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On test: Fiat Punto 1.3 Multijet review (2003-2005)
Bodystyle:HatchbackEngine:In-line turbo-charged 4-cylinderFuel type:DieselTransmission:5-speed manualDate of test: August 2003
What is it?
Fiat's best-selling model - and, indeed, often Europe's best-selling car - has been facelifted to help it compete with a raft of all-new rivals. The Punto has been around since 1998 and, although the profile remains fresh-looking even today, never models increasingly revealed its less-than scintillating ride and handling, and its limited range of engines. The new model aims to build upon the old model's strengths and improve upon its flaws; so the engine range has all-but doubled, suspension's been overhauled and the interior packs even more equipment. Unfortunately Fiat has also given it a new nose?
Where does it fit?
The Punto, although not externally the largest supermini, is one of the biggest of all for passengers. This means it's roomy enough to be a useable main car for many smaller families; certainly some will question the need for a Ford Focus when the Punto offers so much space for a third of the price. But as it's a supermini, main rivals much include the Ford Fiesta, Peugeot 206 and Vauxhall Corsa. Furthermore, as Fiat is now edging towards the 'value' end of the market, the Citroen C3 will provide competition too. It's a model which covers many bases. And remember, although Honda's Jazz is just as roomy, it doesn't offer a diesel option to compete with Fiat's new 1.3-litre Multijet.
Is it for you?
If you are comforted by lots of equipment, the new Punto will certainly have showroom appeal. Even base models have features many rivals lack, and the further up the range you go, the more opulent it becomes. All this kit, and a roomy, airy interior, endows it with a real 'big car' appeal, unusual in an affordable supermini. Perhaps it compensates for duller exterior styling? Gone are the sharp lights of the pre-facelift car, to be replaced by units looking just like those from the previous VW Polo - they lack the 'edge' of before, while at the rear it's also a little more subdued. At least there are smart new body colours, to match a wide range of interior trim colours. Remember too, Fiat's stylish 'Spirito de Punto' ads give the model some currency on the high street.
What does it do well?
The Multijet diesel engine is the star of the package. Packing revolutionary common-rail injection technology into a 1.3-litre package, it's more advanced than any four-cylinder diesel that's gone before. Not only is it smooth and refined, it's also punchy and exceedingly economical - and a wide powerband, plus the ability to reach higher revs than most other diesels, means it feels much more petrol-like than rivals too. Really it's hard to fault, and may well become the default choice over petrol units for cheaper Puntos. Other improvements centred on the chassis yield a much more composed ride than before, fun handling and reasonably accurate steering. It's far more pleasant to drive than before.
What doesn't it do well?
Although better, ride quality still can't match a Ford Fiesta's all-encompassing composure, while there's too much roll through corners for press-on drivers. The gearchange is also long-winded and requires a fully-depressed clutch for smooth changed - not always easy thanks to a slightly oddly-configured driving position. Build quality can't match key rivals, dash plastics in particular feeling too hard and scratchy against the standard-setting VW Polo. Road noise can be a little intrusive at speed and, while the diesel engine is one of the quietest around, it still can't rival Fiat's superbly-smooth petrol engines for refinement under acceleration. It's a hushed cruiser though.
What's it like to live with?
The Punto's biggest draw for many will be the considerable space it offers inside, which is still almost class-leading. Fuel economy well over 60mpg is not exactly difficult to achieve either, which is half as much again as many achieve in comparable petrol models. This above all should make it painless to live with, although a far-from wallet-battering list price also helps. Insurance is inexpensive too. However, Fiat dealers hardly have the best reputation for customer service which means servicing is a potential hassle - though lengthy intervals mean it shouldn't be a regular occurrence. More worrying are only average residuals and reliability which isn't on the pace of the best models; will the more extensively-developed facelift Punto be better in both respects? The galvanised bodyshell should at least mean it remains fresh-looking for many years to come.
Would we buy it?
We like the Punto, particularly in Multijet diesel form. The engine is revolutionary and should win over even the fiercest diesel opponents with its blend of punch and staggering economy. Ride and handling, particularly the former, are also better than before, while plentiful equipment levels make opponents seem stingy. However, some rivals still out-perform the Punto in some areas; a Fiesta rides and handles better still, a Polo offers higher quality and a 206 holds its value more keenly. None offers such an advanced engine though, which is enough to ensure the Punto warrants serious consideration if you're in the market for a small, efficient diesel. The engine really is that good. And it's not even as if the Punto is particularly cramped inside?
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