ItalianCar TestDrive - 11 June 2006

Fiat Punto – first drive

A few years ago – considering myself a bit of a film buff – I went along to a special pre-release screening of a film called ‘Swimfan’. It was the directorial debut of Aussie John Polson, founder of the Sydney Tropfest short film festival, who had persuaded the Hollywood machine to let him have a crack directing his first ‘commercial’ film. The evening was not just a special pre-release screening, John Polson himself was there for a Q&A session afterwards.

The audience was composed of other, I’m guessing, mainly thirty something, film buffs and as the film progressed it became obvious that this was really a teen flick, and what’s more a complete rip-off of Adrian Lyne’s ‘Fatal Attraction’ which came out in the late eighties. What made it worse was that the audience actually laughed at scenes which were meant to be frightening, because they’d seen it all before.

In the Q&A session after the film somebody asked Polson what the audience reaction in the US had been and hadn’t everybody thought it was just a new Fatal Attraction.

His answer was that the film had been very popular at the screen test stage with its target audience – teenagers. He said they even asked screen test audiences if they had seen Fatal Attraction… and they’d never heard of it!

Why am I telling you this story? Well it’s because there’s a certain generation of Australians, who, if you told them Fiat was coming back to Australia, would laugh. Why? Because Fiat left Australia around twenty years ago with its tail between its legs after Fiats were judged to be unreliable, prone to rust and overpriced. FIAT stood for ‘Fix It Again Tony’. But current Fiat Australia boss David Stone (who is also the main man here for Alfa Romeo) is unfazed – his target market is trendy twenty-somethings who’ve never seen a new Fiat on the road (except perhaps in Europe).

And Fiat is European and chic. Their parents may warn them not to buy a Fiat, but they won’t listen.

The Pommie Perspective

Pretty good timing

Of course, being a Pom, I’ve seen and driven plenty of the current Fiat range in the UK – in fact I owned a new Fiat Punto GT – a 1.4l turbocharged pocket rocket that I enjoyed taking over to Germany to test drive on the Autobahn. It did 0-60 in 8 seconds flat and had a top speed of 138mph (220 kmh) – all verified by me.

And now Fiat importers in Australia Ateco Automotive have chosen the latest version of the Fiat Punto – the Punto Grande – to relaunch the marque here. And it’s probably pretty good timing too – 4WD and big car sales are tailing off due to fuel prices and small cars are easy on fuel and easy to park in our increasingly congested cities. And being Italian (notwithstanding the World Cup) is not a bad thing in Australia.

The Engine

The Importance of Being Diesel

At the same time Fiat are looking to leverage their considerable expertise in diesel (Fiat invented the modern common-rail diesel engine used in most current diesel cars) and, although it is a small car, the Punto range has two diesel models, one of which – the 1.9l is effectively the top-of-the-range ‘sporty’ model.

The Drive

First impressions are great

We had a chance to drive the new Grande Punto – to be known here simply as the ‘Punto’ (the original Punto is still in production but will not be sold in Australia) – at the recent press launch in Sydney ahead of the 1st July official relaunch of Fiat cars in Australia.

Two models were available to drive – interestingly both diesels – the 1.3l and 1.9l. Given the Punto is being marketed as an ‘about town’ car the drive did not take us very far into the country – we drove from the airport up to the Northern Beaches and into the National Park and then back into town. We had about an hour and a half behind the wheel of each model.

First impressions of the new car are great – the Punto looks good, particularly in vibrant orange, and inside the car feels surprisingly spacious and airy with a huge ‘skydome’ transparent roof. The interior is smart and reasonably basic – stylistically good - but you can’t help thinking what it would look like after a few years with a few scuffs and marks on the plastic.

Performance-wise you have to realise that this is just above an entry level car and is not really designed to be hurled around at speed. Having said that the 96kW 1.9l diesel three-door Sport model certainly goes – it may not match the speed and acceleration of any other current Italian marque, but being a fairly small and light car it has a ‘nippy’ feel about it.

The 1.3l diesel does not have much go about it at all and – driven reasonably hard around the twisty road through the National Park – felt a little unsteady going around the corners – almost as if the tyres weren’t big enough to cope. Remember, though, that this car still has a very high safety rating, and is being sold largely on its incredibly frugal fuel consumption and the ever-present ‘chic’ factor.

The Chic Factor

Australia and Europe – different views

This European ‘chic’ factor is a strange thing – in Europe and the UK a Fiat Punto is seen as a pretty basic means of transport – a car to take the kids to school in and do the shopping - I think I was probably the only English male to actually choose a Fiat Punto as a company car. And Australia and Europe have different views on what is day-to-day and what is ‘posh’: jump into a taxi in any European country and chances are it’ll be a diesel Merc.

Our Verdict (highly biased of course)

Trendy little number

If you’re in the market for a small car, stand out from the pack in this stylish and – relatively - environmentally friendly, trendy little number.

David BatesonReview and test drive by David Bateson, Editor ItalianCar

More Information

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ItalianCar Fiat (Grande) Punto FACTfile

Fiat (Grande) Punto Autralian price list (pdf file)

Fiat (Grande) Punto tech specs (pdf file)

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