Fresh from the excitement of slashing prices and therefore greatly increasing sales of the Fiat 500 in Australia, the new importer has reintroduced its Punto hatchback.
Now that Fiat Australia is controlled by the Italian head office, rather than a private importer, the Italian marque is pushing to become a mainstream player.
Punto came to Australia between 2006 and 2010, but sold in modest numbers as it was expensive and not promoted with any real vigour. That’s about to change as the ‘new’ Fiat Australia has dramatically reduced prices and is about to launch a major advertising campaign.
Almost nine million Fiat Puntos have been sold globally in the past 20 years and the new president of Fiat in Australia, Veronica Johns, is confident she can play her part in helping it reach the magic figure of 10 million in the next year or so.
Unlike the cute Fiat 500, and the trendsetting Fiat Panda that’s due in Australia late in 2013, Fiat Punto is aimed at relatively conservative buyers. Hence it has neat but somewhat subdued styling. While the Punto has lines that are smooth and likely to prove timeless, it certainly didn’t create any visual interest from during our introductory test drives out of Brisbane.
In Europe the Punto’s chief competitors are Volkswagen Polo, another vehicle that leans in the conservative direction so there’s no doubt the Italian designers are on the right track.
However, Fiat dealers carry an extensive range of customisation gear so your Punto can take its own direction in the styling stakes. More about this in a moment.
The engine in the Punto is the basic version of Fiat’s 1.4-litre four-cylinder unit. With only two valves per cylinder it has a power output of just 57 kW. Peak torque is 115 Nm at 3250 revs.
The recommended retail price of $16,000 driveaway for the Punto Pop five-speed manual is significantly lower than that of Polo, Yaris, Mazda2, i20, Rio and a host of other cars in an exceptionally crowded market segment. Should you want an automatic transmission, Fiat’s Dualogic, which is an automated manual not a full auto, costs $17,500 driveaway.
Be aware that these driveaway prices are only for the Punto Pop, you have to factor in on-road costs in the other two models in the Punto range.
Far from being a stripped down ‘get-them-into-the-showroom’ special the entry level Punto Pop has a fair bit of gear; the denim inserts in the seats make a statement, the six-speaker radio/CD/MP3 audio system has steering wheel controls, and the Fiat Blue&Me hands-free Bluetooth phone setup reduces the dangers of driver inattention.
Next up the line, the Punto Easy has 15-inch alloy wheels, a fancier design of dashboard, a leather wrapped steering wheel and gear lever, a front seat armrest, and rear parking sensors.
The range-topping Fiat Punto Lounge has 16-inch alloys, a pair of sports seats in the front, a soft-touch finish to the dash, climate control air conditioning, ambient lighting and automatic windscreen wipers.
A huge range of accessories and custom features is on offer. Some of our favourite dress-up items are checkered-flag covers for the door mirrors, Italian national-colours decals on the B-pillars, a twin-tailpipe extension on the exhaust and Fiat embossed covers for the tyre valve caps. Not to forget a huge choice of side stripes and alloy wheels.
Major active safety items are ESC and ABS and hill-hold. Passive safety is by way of seven airbags on all models with the exception of the Pop, which misses out on a driver’s knee bag.
It comes as no surprise that this low-power engine is no ball of fire and requires frequent use of the gearbox to keep it working in a reasonable manner. The change action of the manual is better than average for a front-drive car and driving a car like this can be fun for those who love their manuals.
The Dualogic generally changed down promptly under its own volition, and has manual overrides should you decide your driving skill need to be called upon. Having said all that, if you’re looking for a performance hatch you should probably shop elsewhere.