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Car reviews - Fiat - Punto - Dynamic 1.3 JTD

Our Opinion

We like
Style, economy, space, equipment levels, funky ambience
Room for improvement
Slow off the mark, loud diesel noise, soft suspension set-up denies great handling

15 Dec 2006

FANCY a turbocharged Italian model drawn by the legendary Giugiaro, a man who also styled a slew of 1960s Maserati masterpieces, among other greats?

Or perhaps you’d prefer a pint-sized runabout with parsimony that is virtually on par with a Toyota Prius?

Well, when we put it that way, how could you not think of the handsome new Fiat Punto as anything other than bargain exotica for the eco-warrior all rolled up in one?

It’s even got a nose that looks like it’s straight off a Maserati!

So the fact is that the Punto is, by far, the cheapest new car from Italy you can buy.

Conversely, the 1.3 JTD’s 3.9L/100km Euro highway cycle result makes the smallest Fiat on sale here the most economical non-hybrid motorcar available.

Now, before you mention rust and unreliability, it is worth considering that the new Punto’s parentage is not as clear-cut as its pert and pretty proportions might suggest.

Stand up, Opel, the father of the Fiat, and provider of much underbody and engineering expertise.

The German firm, which supplied Holden’s Barina from the terrible SB of 1994 through to the excellent XC sold in Australia that was tragically turfed in 2005 for the cheapo Daewoo Kalos, devised the platform in partnership with Fiat, to be also used for the all-new, 2007 Opel Corsa.

So if you think of the Fiat Punto as a sort of XC Barina replacement, you might get some idea of how reliable, roomy and capable the Italian light car should be.

Of course, don’t go thinking that Fiat is not actually responsible for the Punto, the third car to bear that name since 1993, because – ultimately, post its divorce with General Motors – it is as Italian as feigning an injury in a World Cup soccer match.

And with a blue chip history in baby cars – think Topolino, 500, 850, 128 and Uno – we can only be thankful that such expertise is finally affordable in Australia again.

But history is bunk, or so said Henry Ford, so no matter where a light car hails from these days, it must still slug it out with the towering talents of the Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta, Suzuki Swift and Honda Jazz toddlers.

The fact is, the latest Punto is almost as big as the last Volkswagen Golf, which partly justifies the price premium that it faces.

In the 1.3 JTD Dynamic five-door hatchback tested, so does the standard-issue anti-lock brakes, six airbags, air-conditioning, cruise control, power windows, electric and heated mirrors, remote central locking, steering wheel audio controls, trip computer and height-adjustable driver’s seat.

Indeed, the interior is as stylish and grown up as you might expect from a 21st Century European small car.

Reflecting its light-car stature, the Punto’s plastic and trim finishes are not the last word in quality material use, but they are inviting and pleasing to the eye, and are backed up by funky instrumentation, a chunky little three-spoke steering wheel and a very VW-like centre console.

With the exception of the obstructive rear pillars, vision out is quite good, and is lifted by the A-pillar quarter window and bright colours and fabrics inside.

In the dark blue test car, the dash was trimmed in a contrasting light blue finish, which added an absolute breath of fresh air, after years of monotone hues.

Access to the rear is fine, there is a fantastic amount of room for bigger folk up front (although the very tall may find that the optional sunroof does rob some headroom), and the driving position is faultless, thanks to every-which-way steering wheel adjustment.

This is a modern European city car, so there are loads of receptacles for all sorts of odds and ends, while the luggage space area is great for a light-car contender. A full-sized spare wheel lurks beneath the floor back there.

Also handy for the urban jungle is the special ‘City’ button located just below the well-sited centre console vents.

At a press it completely lightens up the steering effort, for that extra bit of help when making tight manoeuvres around town. Once you remember to use the City mode the Punto is even easier to punt around.

We don’t think anybody will complain about the steering’s weighting or responses in regular mode either.

The Punto feels very grown up in this regard, allowing for plenty of feedback while filtering out many of the wrong sorts of road information.

There is plenty of compliance built into this Punto’s suspension, so it rides with a suppleness missing in its bigger-engined (1.9-litre JTD turbo-diesel) Sport brother.

On the flipside, however, the Punto feels a little roly-poly when driven quickly through corners, leaning in a most non-sporty manner. More body control would be appreciated.

Not that the 1.3-litre twin-cam four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine produces too much power for the front-wheel drive Punto’s chassis.

With just 66kW at 4000rpm, and 200Nm of torque at 1750rpm, the performance is there all right, but you need be firm with your right foot on the accelerator in order to get anywhere.

Mash the pedal down and the JTD unit springs to life like it’s been in a deep slumber, and then thrusts forward as the revs rise past 2000rpm with surprising vigour.

There is almost an old-school turbo nothing-then-everything lunge in first gear, followed by a gap into second gear that lets the engine go off the boil too easily, with third through to the highway-only sixth ratio then fairly evenly spaced for pacy progress.

In the end, you do have to row that shifter through the gears, but it isn’t a chore doing so, and the little engine seems to like a rev, which is unusual for a diesel.

The new Dualogic automatic gearbox version will be an interesting alternative.

We’d go as far as saying that, due to the acceptable levels of noise, the Punto JTD is a better diesel installation to the one currently offered in the Volkswagen Polo TDI, the Fiat’s nearest and most natural opponent.

But we believe the upcoming Peugeot 207 HDi will run rings around both for refinement and response.

Driven hard with no horses spared and the air-conditioning on, fuel economy ranged in the low 6L/100km range, which is absolutely brilliant.

So time for the sum-up.

The Punto 1.3 JTD Dynamic is the most stylish light car out there at the moment.

It offers more space than virtually any other, with the exception of the incredibly roomy Jazz.

Keen drivers will always go for the Fiesta, Mazda2 or Swift before the Punto, but few can match the way it cruises quietly and confidently on the highway.

We know that the Punto is a class leader as far as crash safety is concerned, and there is no denying that, for the money, equipment levels are second-to-none.

And, with an official 3.9L/100km on the European highway cycle, you need to be driving the much costlier hybrids to match the Fiat for fuel frugality.

Knowing all that, we’d happily take a punt on the funky little Punto, a great Italian urban all-rounder with flair and frugality in equal portions.

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