By Jonathan Crouch
In 2012, Fiat gave its Punto supermini a last roll of the dice with a package of improvements promising sleeker styling, clever technology and more efficient engines, most notably an innovative twin-cylinder TwinAir petrol unit that at the time was unique in this segment. Are these last-of-the-line Punto variants worth considering as an affordable used supermini buy? Let's find out.
Fiat has historically been very good at small cars, especially this one, the Punto supermini. It's a model that Turin has depended on very heavily in the modern era since an original introduction back in 1993 in a first generation guise that sold by the million and proved so successful that the Italians didn't even bother to update its underpinnings for the MK2 version launched at the turn of the century. They paid the price for that, with sales waning by the time this car was properly made up for the New Millenium and re-launched at the 'Grande Punto' in 2006. That design certainly looked good, but was low-tech beneath the bonnet and light on quality once you sat inside. These were faults the brand tried to address with a revised version, the Punto Evo, launched in 2010, which got smartened and fettled once more in 2012 to create the car that continued to sell for the brand until it was quietly deleted from the range in 2018.
In its declining years, Punto sales rather fizzled out. Which was a touch ironic as this was the period that this car was actually at its very best. There was more advanced engineware beneath the bonnet than any previous Punto had ever offered - or at least there was for original buyers opting for the headline power unit, the clever 0.9-litre TwinAir petrol unit, which needed only two cylinders to develop a revvy 84bhp. And there was more. In this form, the Punto's interior at last had a sheen of quality to it. And the tweaked styling offered something of a return to chic, cheeky looks that were reminiscent of the original.
This final 2012-2018-era Punto was a car that needed no apology, no 'Grande' or 'Evo' preface to its name, no desperate dealer offers. Once again, it was sold simply as a 'Fiat Punto' and was at last the kind of car you'd expect two decades of development to have been able to create. Ought this Fiat to feature on your shopping list of used superminis from this era? Let's find out.
What You Get
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 supplied the inspiration for the post-2012 car we're looking at here. Redesigned body-coloured bumpers front and rear reprised the clean, effective styling that made the Grande model great and helped buyers to overlook its aging engines and plastiky cabin.
These were problems that this improved Punto was thankfully less afflicted by. 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 was tweaked for the 2012 model. This got a smarter seat fabric that was cooler to sit on in hot weather - and also a nicer soft-touch covering for the curvy dashboard. Special praise has to go to the steering wheel - another addition at this time. It doesn't look anything too special but it's just gorgeous to hold, with lovely palm flanges and thumb rests. In fact, you can get really quite comfortable in this Punto, thanks to supportive seats and a driving position that's hard to fault thanks not only to a vast range of seat and steering wheel adjustment but also to well thought out ergonomics for the controls.
It's a spacious cabin too, courtesy of one of the longest wheelbases in its class amongst superminis from this era. How long? 2,510mm to be exact - 21mm more than a Fiesta and a full 59mm more than a supermini like Citroen's C3 from this period. 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 given to this design rather favours people over 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 1,030-litre load area is one of the very biggest in the class from the period.
What to Look For
As usual with superminis, check for upholstery damage caused by child seats in the back, typical supermarket dints and scrapes, slipping clutches on the manual cars and ensure all the electrical functions - which can get surprisingly sophisticated on up-spec models - work as advertised as these can be expensive to fix. Look out for potential issues with all of these things on your test drive.
Punto engines are usually pretty reliable, but issues have been reported with the cooling system, which can lead to reliability problems. We came across issues with the engine's head gasket has been noted, leading to a need for complete engine rebuilds or the installation of reconditioned engines being needed. Look out for clunking noises from the suspension. And battery life can sometimes be low. Build quality can be an issue - some owners have rattly and detaching interior trim, plus poor quality seat and door coverings. ECU and non-engine electrics are also a common problem. And avoid the potentially problematic Dualogic semi-automatic gearbox. In short, buy carefully.
