MOTORING / Auto Biography: The Fiat Punto in 0-60 seconds

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The Independent Culture
FIAT re-created the Tardis with its Punto model, launched last March. It wasn't just the sensation of climbing into it - which is like opening a shoebox and falling into Wembley Stadium. You could get the same impression peering through the windows: you look at the body again, then scratch your head and try to figure out how it was done.

There are some clues, of course. The fascia, for a start, is brilliantly designed. There's a teardrop instrument display sloping off into one corner, a very low and minimalist centre panel for the heater controls and other switches, and a big, rolling breaker of shelf above - banishing small-car cockpit oppressiveness. A wide cabin and a high roofline make the Punto among the roomiest cars in this class, comfortable even for four six-footers, and with class-leading boot space too.

The Punto is available in a variety of models, based on two body styles and four engine types. The shell design was the work of the Italian auto styling guru Giorgio Giugiaro - which shows in its audacity, and also in some echoes of the Seat Ibiza (diving nose, high body sides) which was also Giugiaro's conception. Side impact bars are standard, driver and passenger airbags optional, and anti-lock brakes an imminent option.

Like the Clio, which appeared toreplace the Renault 5, the Punto gives its driver the impression that it's at the leading edge of small-car design. It feels like something created afresh, rather than derived from previous models.

A month after the basic model's launch, Fiat introduced a version of the Punto that maximises impressions of that pioneering chutzpah. If you want a combination of ultra-practicality and a sense of going places briskly, there's a hot-hatch turbo-charged GT at around pounds 11,000 that's good enough to scare such leading contenders as the Renault Clio 16V.

The SX tested here is a modest version by comparison but the fundamental message is not so different. It lacks power steering, however - which in a period of rapidly changing motoring may be a mistake - so parking is not just a matter of a few offhand twirls. The ride is a little jittery in town, and the engine noisy in an eager, unstressful way, quite unlike a Ford's toneless chatter. The gearshift is excellent, the visibility wonderful, the build good. And, compared to some of its rivals, it's cheap. For this big car inside a little one, the Punto is serious value for money.

GOING PLACES: Lively if garrulous 1.2-litre petrol engine, delivering 0-60mphin approx 12 secs, 50- 70mph overtaking speed in approx 13 secs in fourth. Very good slick gearshift, gear ratios maximising accelerative potential, though at the cost of noise.

STAYING ALIVE: Handling is the Punto's only significant disappointment - not bad, but not in Renault Clio or Peugeot 106 class, and on twisters in the countryside it's happier not to be pushed. Steering feel is good, though lack of power assistance increases parking difficulties, and the ride is fidgety over urban potholes but OK at cruising. Brakes very good, anti- lock optional, general structural rigidity and safety beams a priority in this new design.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Amazingly spacious for its size, a design coup that is the car's strongest suit. Accommodates four long adults with relative ease, and a substantial amount of luggage as well. Very well designed and spacious interior, driver position adjustment good, with height control.

BANGS PER BUCK: Central locking, adjustable belt height, moveable security panel, height adjustable driver's seat, electric front windows. Approx 36mpg in town, 40mpg at constant motorway speeds. Price: pounds 7,589.

STAR QUALITY: Class-leading space for a mini, very elegant design, delightful interior.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: No power steering, average handling, bumpy urban ride.

AND ON M Y RIGHT: Nissan Micra 1.3 ( pounds 7,990) - a breakthrough in supermini territory, very refined mechanics, quite roomy, slightly spongy ride; Vauxhall Corsa 1.2i ( pounds 7,495) - classy looks, spacious, but average mechanics and poor ride; Renault Clio 1.2 ( pounds 8,520) - older, but undated chic, good mechanics, excellent handling; Ford Fiesta 1.3 ( pounds 8,195) - standard anti-lock brakes and airbag, unrefined engine, dull performance.

(Photograph omitted)