Three new Punto models - the 1,2 16V, 1,3 JTD turbodiesel and “pocket rocket” 1,8 HGT - bridge the gap between the Palio and the Stilo in Fiat Auto SA’s product lineup.

Three new Punto models - the 1,2 16V, 1,3 JTD turbodiesel and “pocket rocket” 1,8 HGT - bridge the gap between the Palio and the Stilo in Fiat Auto SA’s product lineup.

All models have five doors, except for the HGT, which has three. The European flavour is immediately evident from the styling. The front is perhaps a bit boring but neat and classy in a Germanic fashion. The rear end is a different story, very individualistic with a slight slope from roof to bumper giving the sensation that the car is rolling forward even while stationary.

Thin black plastic inserts in the colour-coded bumpers help to make them look smaller although will not do much in the protection stakes. Two trim levels are offered in the 1,2 16V and 1,3 JTD models, succinctly called “active” and “dynamic”.

A decent set of features is provided as standard across the range (active package) including dual airbags, height adjustable headlamps and driver’s seat, electrically powered front windows, air-con, built-in Blaupunkt radio/cassette player, trip and consumption computer, and to wrap it up, remote central locking. The dynamic package adds a CD player in place of the cassette, front fog lights, alloy wheels with 185 section instead of 165 section tyres, electric and colour coded door mirrors.

The interior is spacious enough but as can be expected in the B segment category, rear seat legroom is cramped. The boot on the other hand appeared quite large. Up front, the instrumentation is clear and sporty, seats are well formed and the gearshift is well placed, as are the pedals with just enough room to the left of the clutch to slide your boot between gear changes.

Steering uses electrical power assistance with a “city” mode. This increases assistance below 70 km/hr for parking and slow speed manoeuvring. We found the steering quite acceptable and it does seem as if automotive engineers are gradually improving the feel of these electrical systems to provide a more natural sensation.

Gearshift action was quite light and felt best on the 1,2 16V. This engine was impressive bearing in mind that we were driving at reef altitudes as opposed to our usual sea level location. It also had a sporty note to it. For brisk acceleration, higher revs were naturally needed. All models come with a digital read-out display that includes fuel consumption and we noticed that the overall consumption (l/100 km) was in the sixes, which for mostly 120 km/hr driving looks very promising and a big improvement on the 8V Palio. The 1,8 HGT is the flagship with zooty air dams, leather steering wheel and gearknob, side airbags, 15 inch alloys and a MP3 player added to the sound system.

At the high altitude, acceleration seemed sluggish at lower revs, but mid-range punch felt good. The most impressive car of the three was the 1,3 JTD. The 1,3-litre Multijet engine delivers 51kW at 4 000 r/min and 180 N.m at 1 750 r/min. It allows the Punto 1.3 JTD Multijet a claimed top speed of 164km/h and a 0-100km/h time of 13,4 seconds. Fuel consumption figures are amongst the best in the segment with a combined cycle of 4,5 litres/100km.

This engine was amazingly quiet, even at idle, smooth and tractable from around 1 500 r/min. it also revved freely and consumption is bound to be equally impressive.

The Punto’s suspension coped admirably with bumps and potholes, offering the composure normally felt in larger-bodied cars without feeling too soft. The verdict is that this is a useful addition to the Fiat stable in South Africa, offering a European alternative to German and French rivals with up-to-date technology, a good basic feature list plus good looks at a competitive price.

Engine specs are as follows: The 1,2 16V delivers 59 kW at 5 000 r/min with 114 N.m of torque at 4 000 r/min. The 1,3 JTD produces 51 kW at 4 000 r/min and has 180 N.m of torque available at 1 750 r/min. The 1,8 HGT has 96 kW at 6 300 r/min and 164 N.m at 4 300 r/min.