The globalisation of the world’s car markets and massive increases in the costs of developing any new model have challenged every car manufacturer, big or small. Long the dominant manufacturer in its home country with a huge market share, and strong across the rest of Europe, and South America, Italian marque Fiat has had it no easier than any other. Part of the challenge, of course, is that this is a brand whose forte has long been small cars, where the profit margins are, well, small. And so if you look back over the last 40 years you can see all the signs suggesting that Fiat could be on he slippery slope, with an ageing model range and an apparent lack of funds to invest in new models. And then, seemingly, a miracle has occurred with a new car which has in the opinion of most, literally saved the company. You could argue that the Fiat 127 of 1971 did this, defining a formula for the small supermini class that all other European and Japanese manufacturers quickly followed. For sure, its successor, the Uno of 1983, was a key model for the company, with over 8 million sold in a lifespan which might have ended in Europe in 1993 but which continued on in other world markets for some time after this. And then there was the Punto. Launched in the autumn of 1993, once again, Fiat proved that they knew how to build a small car with massive appeal. Appealing styling, an amazing amount of room inside for a family to sit more comfortably than they had been able to do in cars in this class in the past, and a certain brio to the driving experience that the Italians do so well all made this an instant hit, with the car going on not just to dominate the sales charts in its native Italy but to sit in the top few cars in Europe as well. I drove quite a few of these Punto models at the time, as they were often supplied as courtesy cars when my Alfa was in for service and the Punto also became a popular offering in the rental car fleets, and I was also far happier when I received a Punto as opposed to the rather ho-hum Fiesta and Corsa rivals of the period. No manufacturer can afford to stand still, though, so in 1999 a completely new Punto arrived, with an edgier look, though under the skin much was carried forward from its successful predecessor. With new versions of all its rivals arriving on a regular replenishment cycle, Fiat could not afford to stand still, and work was soon underway for a third generation Punto. This was developed in an era when Fiat and General Motors were working collaboratively on an increasing number of the things you don’t see, such as platforms, engines and transmissions, so it was perhaps not a surprise to learn on its release in the autumn of 2005 that the third generation Punto shared a platform with then yet to be seen next generation Opel/Vauxhall Corsa. There was never going to be any danger of mixing the two cars up, though, as this Punto had a style all of its own whose nose inspiration from the much lauded Maserati 3200 and which by common consent is the best looking car in its class by some way. In common with market trends, the new car was larger than its predecessor, now with a length of just over 4 metres, and it was also going to be priced higher, so Fiat kept the old model in production and christened the new car the Grande Punto to distinguish the two. UK deliveries started in February 2006 and the car soon appeared in the rental fleet of Mr Hertz so it was only a matter of weeks before I got to sample it, and once again, I was impressed. Wind the clock on a year and those early cars are still in the Hertz fleet, and they seem to have held up well to the tough life that rental cars get, so I was quite happy to renew my acquaintance with the model when needing a car for a one-way trip from home to Heathrow, and to get another one a few weeks later. Time now to record my impressions in more detail.
The Grande Punto is offered with a choice of petrol and diesel engines. If you are looking for the most potent model, you will need to look diesel, as the 1.9 litre Multi-Jet car has an impressive 120 bhp available, but most buyers will be content with less and will be looking at the 1.2 and 1.4 litre petrol cars, which offer 65 and either 77 or 95 bhp respectively. The Hertz cars are all fitted with the less potent 1.2 litre engine. 65 bhp may not sound like a lot for a car that has put on weight as well as size with every successive generation, but this is a Fiat, and you need to drive it like those stereotypical crazy Italians do. And that’s when you realise that 65 bhp can be enough, after all. For sure the bald performance figures might not look that impressive, but in reality provided you make a lot of use of the gears, then this is a surprisingly lively little car, well able to keep up with the rest of the traffic. You get a five speed gearbox in this version of the Grande Punto, and the gearchange is much more precise than the slightly vague ones that you used to come across in some Fiat models of yesteryear. The engine remains refined and although noise levels do increase the more revs you make it do, it never sounds as coarse as most its rivals. Gearing is such that motorway cruising at the national speed limit is pleasingly refined with low noise levels from the engine and road and wind interference are also well suppressed, benefitting from the extra sound proofing that Fiat has incorporated with this design. Lively performance is only part of what is needed for a car to be good to drive, of course, as the steering and handling are equally important elements of the equation. And here the Fiat acquits itself well. Not quite up to Fiesta standards, for sure, but when compared with all its other rivals, it is at least as good as they are. The steering is light when it matters, manoeuvering, but with enough feel while on the move. You do get the City button which will make it super light, and devoid of much feel, but this really is intended for urban parking, and the system cuts you back to normal once you exceed 19 mph, which is no bad thing. There is plenty of grip and the handling feels tidy and secure, so you really can make the most of those 65 horses on bendy roads as well as straight ones. Ride comfort is good, with a well-judged pliancy to the suspension that means it is not over-firm but nor is it unduly wallowy. There were no issues with the brakes, which had a nice progressive feel to the pedal A central pull-up handbrake features, between the seats. Visibility is generally good. There are quite thick C pillars, so at oblique junctions you may need to look carefully but otherwise seeing what was around you and parking the car up evidenced o particular issues.
