It might be cheap, but is the Fiat Punto a true competitor in the city car segment?
The Fiat Punto is back in Australia starting from a very reasonable price of $16,000 driveaway. But is that enough to justify the Italian’s return to what is now an ultra-competitive and niche segment?
The revitalized Punto range consists of three variants. The base model Pop, which is available as a manual or auto, the mid-spec ‘Easy’ or the range topping Lounge models, both of which are available with an auto only.
From the outside the updated Fiat Punto gets different rear lights and an updated rear and front bumper with a black honeycomb grille. Unlike the universally loved Fiat 500, admiration for the Punto’s styling remains a matter of taste.
That’s not to say it’s not Italian, because it certainly is. It has all the hallmarks of an Italian car, both good and bad. For our review Fiat Australia gave us a Fiat Punto Lounge, the top of the range with a “Dualogic” transmission priced from $21,800.
Behind the wheel the Punto’s 1.4-litre engine is ideal for inner city commutes but struggles with highways and suburban hills. With just 57kW of power and 115Nm of torque, the four-cylinder engine is just capable of keeping the Punto feeling agile, but has to be worked hard to move its ~1,050kg weight.
It takes a rather long 13.2 seconds to go from a standstill to 100km/h and it will top out at just 165km/h. On the plus side, Fiat claims it will sip just 5.4L of regular 91 RON fuel per 100km.
For the Punto, Fiat has opted for a five-speed Dualogic robotised semi-automatic transmission instead of a traditional automatic. This is a midway point between a manual and a full-fledged automatic transmission. It’s essentially a manual gearbox that can change gears itself, which is different to an automatic transmission.
In layman’s terms what happens is the Punto’s transmission system will realise when it’s time to change gears, engage the clutch, either go down or up one gear and then release the clutch. Similar to actions a human driver would take for the same task.
The issue is, when it’s driven like a traditional automatic – where one just gets in and goes without consideration for gearshifts - it can be incredibly clumsy. The accelerator pedal needs to be partially released when the gearbox is changing gears to allow for a smooth transition and avoid a lengthy change.
The best way to drive the ‘semi-automatic’ Punto is to actually put it in manual mode and use the gear shifter to change gears when required. This is best suited for those that have experience driving a manual car as they’d understand shift points and will also adhere to the accelerator pedal action when changing.
To make things that little bit more difficult, the gearlever itself is a tad confusing. There is no D for drive and the process of putting the Punto into the right gear can take a while to get use to. Also, just like a manual, it tends to roll back when going from reverse to drive on steep driveways or hills.
On suburban roads the Punto drives and behaves well. It’s a tad on the firm side and suffers from a torsion beam rear suspension, but its European DNA means it will corner with confidence and instill a little bit of fun in the process.
The electric power steering system is deliberately ultra-light when the vehicle is stationary to help get in and out of car parks – a great idea – but then tightens up as you get going. It’s well matched to the Punto’s requirements.
Engine and gearbox aside, the Fiat Punto’s interior is generally a pleasant place to be with good fit and finish. The old-school single colour display infotainment system (even on the top of the range) is a bit of a letdown, as is the Microsoft-powered music management system.
Nonetheless, for a $595 fee one can option a colour screen with satnav that plugs into the Punto’s dashboard, helping lift the cabin ambience considerably. This should be standard equipment on the Lounge, particularly given the Peugeot 208, its direct rival, has a large full-colour screen across the range.
The front and rear seats are reasonably supportive and although it will struggle with five adults on board just on weight alone, cabin space and storage options are decent for a car its size. Being a European car, ISOFIX child-seat points are also standard and we managed to fit one in less than a minute.
We could only fit a full size pram into the boot by removing the boot cover but its 275L capacity is large enough for a family’s weekly shopping or a few suitcases, but given its shape you may struggle with larger items.
During our time behind the wheel we were intensely annoyed by one ‘feature’ that we felt ruined the otherwise pleasant cabin experience of the Punto: the constant beeping.
If you come to a full stop (but still have the vehicle in gear) and your passenger unbuckles their seatbelt to get out, it will instantly and repetitively make an awfully loud and entirely unnecessary sound. This seems to be a common theme with the Punto. Nearly every time we got inside it would start the journey with lots of loud beeps – as if to condition us in some cruel Pavlovian experiment.
Although all the audible warnings are obviously safety features, it’s just that little bit over the top. On that front, all models get at least six airbags (Easy and Lounge get an additional knee airbag) and vehicle dynamic control.
Previously when the Fiat Punto was available in Australia, it was priced well into a different category with availability for different engines and variants. Fiat Australia, which is now factory backed, is taking a different approach, hoping to make the Italian brand more accessible through price.
Although cheaper, the Fiat Punto faces tough competition from the recently launched Peugeot 208. The French present a newer and more modern take on a European city car and lets not mention the soon to arrive Renault Clio.
The Fiat Punto is a great buy in the base Pop trim coupled to a manual gearbox. For $16,000 driveaway one can easily option the 15-inch alloys ($500) and the TomTom navigation unit ($595) and be pleasantly surprised by the package for just a tad over $17,000. Add another $1500 for the semi-automatic transmission.
Overall, the Fiat Punto presents a logical alternative in the light city car segment. It doesn’t have the same credibility as its smaller (and cheaper) Fiat 500 brother, but it’s a worthwhile contender if you want something different... and Italian.