[based on Punto TwinAir - 2015 ex VAT] A set of front brake pads are around £17-£33 but you could pay as much as £52 for a pricier brand. Rear pads sit in the £38-£60 braket. Front brake discs cost around £35 to £63. Air filters are in the £8 to £23 bracket. Oil filters cost around £4-£19. You'll pay from around £10 for a wiper blade. A radiator is in the £65-£76 bracket. A water pump is around £37, but you can put up to £85. A thermostat sits in the £30-£63 bracket. A front shock absorber would be priced in the £25 to £30 bracket; rear shocks start in the £8-£50 bracket. Bash a rear lamp and a replacement will cost around £86.
On the Road
An Italian car should always be characterful, especially if it's a small one. Others might handle better or be more refined but when it comes to bonding, well, as a real red-blooded enthusiast, you'd like it to be Latin. From the Alfasud of the Seventies to the Fiat 500 of the present day, models from this part of the Med have a loyal following - as did the original version of this Punto. In the early Noughties though, the Punto became hum drum to drive, lacking the kind of spark that used to set it apart.
Was that changed in this much improved post-2012 model? Well, it depends very much upon which variant you happen to end up driving. There's nothing very remarkable about the entry-level 8-valve 1.2 and 1.4-litre petrol models, unless you particularly want the Dualogic semi-automatic gearbox offered as an option on the 1.4. Further up the range though, things are very different, most notably with the two cylinder petrol variant equipped with the brand's award-winning 0.9-litre TwinAir petrol engine. Two cylinders seemed a bit on the light side when we first saw this unit in the brand's little 500 citycar, so in a vehicle saddled with a kerb weight of nearly 1,100kgs, you'd think that this technology might be tested to the limit.
It is, but the confection still isn't without its appeal, particularly as in this post-20102 Punto, it was mated to a six-speed manual gearbox. As usual with this powerplant, you have to get used to an engine note that on first aural acquaintance sounds like you've a hole in your exhaust but ends up feeling rather sporty and fun. Especially if you accept the invitation to rev the thing and properly exercise all eighty five of its braked horses, enough (provided you don't push the 'Eco' button on the dash that cuts the torque by 25%) to take you from rest to sixty in 12.7s on the way to a top speed of 107mph. That's about as fast as you'd go in a comparable and much more conventional 1.4-litre petrol-powered Ford Fiesta or Volkswagen Polo from this era. The difference here though is that you'll be doing so in a car that's about 40% cleaner and more frugal. A hard combination to ignore.
More surprises lie further up the petrol-powered range, where Fiat's clever MultiAir technology features in a pair of 1.4-litre engines, one with a turbo developing 135bhp, one without offering 105bhp. The MultiAir philosophy controls combustion directly through the intake valves rather than by the throttle to give better efficiency and more power than other similarly-sized units. What it all means is that in a rival supermini, you'd need a petrol engine of 1.6 or even 2.0-litres in size to match the sheer driveability of a Punto MultiAir. That isn't something you'll sense from stats suggesting that the normally aspirated model manages sixty in 10.8s on the way to 115mph, while the turbo manages 8.5s and 124mph. But you feel it out on the road where the extra pulling power on offer delivers a really flexible driving experience.
The diesel models also pull well through the gears, both powered by a 1.3-litre Multijet engine developing either 75 or 85bhp and pokey enough in its fastest form to make sixty in 13.1s on the way to 107mph. More importantly, there's 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 a provided 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.
So, over two decades and eight and a half million sales on from the launch of Fiat's original Punto, this, back in 2012, was where we ended up. Although much was changed about this car at that point, much also remained the same. Just like the 1993 original, there's still a cool class-less character here that usually evades most mainstream superminis from this period. This is one of the few small cars from its time that would fit in at any social engagement, with no justifications sought nor required. You'll need to buy one of the more expensive variants to get the full triple espresso shot of Latin spirit, but many will feel that worthwhile. 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.. well, just a damn great looking suit. You get the point.
Which is why this car makes so much more sense in the metal than it will do on the pre-conceived page of your supermini used car buying shopping list. You'll have started that by considering more modern designs - Peugeot's 208 perhaps, Kia's Rio, maybe the Ford Fiesta - overlooking perhaps just how much this Punto was, in 2012, perfected with class-leading engines, a smarter look and extra equipment. Fiat, we think, did, at that time do enough for you to give this car a second look. You'll need to buy carefully here, but if you can and you try a well looked-after version of this car, you might be glad you did.