Buyer expectations for interior quality have increased massively in recent years, and the standards of a few years ago are no longer deemed acceptable. Fiat have found what seems like a good compromise between something appealing and something which does not cost too much to produce. The main dash moulding is not as soft to touch as yo might expect, but it still looks like a decent quality moulded item and its appearance is improved by careful choice of texture and colour. The interior of the test car was light grey, which added to the feeling of airiness and space, and it was set off by a chunky leather-wrapped steering wheel. The instruments are grouped together in a cluster under a single binnacle and are clearly marked and easy to read. There’s a precision to the feel of the column stalks which you would not necessarily have found in previous Fiat models. The centre of the dash contains a moulded panel which sits high enough up that even the controls at the lower part of it – the rotary dials for the air conditioning, are easy to reach. Above it is an integrated radio with CD slot, which proved easy to use and with reasonable sound quality from the speakers. There are repeater buttons set neatly into the steering wheel boss, but even using the buttons on the audio unit itself was less fiddly in many cars.
Seat trim in the test car was cloth, as you would expect, with a nicer texture than you often find in cars this price point. There are contrasting colours used between the inner and outer sections, and a year’s rental car use did not seem to have had any toll on the appearance of the material. Adjustment is manual, with a bar under the seat for fore/aft and a turn wheel on the side of the seat and there is a height adjuster for the driver, a nice touch for a car of this price. The steering column adjusts up and down, and in/out too. All this meant that it was easy to get the driving position I wanted and on the evidence of the drive from home to Heathrow, the seat is comfortable when you sit on it for a long period time. The extra size of the Grande Punto compared to its predecessor will be appreciated by those in the rear seats who get that bit more space than they would have had before. You do sit fairly upright, but even so there is sufficient headroom, with my head clear of the roof-lining. Leg room will depend on the position of the front seats, of course, but even when set well back, there should be just about enough space for anyone except the particularly long-legged. There is not much in the way of a central tunnel and the front centre console moulding does not extend back far enough to get in the way, but width of the car is the factor that means that three burly adults would be a tight squeeze, where as three children would easily fit. The boot is a decent size, easily swallowing my luggage and with space for more. The rear seats are split asymmetrically and the backrest simply drops down to create a much longer load platform. Inside the cabin, there is a modest glovebox, bins on the doors, and a pair of cupholders in front of the gearlever as well as a moulded recess rear of the handbrake. Those in the back are not really provided with anywhere for odds and ends.
There’s a wide range of different Grande Punto models available, with a choice of three or five door bodies. Engine choices include the 1.2 and 1.4 litre petrols, the latter available in two states of tune, an 8 valve car with 77 bhp or a 16 valve version and 95 bhp and a couple of diesels, a 75 bhp 1.3 and a 120 bhp 1.9 litre. Most Grande Punto will have a manual gearbox, but an automatic is available with some engines. The test car came in Dynamic trim, which sits above Active, so you do get more in the way of features. These include rather neat looking alloy wheels, air conditioning and heated and electrically adjustable mirrors. Even the Active trim includes electric front windows, height and reach adjustable steering wheel, a rev counter, height-adjustable drivers seat, ABS with EBS, ‘Dualdrive’ electric power steering with two levels of assist, Fiat electronic immobiliser, remote central locking with remote boot release, seat position memory on 3-dr, dual front airbags, radio CD player with steering wheel controls. And even a proper spare wheel. Sitting above the Dynamic is the Eleganza which adds electric adjustment for the driver’s seat, lumbar support and traction control as well as different external trim. Those who want a more sporting version of the car could get an Active Sport or Dynamic Sport, which added sports seats and front fog lights to the respective trim or go the whole hog for the Sporting model, which is only available with the most powerful of each of the petrol and diesel engines.
Be in no doubt, I am very much a fan of the Grande Punto. It wins you over just by looking at it, with that appealing styling. And then when you drive it, you find that is a proper small Fiat that just begs you to be enthusiastic in how you motor down the road. It is quiet and refined and comfortable and there is ample space in it for four people and their luggage. And then there is the trump card: price. Compared to its rivals, the Grande Punto is considerably cheaper to buy and unlikely to cost any more to run. No wonder it has become the doyen of the rental car fleet and why sales across Europe have been so strong ever since the launch. Small cars may have required you to put up with plenty in the past, but that no longer holds true now. This is an excellent car.