Fiat Punto – expensive small diesel!

fiat-punto.jpgThe return of Fiat cars to Australia has been marked by something unusual: a tiny diesel engine of just 1.248 litres displacement in the Punto hatchback, the comeback model. The Punto 1.3 Dynamic is the smallest diesel you can buy and until the 1.4-litre petrol version arrives, the cheapest Fiat.

However, for a small car it is by no means cheap. At $22,990, the 1.3 comes in way over the top of most cars this size, which generally start around $16,000, sometimes lower. If you can wait, the petrol 1.4 will be $2000 less. But for now the only way is up: a 1.9-litre diesel Punto comes in two guises, both for $27,990.

Any fuel economy gains become academic with a starting price like this. How many kilometres would you need to drive to save the difference in purchase price between the Punto 1.3 diesel and the car which dominates the segment – the Toyota Yaris – for example? Using the maker’s supplied consumption figures and diesel at $1.30 versus petrol at $1.20, say, if you bought the most expensive available Toyota Yaris 1.5 YRX hatchback at $20,590 you would need to drive the Punto nearly 180,000km before you recovered the $2400 extra cost of the car. So scratch fuel savings as a reason to buy.

Quoted fuel figures are generally hard to repeat in real world conditions and depending on driving conditions and individual style, might come in higher or — occasionally — lower. We managed 6.2 litres per 100km, substantially above the 4.6l/100km quoted.

Economy was not our aim and another driver might do better. But one reason for the high result is the nature of the engine, which needs revs to get off the mark. Although peak torque of 200Nm arrives early at 1750rpm, before the turbochargers begin spooling up around 2000rpm forward progress is stately and revs rise slowly.

Keep the engine on the boil using the six-speed manual, though, and it will hustle with the best of them. It’s particularly feisty from about 3000rpm to peak power of 66kW at 4000rpm and happily, the shifter action is fine. Just don’t expect to tackle inclines or overtaking without dropping a cog or two.

The tiny engine capacity is the reason, because the unit itself is up-to-the-minute diesel technology with common rail fuel injection, double overhead cams and an intercooler. Despite a reluctance to start from cold, it’s smoother and more refined than the older tech 1.9 diesels in the more expensive Punto Emotion or three-door Sport.
The 1.3 has a fast but endearing rhythm, like a manic metronome that can only “tick” and not “tock”. It gets louder as revs rise but not agricultural, and cruises at 100km/h in sixth with impressive quietness at 1900rpm.

It all adds up to the indefinable quality of character — something you should find in an Italian engine. If you can handle filling up at truck pumps, where you queue up with huge semi-trailers and unavoidably end up with the smell of diesel on your hands, it might win you over like it did us.

Apart from the unusual — for Australia — engine, the Punto has pleasing design on its side with a face that Fiat likens to the sportscars of its Maserati brand. From the front there is a likeness although from the rear the Punto blends into the hatchback crowd. Perhaps that’s a giveaway for the car itself, which despite echoes of a far more prestigious brand in the headlights and grille, is essentially a conventional hatchback.

Underneath, the Macpherson strut front suspension and torsion beam rear are the default settings for every small car. The Punto’s engineers have finessed the formula to deliver an above-average ride for a hatch and nimble, vice-free handling.

Likewise the Punto’s brakes pull it up competently when required, but at this price we would like to see discs all around rather just at the front — the rears are the cheaper drum design. Likewise, the wheels should be alloys rather than steels with plastic hubcaps.

The electric power steering does offer something different. A “city” mode, switched on by a centre-console button, increases the power assistance for easy parking and manoeuvrability. But the steering is already fairly light, so it’s something of a gimmick.

There are few surprises elsewhere in the cabin, which ticks most of the small car boxes with something to spare.

For the driver, seating position and general visibility are fine despite a steeply angled windscreen, long dash, high waistline and largely useless quarter-windows in the A-pillars. The driver’s seat can be raised or lowered while the steering wheel tilts and telescopes enough to achieve a comfortable position — not always a given in an Italian car. The seatbelts lack height adjustability but front headroom is good and the wing mirrors are well-positioned.

Also on the plus side for the driver are a pleasingly shaped wheel with stereo controls, attractive orange-glow dials, easy-to-use cruise control and strong headlights. The centre console dials for airconditioning and stereo are straightforward while the wands work with finesse and include a button to flick through trip computer functions.

Cabin negatives include an over-abundance of ho-hum plastics, including for the door handles and footrest, a lacklustre stereo and not enough useful storage. The door pockets are tiny, the various centre recesses lack lids and the coin tray spills its contents the first time you pull away with any determination.

The rear is fully fitted for three and would hold two average adults over medium hauls, with excellent footroom, reasonable headroom but only acceptable knee room. However, there are no rear vents or lights, the windows must be wound manually and again, there’s a shortage of useable storage.

The modest 275-litre cargo area can be expanded by flipping forward the rear seat bases, split 60-40, and folding the seatbacks flat — although the front seats must be far enough forward, which was not possible when set for this driver. Child seat tethers positioned on the seatbacks means uncompromised load carrying and the cargo area has a light and full-size spare under the floor. It lacks a power outlet and there’s no external release — it must be unlocked using the remote key fob or a dash button. It also raised one or two doubts about Fiat’s fit and finish.

Strong safety credentials enhance the Punto’s value with six airbags, ABS brakes and a five-star EuroNCAP crash test result. However, as Hyundai and others begin to make stability control an option on small cars, neither of the two cheaper Puntos can be specified with it, even though both 1.9 models include it as standard equipment.

The Punto offers something unique to small car buyers, especially with the smaller diesel powertrain, and arrives well-equipped in an appealing shape, with solid driving and safety credentials. It currently lacks an automatic transmission option and when it arrives, the five-speed robot-clutch sequential manual will further differentiate this car from others in the quickest growing segment this year.

However, while the Punto will be attractive to someone who wants something different, it has plenty of cheaper rivals with as good — or better — claims on the attention of small car buyers. It would be easier to recommend with a more realistic sticker price. [The Australian]