Model: Fiat Grande Punto Active Sport Dynamic 1.4
Engine: 1.4 litre petrol
Performance: 0-62 mph in 13.2 seconds, 43.6 mpg
Worth considering: Ford Fiesta, Peugeot 206, Renault Clio
Fiat says that the new Grande Punto is 7in longer than its predecessor. Some of that increase in length is surely attributable to the general tendency for successive generations of car to grow in size and put on weight. But much of it must be accounted for by Fiat's decision to give the Grande Punto a streamlined, extended nose that bears a remarkable resemblance to that of the current Maserati Coupé.
Usually, any effort to graft a sporty front end on to something boxy and practical is a recipe for visual awkwardness - think of Porsche's Cayenne SUV, for example - but Fiat has somehow pulled off this difficult trick with pretty impressive results.
Now, some buyers will probably think that the Grande Punto's elegant conk alone is a good enough reason to buy it. After all, £8,495 is not very much to pay for something that lots of other motorists will mistake in their rear-view mirrors for a fancy Italian super-car costing seven times as much. But there are plenty of other reasons to take a good look at Fiat's new small hatchback.
The spacious cabin, for one, is attractively laid out and well finished, even on the lowish-spec Active Sport version tested here, although it doesn't quite have the elegance and impact of the exterior.
Fiat's only aesthetic lapse is the name badge on the car's tail - the "P" in Punto appears to be in the form of one of those 1970s Olympic-style pictograms. I think that water-skiing is the sport that is supposed to be evoked in this particular case, and while that is probably in line with the active, outdoorsy sort of image that Fiat wants for the car, it still looks a bit naff.
The Grande Punto's performance obviously can't quite live up to those Maserati-style looks, but the car has a subjective liveliness that was absent from the broadly comparable but pricier Renault Clio 1.4, which featured in The Verdict a few weeks ago. The hard figures show that, if anything, the Renault's acceleration from rest is better than the Fiat's, but the Grande Punto's engine appeals to the keener driver, with its smoothness and willingness to rev. Its steering and handling are similarly rewarding.
This car feels more solid than some previous Fiats - its doors close more with a clunk than a clang - and benefits from some extremely keen pricing, so it looks as if plenty of customers will be happy to take a punt on a Grande Punto.
For the time being, I think that Fiat has edged back in front in the hotly contested small-car sector - if only, perhaps, by a nose.
Ben Turner, 31, head teacher from Huddersfield
USUAL CAR: VOLVO S60
At first sight, the Maserati-esque grille and beefy stance gave an impression of Italian heritage. The driver's door didn't "clunk", but the fully adjustable leather steering wheel and good driving position gave a sense of quality that I wasn't expecting. Controls were easy to locate and driving along narrow Yorkshire streets was eased by the light clutch, steering and gear-shift. On wider roads, the Punto began to disappoint; the 1.4 engine needed revving, and in tight corners, was less assured. That said, the car cruised happily at motorway speeds and got the odd admiring glance. The equipment level is high for a relatively basic car, but air-con would be nice.
Martyn Lawrie, 49 and Michael Lawrie, 15, sales director and student from Meltham, West Yorkshire
USUAL CARS: MERCEDES C180, VOLKSWAGEN POLO
The front-end appearance is striking, with sporty alloy wheels. The rear seats are easily accessible, the front seats very comfortable and supportive. With its many adjustments it's easy to find a good driving position, and the dashboard is well laid-out, though rear legroom seems cramped. The 1.4-litre engine is punchy, with good acceleration. All in all, a very good package, but would I buy one? Probably not.
Michael's view? Looks nice and sporty, with average rear legroom and good headroom. The headrest is uncomfortable. It's good that the CD player comes as standard.
Chris Ledger, 43 and Jake Ledger, 11, IT systems manager, Sheffield
USUAL CAR: FORD FOCUS TDI: ESTATE
It's a better shape and design than its angular predecessor. The exterior is more exciting with the Maserati-style front grille. It's also a very comfortable ride and the gear change was smoother than I expected. However, this model seems a little under-powered. A 1.6 engine would give it more response and torque. Around the Peak District, it relied heavily on second gear.
The interior design is clean and organised. The controls come easily to hand. The boot space is more than the old Punto, but not enough for my family.
Jake says: I like the spacious rear seats, but find the headroom restrictive.
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