There’s no shortage of compact hatchbacks on the crowded South African motoring landscape. The German brands command the image high ground, while their Japanese rivals epitomise reliability and trustworthiness. Korean marques are focussing successfully on tech and value. So, DEON SCHOEMAN asks, where does that leave and Italian brand like Fiat, and a car like the Punto?
Fiat must be one of the most underrated automotive brands in South Africa, despite a well-established Italian tradition of flair and style.
In global terms, the marque has resisted failure in an increasingly gloomy European economic climate, thanks largely to the mercurial leadership of Sergio Marchionne, whose courtship of Chrysler has added reach, resilience and volume to the brand.
But the South African picture is a little fuzzier. Compared to bigger players like VW, Toyota and the Associated Motor Holdings-led Kia and Hyundai marques, Fiat’s dealer representation is limited. And its model range is equally restricted.
The brand’s passenger car range is spearheaded, at least in image terms, by the cute but tiny 500. After a slow start due to ambitious pricing, the 500’s mix of nostalgia-laced individuality and relative affordability is attracting a steady stream of lifestyle buyers.
The rather more pragmatic Punto is Fiat’s best-selling model here, with an average monthly sales tally of between 100 and 150 units. But compared to the likes of the VW Polo, the Hyundai i20 and the Kia Rio, that’s hardly a substantial volume.
Which begs the question, why can’t the Punto command a bigger slice of the D-segment pie in a market where economic pressures are dictating an ever-stronger demand for smaller, more sophisticated cars?
At face value, the Punto appears to tick the right boxes. Its Italian heritage should distinguish it from mass-market models, and the fact that it sells in far smaller numbers than a Polo or a Yaris could be considered a boon among those seeking something a little different.
Fiat’s MultiAir engine technology is right up there with the best, and the bad old days of notoriously temperamental Italian cars suffering from indifferent build quality are long gone. Today’s Punto is a solid, well-specced and dynamically keen product.
On a subjective level, one could argue that the Punto simply doesn’t have sufficient visual presence, an aspect that Fiat itself acknowledged when it introduced a facelifted version earlier this year.
The result is a more aggressive front end and a tidier rear. New headlights, an extended bonnet, a revised air intake and a re-styled bumper provide a sharper front-on view, while the rear benefits from re-styled tail light clusters and a new bumper.
That said, you’d need to be a something of a Fiat expert to point out the differences if you didn’t have both the pre-facelift model and this latest version to compare. And besides, the changes have done nothing to address the Punto’s essentially generic hatchback shape.
Despite that larger grille, this is not a car that shouts the Fiat brand message out loud enough. The rear is simply too bland, with the high-mounted taillight clusters leaving an unadorned expanse of sheet metal that is more reminiscent of the old-generation Ford Focus than this nuova Punto.
Where is that Italian flair for design and individuality, I ask?
The interior has also been spruced up as part of the 2012 facelift, and it’s certainly an inviting space, with gloss black finishes for the fascia, an innovative mix of textures and materials, and—in this Turbo model—an extended list of standard features, albeit with some notable omissions.
The Turbo is the Punto flagship, suggesting it should have most of the bells and whistles modern motorists expect and, frankly, have a right to, given its R215,000-plus asking price.
In that context, I would have expected cruise control as a standard feature. But it’s a R1,500 option. Bluetooth and USB connectivity? Add a further R3,500. And I forgot to mention that the test car’s handsome 16-inch alloys aren’t included either, despite the Punto Turbo’s performance pretentions, adding a further R6,400 to the bill.
In other words, the Punto Turbo’s value proposition is compromised by excluding some items we would have considered as must-haves, while including cornering lights as standard, a feature that wouldn’t feature on my wish list.
To its credit, the Punto’s interior is comfortably appointed, and the standard kit does include dual-zone climate control, electric windows and mirrors, remote central locking, a height-adjustable driver seat with electrically adjustable lateral support and a RDS CD receiver with front and rear speakers.
There’s no shortage of safety features, either. The airbag tally total seven, including a knee bag for the driver, while full-house dynamic stability control and all-disc ABS brakes are standard.
Comfort levels are high, with the driving position providing a decent overview of the controls and the deep-set instrument dials. The steering wheel is reach and rake adjustable, but the footwell feels cramped, and the left footrest is too close to the clutch pedal.
As compact hatchbacks go, the Punto’s space offering is impressive, with rear accommodation that offers more legroom than one would expect. The boot is deep, with a high sill that compromises access, but the 275-litre luggage capacity is adequate, while the presence of a full-sized spare wheel is a boon.
Lift the bonnet, and you’ll find that this top-range Punto is powered by a turbocharged version of the Fiat MultiAir engine. The 1.4-litre, four-cylinder unit always feels lively and willing, mainly because the maximum torque output of 206Nm is already on song from just 1,750rpm. Max power is a useful 99kW.
The gearbox eschews the current trend favouring six ratios by offering only five, which may seem like a shortcoming, but given the engine’s broad power band and excellent tractability, the five gears are more than adequate.
The result is a car that is more economical than expected. Fiat’s combined-cycle consumption claim of 5.6-litres/100km isn’t realisable in practice, especially when driving with some enthusiasm, but keeping the car’s thirst into the mid-sevens is entirely feasible, and open-road figures in the sixes isn’t uncommon. Just as well, as the fuel tank only has a 45-litre capacity.
One of the Punto Turbo’s strongest attractions is its dynamic personality. The drivetrain always feels more enthusiastic than the output figures suggest, allowing eager responses to throttle input. Overall tractability is impressive, almost regardless of gear.
The straight-line figures credit the Fiat with a 8.5 second zero-to-100km/h sprint time, and a 200km/h top speed, which should be rapid enough for all but the hot hatch brigade.
All that midrange punch means there’s no need to chase the rev counter needle into the red at every opportunity. Throttle response is succinct almost regardless of gear or rev count and there’s never a shortage of urge. As a result, overtaking is a cinch, while overall drivability is impressive.
The chassis has been tuned for user-friendly comfort rather than outright sportiness, which means it copes well with our often indifferent road conditions. The suspension provides enough poise to tackle corners with confidence, and while accelerating out of the tight too early will push the nose wide, understeer is never overly intrusive.
The steering is the only let-down here. The electric power steering feels remote and devoid of feedback and at slower speeds, assistance is exaggerated.
There’s a “city” mode that boosts assistance in parking lots, but it only makes the steering action worse, a bit like a PlayStation game without force feedback. The turning circle isn’t great, either and feels wider than the 10.9m claimed by the factory figures.
The Fiat Punto Turbo is the kind of car that deserves to be experienced first-hand. What appears to be a middle of the road, fairly ordinary subcompact hatchback emerges as an enjoyable and comfortable car, that features equally well in town and on the open road.
In pricing terms, this Punto finds itself in an almost unique niche. True D-segment performance models such as the Polo GTI and the Renault Clio RS cost considerably more, but also offer true hot hatch performance and handling.
The Punto Turbo fits in between these hard-core hatchbacks and the top end of the D-segment mainstream, offering more muscle and more spec than the latter, but with a price tag to match. In that sense, it’s a unique offering, further bolstered by a five-year/150,000km warranty and a four-year/60,000km service plan.
However, buyers should consider that some must-have features (cruise control, Bluetooth, USB, 16-inch wheels) will cost extra, adding a good R10,000 or so to the asking price.
The Punto Turbo makes the point that a D-segment hatchback can be both exciting and comfortable to drive, while also offering versatility and decent value. Some strange decisions on standard features aside, it’s a rewarding and engaging car that deserves closer attention than its generic presence suggests. DM