You've got to hand it to Fiat for having another crack at the Aussie market after a number of previous half-hearted attempts under private importers. They're serious this time with a factory owned local operation.
First cab off the rank, the tiddler-size 500, recently came in for some "repositioning" (price reductions) and now the Italian manufacturer is re-introducing the Punto, a biggish light car now offered from a start price of $16,000 drive away for the base model Pop.
Before the end of the year we'll see the practical little Panda coming in to compete against a rash of similar size small SUVs from left, right and centre. Fiat also has two light commercial vehicles in the Ducato and Scudo vans and there's also the Freemont people mover (aka Dodge Journey).
But focus this month is on the rebirth of Punto, a model that's been around since 2006. The local Fiat outfit has opted for Punto in five door hatch configuration only in Pop, Easy and Lounge grades. All share the same naturally aspirated 1.4-litre petrol engine while the Pop is the only one to get a five-speed manual with optional five-speed Dualogic automated manual transmission ($1500) standard on Easy and Lounge grades.
The engine passes Euro 5 emissions regulations despite having a single camshaft and only eight valves. It's an old plonker for sure but sips 91 octane fuel lightly on the way to achieving a modest 57kW/115Nm output.
This is adequate to push the one tonne Punto along at a respectable clip provided you don't expect anything remotely sporty. In Dualogic mode, it's even more relaxed and has the annoying trait of lurching between gear changes. Get the manual every day unless you want to turn into a nodding dog.
Punto has auto stop/start, gear shift indicator and eco:Drive software to help drivers learn economical driving techniques.
It's all adhoc stuff that skirts the real issue a lack of powertrain technology to assist efficiency.
Explore the 2013 Fiat Punto range
Punto scores a five star ANCAP rating and comes with a reasonable amount of equipment in the base model including a multi-function wheel, Bluetooth phone, USB connector, decent audio, aircon, power front windows, remote headlight height adjust, daytime running lights, folding rear seats, full size spare and other stuff.
But you only get plastic wheel covers for the cheap 15-inch steelies, a hard plastic dash, wind up rear windows, drum rear brakes and modest rear seat legroom.
The Punto is old school hatchback, innocuous but not exciting at all. It looks a little like a Nissan Micra at the front and an earlier Ford Fiesta at the rear. It won't offend anyone that's for sure. It's the same in the cabin -- small econobox, nothing flash but it's functional and has a pleasing appearance to the dash.
We drove Punto Pop in a city environment and it proved quite a handy tool nipping through tight laneways, parking in small places and using as little as 7.4-litres/100km in the city. That drops to 5.4L on a combined city/highway circuit for the Dualogic cars.
The ride is comfortable from a strut front and torsion beam suspension system and the electric steering is light and has some 'feel.' But you have to row through the gears to get it going with any purpose. With Dualogic, that means using the manual selector system.
We kinda like the Punto because it's something different to the rash of Japanese and Korean cars in this segment. We'd have one over something like a (cheaper) Suzuki Alto or Mitsubishi Mirage every day because Punto has a proper four cylinder engine and doesn't look like a Noddy car. But it needs a turbodiesel engine option -- possible down the track.