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Pint-sized Punto pulls UK punters

Popular: Grande Punto has become Europe's top-selling car.

Punto makes its mark in the UK three months before it launches the Fiat brand here

10 Apr 2006

THE redesigned Grande Punto has proved a hit in the world’s largest right-hand drive market three just months before it spearheads the relaunch of Fiat passenger cars in Australia.

Released in the UK on February 11, Grande Punto attracted around 5600 buyers in March – its first full month on sale - lifting Fiat UK’s sales by 64 per cent over the same month last year.

The new model was out-sold by Ford’s Fiesta in the supermini class (known as light cars in Australia), but helped Fiat become the UK’s fastest growing volume brand in March and remained Europe’s most popular car for the second consecutive month.

As is the case elsewhere in Europe, the larger new Punto is available alongside its predecessor in the UK (hence its "Grande" title, meaning big), where it helped Fiat to 2.45 per cent share of a shrinking British car market in March.

Fiat’s new light segment hatch will simply be known as Punto in Australia, where it will be sold initially via importer Ateco Automotive’s 17 Alfa Romeo dealerships from July.

Ateco’s general manager Fiat cars David Stone remains cagey about sales forecasts, specifications or pricing for its second volume-selling Italian brand (Ateco also assumed Australian and New Zealand distribution of Ferrari and Maserati last year), but has confirmed more details on the first Fiat passenger car to be sold here in 18 years.

Grande Punto made its Australian debut at the Melbourne motor show in February, when Ateco confirmed two engines will be available from launch, including a 96kW 1.9-litre Multijet turbo-diesel.

36 center imageMr Stone told GoAuto Grande Punto will be available immediately in both three and five-door guises, powered by both the most powerful of four diesel engines available in Europe plus and a petrol engine - most likely the more powerful of just two offered by Fiat, a 57kW 1.4-litre two-valve four.

While he said more engines may be offered from launch, Mr Stone confirmed a conventional automatic transmission will not be available for Grand Punto initially, with the performance-oriented Multijet engine likely to be mated exclusively to a six-speed manual transmission.

By year’s end, Fiat is expected to release a 70kW 16-valve version of its 1.4-litre engine, mated to Fiat’s five-speed Selespeed automated manual transmission, in this case dubbed Dualogic.

Other more powerful engines will become progressively available in Grande Punto models such as the Abarth, which is expected to be based on the vehicle that won its debut race in the Italian Rally Championship on March 18.

While four-door sedan and wagon variants of the new Punto are confirmed, convertible and even Citoren C3 Pluriel-mimmicking utility bodystyles have also been flagged by Geneva show cars from the likes of Bertone.

Australia’s Grande Punto range won’t be as expansive as in the UK, where 13 versions are available beginning with the $A18,200 1.3-litre three-door and including five trim levels: Active, Active Sport, Dynamic, Eleganza and Sporting.

Grande Punto achieved a five-star ENCAP crash safety result and features, as standard across the UK range, ABS, twin front airbags, remote central locking, power windows and CD audio.

Mr Stone said Punto will be priced well below its Alfa 147 stablemate to compete with light-sized European hatches like VW’s Polo and Ford’s Fiesta, which start at under $20,000.

"We can’t kid ourselves and be uncompetitive. The new Punto may be beautiful – and that counts for much in this market - but people will still have to be able to afford it," he said.

"We showed the cars in Melbourne and Brisbane and what encouraged me most was the amount of people who signed up - more than we would have imagined. The feedback was outstanding."Further afield, Mr Stone confirmed the Fiat brand would be expanded via new models as they’re released in Europe.

"The great thing about Fiat is they make so many things - but many of those things don’t work for us," he said.

"The approach we’re taking with Fiat is to have a look at newly released vehicles – we’d like to take advantage of what’s available where we can and we’re examining all the models available to us.

"(But) the first problem is always right-hand drive availability and then compliance for Australian regulations. I can’t confirm what’s next, and we’re not compelled to take the entire line-up."Mr Stone said Australia’s second Fiat passenger model could be confirmed by the end of this year, but is unlikely to appear within 12 months of the Punto.

Following higher than expected pricing and the lack of an automatic transmission, Fiat’s large Croma wagon is now off Ateco’s immediate agenda, replaced by the Panda compact SUV and the replacement for Fiat’s small Stilo hatch, which may adopt the Bravo name.

"We definitely won’t take the old Stilo," said Mr Stone. "But I’m sure the new Stilo is a model we’d take provided price and specifications are suitable."Expect the Stilo replacement – to debut at this September’s Paris motor show and commence right-hand drive production in January - to be the next Fiat launched in Australia, but not before March next year.

"Panda is available now and is being looked at, to see if it fits into the rage. It’s certainly on our radar as a strong possibility. It’s certainly a very current car that we’re considering. As time goes by, Australians become more accepting of cars like Panda."A facelifted version of the Panda mini-SUV is expected to appear in Europe in 2007.

Mr Stone said Fiat’s new-generation 500 mini-hatch would also be a hit in Australia.

"I had a look at it in Italy. I love it and if it was available to us I’m sure it would be a great hit here – but it’s way too far off to confirm."

What’s coming from Fiat:

Grande Punto three/five-door – July
Stilo hatch replacement – mid-2007
Panda small SUV – late 2007
500 light hatch – 2008
Punto sedan – 2008
Punto wagon – 2008
Punto facelift – 2009
Croma facelift – 2009

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