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FIRST DRIVE: FIAT PUNTO POP

By Nathan Ponchard, 26 Nov 2013 First Drive

Fiat, Punto, Wheels, magazine, 2013, Australia, Italian

The Fiat Punto is back

THE ITALIANS love an extended model life. While most Asian brands deem it necessary for a full changeover somewhere around the five-year mark, the Italians have been known to stretch a car’s showroom life beyond a decade.

Take the third-generation Fiat Punto. We never saw the first two, but the third ‘Grande’ version launched here in mid-2006 wearing ridiculously inflated prices, and after 1735 were sold, importation ceased in 2009. Yet the Punto soldiered on in Europe.

Now, four years later, with a facelift under its belt, the Punto is back – this time supported by the factory, not an importer. The model range has been simplified and prices have been slashed, to the point where the entry-level, five-speed manual Punto Pop tested here costs just $16,000 driveaway.

In many ways, you get a lot of car for the base Punto’s price. DNA ties with Opel’s Corsa means the Punto boasts a strong, smartly-packaged body that comfortably accommodates four adults and rides quietly on its high-profile 175/65R15 Dunlop SP30s.

You get stuff you normally wouldn’t expect for the price, like a hill-holder, a gutsy six-speaker stereo, stop/start, a full-size spare wheel and Bluetooth integrated into the steering wheel, but there’s plenty missing too. Overhead grab handles, a boot light, iPod connectivity and cruise control all require a step up to the $19,300 Punto Easy, which is only available with Fiat’s deplorable Dualogic robotised transmission that is unacceptable at any price.

Given that situation, your best bet is the five-speed manual Pop. It’s a seriously likeable city car, with a well-oiled, long-throw gearchange, and an elasticity from its ancient single-cam, eight-valve ‘Fire’ 1.4 that compensates for its ultimate lack of balls. As does its absence of flab – just 1024kg makes 57kW feel a lot more macho than you’d think. Until you add three passengers and feel its performance wilt dramatically.

Those poverty-spec Dunlops and an artificial electric steering set-up imply the Punto should be pants at dynamic stuff, but it’s more entertaining than you’d think. A bit of rear-steer action helps point it into corners, and there’s plenty of old-school charm about Punto’s unobstrusive ride. She ain’t perfect, but she’s willing, and that goes a long way.

Inside, the basic-looking seats are actually very comfortable, its driving position is sound, and its instruments are a bit old-Maserati, but the Pop’s circa-2005 dashboard (see breakout) is hard and cheap, and the scratch-prone plastic door trims are awful. The map pockets are tiny and the only cupholder of any use is for rear-seat passengers.

But as No Frills transport, the Punto has surprising appeal. It’s just a pity that if you want more bling, you can’t have a manual.

TRIMMED DOWN

The Fiat Punto Pop might be basic, but you can choose from a wide selection of optional wheels in sizes right up to 17-inch, as well as body decals. Jump to the Easy ($19,300) or Lounge ($21,800) and not only do you get completely different, much nicer interiors, but you also acquire classy, colourful trim and a shedload more kit. The Lounge gets leather, electric driver’s seat, dual-zone climate, rain-sensing wipers, fogs, 16s, a bodykit and aluminium mirrors. Unfortunately, it also gets the semi- automatic gearbox...

PLUS   Well-packaged, comfy seats, nice ride, amenable drivetrain

MINUS  Leisurely performance, plasticky interior, disconnected steering

Fiat Punto Pop Specifications

Engine  1368cc in-line 4, sohc, 8v

Max power  57kW @ 6000rpm

Max torque   115Nm @ 3200rpm

Transmission  5-speed manual

Weight  1024kg

0-100km/h  13.2sec (claimed)

Price  $16,000 driveaway

On sale  Now