No point pretending the Punto is state-of-the-art. But it’s still sexy
Supermini, sub-B: call it whatever you like, but it’s a vehicle segment that Fiat virtually invented. The 127 was the real pioneer, although that was still a two-door with a boot. The first true supermini was the car that replaced the 127 in 1983, the Uno, because it was a five-door with a hatchback. The rest is history. Fiat has a lot of heritage in the supermini segment, so you have to wonder why it has let the Punto — successor to the Uno — languish. The current model dates back to 2006 and has not been greatly updated in that time.
Consequently, Punto has gone from fashion statement to budget small-car. When you’re not one of the latest and greatest, you have to be one of the cheapest. The current range starts at just $17,490 in New Zealand, which includes a five-year warranty. Why has the Punto been left to age gracefully rather than developed further? Fiat has been through troubled times and big management changes in the last decade. The latest Punto (or Grande Punto as it was originally called) has never sold as well globally as its maker had hoped, so the company has been in no rush to invest heavily in a replacement when there’s more money to be made in niche and premium models.
Under the ongoing Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) restructure, Punto has been pushed further into the background. The company’s plan was to focus on variants of its popular 500 city car — including larger spinoffs such as the 500L and forthcoming 500X crossover, which shares its platform with the Jeep Renegade. Both are definitely supermini-sized.
So the Punto has not exactly been front and centre in the FCA family photograph in recent times. It’s also been an intermittent presence in New Zealand since 2006: it was launched with great fanfare, quietly faded away and has now been relaunched by new importer Fiat Chrysler NZ. No point pretending Punto is state-of-the-art, then. But it is still quite sexy-looking for a nine-year-old car and at current prices it’s pretty hard to ignore against supermini rivals such as the Suzuki Swift and Toyota Yaris. At least if you like the idea of having something a little out of the mainstream. It is Italian, after all.
The Punto featured here is the mid-range Easy. At $19,990 it’s more expensive than the entry-level Pop, but you gain driver’s knee airbag, leather-trimmed steering wheel and gearlever, power rear windows, front armrest, a USB input and Bluetooth. Which is another way of saying the Pop is basic indeed.
In some respects, the Punto is a classic Italian small car. It has a 1.4-litre engine with minuscule outputs of 57kW/115Nm, and feels either languid or incredibly lively depending on how enthusiastically you pedal it along. It’s certainly economical: 5.4 litres per 100km on the Combined cycle. The most polarising aspect of the Punto is its Dualogic gearbox, a robotised-manual transmission of a type that is quite popular in Europe but largely unloved by New Zealand buyers.
There’s a reason for that: Europeans are used to manual gearboxes in their small cars and that’s the way you really have to drive Dualogic. It does not have a third pedal, but the automated single-clutch system still requires some input from the driver to achieve smooth and/or swift progress.
You can drive Dualogic in fully automatic mode, but that’s also potentially its downfall. Left completely to its own devices, it can lurch between gears and be painfully slow to respond to the throttle. Drive it like a manual — feather the throttle as it changes ratios, anticipate the right gear for the road conditions ahead — and it’s quite rewarding. Being robotised, it is also capable of pleasingly snappy downchanges, automatically matching engine speed to road speed. You do have to be patient when manoeuvring in the city, however. Shifting from forward to reverse gear and back again is quite a slow process: select the ratio, wait for a click and a clunk from the gearbox and then proceed with caution.
What I’m trying to say is that the Dualogic gearbox potentially offers two-pedal convenience with manual-gearbox performance, economy and driving enjoyment, but it does require a bit of work. A bit of practice, even. The same applies to the chassis. The steering is incredibly light, even when you choose the heavier of the two settings available. But it’s accurate if you throw the car into corners Italian-style.
The cabin can be characterised as cheap and cheerful. It’s still quite stylish and there are some interesting textures used in different places on the dashboard, but the plastics are hard and some of the switchgear looks a bit crude.
However, our test car did come with a novel option. For $345 you can buy a portable TomTom satellite navigation unit that’s configured for the car. It plugs into a special dock atop the Punto’s dashboard and integrates to act as not only a navigation device, but also the control screen for the Bluetooth and media player, including integration with the remote controls on the steering wheel. It all looks a bit aftermarket but it’s a cheap and surprisingly effective solution. It does look like there might be hope for the Punto’s future. In its latest five-year plan, FCA has done a bit of an about-face and is now considering an all-new replacement model for Punto in 2016. Good news for those of us who still have a soft spot for Fiat’s segment-busting small cars.