Does Fiat's much improved Punto still makes sense in its most affordable 1.2-litre 8v petrol form? Jonathan Crouch decides.
Ten Second Review
Fiat's Punto supermini. Yes, that's what it's called now. In 2005 it was re-launched as the Grande Punto, then in 2010 as the Punto Evo. Now though, we're back to plain old Punto. Fortunately, there's nothing really plain about this car. In fact, if you want to make a style statement in the supermini sector, there's really only one choice. And if you're on a budget, this 1.2-litre 8v petrol model will be your starting point in the range.
You know where you are with most small cars. They tend not to do unpredictable things. A Ford Fiesta doesn't change radically from one generation to another, nor does a Vauxhall Corsa or a Renault Clio. They get bigger and fatter, although that might well change in a bid to improve efficiency but they don't drastically change their fundamental appeal. The Fiat Punto, on the other hand. Well that's a bit of a special case, the exception that proves the rule.
To look at this current version is to see a car that shares very little with the original two generations of Puntos. They were cheap and cheeky, products that the vast Italian political industrial beast that is Fiat churns out in its sleep. Not that they weren't good. They were almost perfect for their target market. It's just a little dizzying that we started with something quite utilitarian and in a relatively short space of time ended up with a car that's sleek and sassy. Let's check it out in its cheapest form.
Ask people what they know about how a Punto drives and most will either give you a blank look or pass reference to the 'City' button that makes the steering feel as if it's become disconnected when you press it. The better informed will talk about the clever two cylinder TwinAir or 1.4-litre MultiAir petrol units that in recent times have added a bit of hi-tech to the range. Maybe the 1.3-litre Multijet diesel will also get a mention. Here though, we're focusing on a much more affordable variant, the 69bhp 1.2-litre 8v petrol model.
This powerplant is one of Fiat's older ones, but it's still a willing, if rather noisy unit, making sixty from rest in 14.4s on the way to 97mph flat out. It offers reasonable 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 that 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
Italian design always has been and always should be about style. The very first Punto was no great looker but it did have a cheeky charm that small families loved. The MK2 model was smarter and more sophisticated but one of Fiat's finest moments came with the introduction of the third generation version, the Grande Punto, in 2005 with its mini-Maserati looks. And it's these that have supplied the inspiration for the car we have here. Redesigned body-coloured bumpers front and rear reprise the clean, effective styling that made the Grande model great and helped buyers to overlook its aging engines and plastiky cabin.
Problems that this improved Punto is thankfully no longer saddled with. Take the interior. In actual fact, there wasn't too much wrong with the original design that a better choice of colour, trim and materials wouldn't have put right, so that's exactly what's been tweaked. It's a spacious cabin too, courtesy of one of the longest wheelbases in its class. That makes a genuine difference to rear seat accommodation with this Punto offering good legroom, if not quite enough space to comfortable seat three adults. What's perhaps a little more surprising given the sleek teardrop shape is just how much headroom there is in the back as well. If there's a problem, it's that the extra wheelbase has favoured people rather than packages, so the 275-litre boot capacity is slightly less than is boasted by some rivals. It's worth pointing out though, that if you flatten the rear bench, the resulting 1030-litre load area is one of the very biggest in the class.
Market and Model
Of course, no one is going to buy this 1.2 8v Punto if they can stretch to one of the hi-tech TwinAir or MultiAir variants. But you'll need a budget of at least £12,500 for one of those - and probably much more. This entry-level Punto in contrast, requires only £10,000 from you, with a £500 premium if you want to go from three to five doors.
Whichever Punto model you end up deciding upon, the equipment basics should be in evidence. That means electric front windows, a height-adjustable driver's seat, a trip computer, remote central locking, daytime running lights and an MP3-compatible CD stereo. As long as you can avoid the entry-level variant, you can also expect to find niceties like alloy wheels, air conditioning and electric mirrors, as well as the 60/40 split-folding rear seatback that really should be standard across the board.
I'd also want to keep back some cash for the clever Blue&Me infotainment set-up, accessible through a removable 4.3-inch colour touchscreen which plugs into the dash top or can be removed to be used as a portable navigation system. Using this, you can Bluetooth and voice-activate your 'phone, connect auxiliary devices into the stereo with USB and AUX-in sockets and control a TomTom LIVE satellite navigation system, either with your voice or through buttons on the steering wheel.
Cost of Ownership
When it comes to running costs, the rather curious theme that's common throughout the Punto portfolio is that the more powerful engines cost less to run. So, for petrol people, the 85bhp two cylinder TwinAir model is much cleaner and more frugal than either the 69bhp 1.2 we've been looking at here or the 77bhp 1.4. Still, the 1.2 still won't be pricey to own. Expect 54.3mpg on the combined cycle and 123g/km of CO2.
And there's every chance of getting within striking distance of these figures 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 reckons that the site has so far enabled 64,000 users to save 4,300 tonnes of CO2 through improvement in their driving styles.
The Fiat Punto isn't the freshest face in the supermini sector, it's far from the best drive and it faces an uphill task to compare on costs with the latest and greatest. So does all of this make it a bit of an also-ran, something rather dated that's marking time before replacement? Not at all. The Fiat has a coolness that will always evade a Corsa or a Fiesta. It just never seems to be trying too hard and always manages to make you feel good about driving it. Can you put a price on that? Alongside the Volkswagen Polo, it's probably one of the few superminis that would fit in at any social engagement with no justifications sought nor required.
You'll need to buy one of the more expensive cars to get the full triple espresso shot of Latin insouciance, but I reckon even an inexpensive variant like this 1.2 8v is worth trying if budgeting's tight. Think of it like this. You could buy a German suit that was made of some fantastic breathable, water repellent, stain resistant super fabric but looked a bit square. Or you could buy an Italian suit which was just a damn great looking suit. Where are you going with your money? Right. There's life in this one yet.