Motoring: Two for the price of one

Fiat is at it again: the Italian company is launching one car, with one name. But with two very different models designed for very different markets, sporty and family. But both are fun to drive, says John Simister

Road Test

A line here, a crease there - it's amazing what tricks they play with your eyes. Look at the two new shapes of Fiat's Punto. "Everything changes between a three-door car and a five-door," says Anthony Sherriff, Fiat's Italy- assimilated, American-born product planning chief, "so why not make them visually different, too?"

So the new Punto, which replaces Europe's most popular car after a five- year career, is two almost distinct cars, not just one with alternative numbers of ingress/egress opportunities. Fiat has tried this appraoch before with the Bravo and Brava, but this time the name stays common to both, not least because it is so well-known.

The three-door is the cheeky one. The crease-lines along its body sides rise as they travel rearwards, especially the one over the rear wheel- arch; the waistline does likewise in an increasing curve. The idea is to suggest a hypothetical point of convergence with the roofline close to the car's tail, emphasising a compact, stub-tailed, ready-to-pounce look.

Contrast this with the five-door, which at 86.4 per cent has the highest cabin-volume-to-total-size ratio in the supermini class. This has a horizontal side strake, a waist- line which rises only gently in a straight line, and hypothetical line- convergence point that's much further away than on the three- door model.

The three-door has a contrasting under-bumper air-intake in black, occupying just the nose's middle and flanked by pairs of vertical vents. The five- door has a full-width air-intake; it looks wider, grander, more self- satisfied, less inquisitive.

Does all this sound like nonsense to you?

Well, these are the subliminal messages of car style, and Fiat has made the most of them. The new Punto has other intriguing details, too: the part of the front doors that carries the mirror is left in body colour instead of being blacked-in, because it gives a better impression of strength. The headlights have round projector lenses, and the tail-lights, which are vertical and high-mounted like the old model's, have triangular motifs.

Looks are one thing. Driving, and living with, the Fiats is something else altogether. And there seems, at first, to be a major gap in the menu of driving experiences on offer, because the engine size leaps from a 1.2-litre straight to a 1.8 (plus a couple of 1.9-litre diesels, one of which is a clean and muscular common-rail turbo). Why no 1.4 or 1.6, like everyone else?

Anthony Sherriff again: "We are not everyone else. We are Fiat..."

And? "We do it by power, not capacity. Our 1.2 16V has better performance and economy than rival 1.4s, and some 1.6s too. We originally planned a 1.6 for the sporty version, but 100bhp wasn't enough so we went to our 1.8." The base 1.2 8v delivers 60bhp, the 1.2 16V manages a healthy 80, and the 1.8, fitted to the HGT hot-hatch version, a stirring 130, which is delivered via a six-speed gearbox.

We will begin with the sensible-shoes Punto, the 1.2 16V five-door. Immediately it comes across as more solid and complete than the previous Punto, with a grown-up dashboard and smoother, softer trim textures. Some of the fittings still feel obviously plasticky, but it is a big improvement. There is an astonishing array of storage spaces, too, right down to tiny pockets, big enough for a packet of mints, in the front speaker grilles.

The driving position is problem-free, and there is a novel "city key" button. Press it, and the steering's energy-saving electric power assistance increases, to make the Punto easier to park.

When on the move, though, I preferred the greater resistance of the normal setting.

The old Punto tended to rattle and bang over bumps, but this one is much more refined, if not quite as fluid-feeling as a Peugeot 206, whose handling prowess it now approaches. There is ample urge from the engine, too; Sherriff is right.

Which brings us to the sharper, sportier Punto Sporting, which looks exactly the same as the pricier HGT but has the 1.2 16V engine - also available with a "Speedgear" CVT transmission. You can leave this in its automatic mode or, for a new experience, you can use it as a sequentially shifting, clutchless manual with seven speeds (non-Sporting Punto 1.2 Speedgears have a mere six). These are "virtual" gear ratios, each of which locks the CVT at a particular point in the ratio-changing continuum.

I have never engaged a seventh gear before. But it is just as well the Punto has so many, otherwise the effect of the transmission's torque converter would make it feel sluggish, even though it is not. Flicking up and down the gears is fun, and surprisingly smooth, but I still prefer the normal manual.

Verdict? This new Punto offers a capable range of cars, competitive with the best of its rivals (the 206 and the Toyota Yaris), light-years away from past perceptions of small Fiats. British sales begin in October.

Specifications

Model: Fiat Punto 1.2 16V 5-door.

Price: from approximately pounds 10,000.

Engine: 1242cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 80bhp at 5,000rpm.

Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive.

Performance: 107mph, 0-60mph in 11.0sec, economy 37-42mpg.

Rivals

Peugeot 206 1.4 LX five-door: pounds 10,445. The rounded, almond-eyed 205 replacement is comfortable, fun to drive and deservedly popular.

Renault Clio 1.4 RT five-door: pounds 10,105. Size matters, say the ads, but the Clio is less roomy than its newest rivals. Good value, well equipped.

Toyota Yaris 1.0 GLS five-door: pounds 9,995. Engine is tiny but lively, 1.3 version is on the way. A cute, clever, spacious and original supermini.

Volkswagen Polo 1.4 CL five-door: pounds 10,840. Design may be ageing and engine sluggish, but still the epitome of classless taste.

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