Developed by the Fiat Style Centre, the exterior design looks like a more grown-up version of the Punto hatch and has a distinctly sporty flavour, including a Maserati-style grille.

As with all new European cars, the Ritmo has a long snout to pass European pedestrian safety regulations.

Explore the 2008 Fiat Punto Range

The five-door hatch is slightly larger against its key rivals.

Compared with a VW Golf, the Fiat hatch is slightly bigger in every area, including wheelbase.

The Ritmo's luggage space, with the rear seats in place, is 400 litres compared to the Golf's 347 litres.

Australia is expected to get two engines, the 110kW/305Nm 1.9-litre JTD and 110kW/206Nm 1.4-litre turbocharged TJET, in with Sports or Luxury specification in either six-speed manual or robotised manual guises.

Fiat says the 1.4 has a 0-100km/h sprint time of 8.5sec while returning 7.1litres/100km on the combined fuel economy cycle. The 1.4 also has over boost that lifts peak torque to 230Nm.

The 1.9 JTD is almost as quick as the petrol engine, reaching 100km/h in 9sec and returning 5.6litres/100km on the combined fuel economy cycle.

As expected of Fiat, buyers can expect a full range to be available in Europe, including a wagon, hot Abarth models and possibly a coupe.

However, Fiat's Australian importers Ateco Automotive will initially concentrate on the petrol and JTD hatches but is tipped to fill out the range with the Abarth models later.

As with the Punto, the new Ritmo has a five-star Euro-NCAP safety rating. The equipment list locally is expected to be on a par with its rivals.

That means cruise control, alloys, climate-control airconditioning, stability control and six airbags. Logical dash layout with large buttons. Expect prices to start about $30,000, right in the VW Golf, Mazda3 and Ford Focus arena.

The performance of the 1.9 JTD was strong and even the 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol had a good burst of mid-range enthusiasm on the roads around Bologna, Italy, and felt like a strong 2-litre four. In sharp corners the car exhibits some steering rack rattle, which feeds back through the steering but the MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension is well sorted. But overall the packaging and performance is on the money.

Inside the cabin has a nice Italian air about it, the layout is logical, seats comfy and there's plenty of room in the back. Most drivers will find the driving position acceptable.

However, small children may whinge about not being able to see out of the rear side windows because of their shallow depth.