver seat. The mid-spec level introduces a leather steering wheel, 15-inch alloy wheels and air conditioning, while GBT models get sport suspension, a rear spoiler and side skirts. High spec adds 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.
Cost of Ownership
If cost of ownership really is top of your list of Punto priorities, you'll be needing a diesel. Fiat certainly knows a thing or two about building for the black pump, having developed the first direct injection diesel engine in the Eighties, before pioneering Common Rail technology in the Nineties. Today, its second generation 1.3-litre Multijet diesels are also industry-leading - or at least the 85bhp version is. Here, the unremarkable returns of the baseline 75bhp unit - 68.9mpg on the combined cycle and 108g/km of CO2 - are usefully improved to 80.7mpg and 90g/km. All these figures are aided no end by the standard inclusion of a Start&Stop system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, say when you're stuck at the lights or waiting in traffic. And there's every chance of getting within striking distance of them on a regular basis, thanks not only to a gearshift indicator on the dash but also, if you've specified the Blue&Me infotainment package, Fiat's clever 'eco:Drive' system. To work it, you simply stick a USB stick into the Blue&Me slot, then download the information it gathers onto your home PC at the end of your journey. Via Fiat's eco:Drive website, your acceleration, deceleration, gearshifts and speed will all be analysed before advice is given on how to improve your driving efficiency.
Fiat acknowledges that the Punto is fighting to maintain market share. But it still has plenty to offer, especially in frugal 1.3-litre Multijet diesel form. You really do need to try and stretch to the faster but more frugal 85bhp version of this unit if you can, for it revolutionises this Fiat's diesel proposition, delivering 80mpg combined cycle pump performance and a green-fingered 90g/km of CO2. There are, it's true, other tempting diesel supermini choices in this segment. Still, at the right price, this Fiat's style, spaciousness, frugality and generous equipment levels do add up to an attractive package. It's far from a spent force.