Fiat Punto

Test venue: North Warwickshire

The Fiat Punto was voted European Car of the Year back in 1995, has been the best-selling model in the Italian manufacturer's range for several years and ensured that Fiat remained a major player in the competitive B-segment.

It doesn't seem five minutes since Fiat was flying British motoring press to Erice in Western Sicily for the launch of the revamped Punto back in 1999. But the car has survived a global downturn, a much-publicised company restructuring and is still selling around 50,000 per annum in the UK.

The latest Punto goes on sale in the UK on August 9th, 2003, and features a host of radical improvements, including a new engine range, transmissions, revised styling and chassis revisions.

New Punto will be available throughout the UK dealer network in a 22-model line-up embracing six trim levels - Active, Active Sport, Dynamic, Eleganza, Sporting and HGT. Prices start at 6,995 for the 1.2-litre, three-door Active, rising to 11,745 for the 1.9 HGT JTD.

Seven engine options are available, including the new 1.3-litre, 16-valve Multijet common rail direct injection turbodiesel unit, which develops 70 bhp. It is joined on the fleet by a 1.9-litre diesel and a new FIRE 1.4-litre, 95 bhp petrol derivative.

Both new diesel engines comfortably meet Euro 4 emission levels. A pair of 1.2-litre eight and 16-valve units, a 1.8-litre petrol and a 1.9-litre JTD complete the engine line-up.

According to Fiat UK's Fleet Manager, only eight per cent of sales in the UK B-segment are made up of diesel models (the figure is around 20% in mainland Europe), but the nimble little 1.3 is a winner.

Sit behind the wheel and you are in control of an engine which feels far more responsive and torquey than the petrol 1.4. Overtaking is straightforward, even in slow moving traffic, and you will benefit from stunning fuel consumption figures. Fiat claims around 55-62 mpg for the little diesel, although 70 mpg is reported to be possible with some frugal driving.

The little 1.3 is good for a top speed of 102 mph and will reach the speed limit in around 13 seconds. The 1.9 takes a second off the 0-60 time and is good for 108 mph, but is rather more expensive. The eight-valve 1.2 will reach 96 mph and the 1.8-litre, 16-valve petrol engine is capable of 127 mph.

This 1.8-litre engine is also used in the left-hand drive, two-seater Fiat Barchetta sports car, which Fiat is currently offering through the dealer network for the bargain price of 10,995 - this is sure to sell like hot cakes.

The new Punto also features a pair of optional new transmission systems; the Dualogic and Speedgear, in addition to the traditional five and six-speed gearboxes. Speedgear is an automatic transmission with the option of a six-speed sequential system. Dualogic is a clutchless, five-speed sequential transmission with manual shift and a pair of automatic modes.

There are a host of safety extras available, including ABS braking, ASR to improve traction control, ESP to control cornering stability and a new Hill Holder to prevent awkward hill starts. All models are equipped with speed-sensitive power steering and a button on the dashboard activates the 'City' mode for a lighter steering feel.

I actually liked the outgoing Punto. I remember what a good looking car it appeared to be when lined up in a quaint Sicilian mountain village for a photo shoot back in 1999, but Fiat have revised the styling as well.

New Punto has larger headlamps, a new air dam and circular foglights. The Active Sport, Sporting and HGT models feature a more sporty front air dam. At the rear there are new light clusters and a revised rear bumper.

The car's interior feels rather plasticky, but is spacious and the seating position is comfortable with ample head room for a six-footer. There are slight revisions to the styling for sportier versions and you will also benefit from a CD player, trip computer, dual-zone climate control and rain and parking sensors on more expensive models. Fiat is also offering the GPS/GSM Connect system as an optional extra - reportedly a first in the B-segment class.

I prefer the front styling of the outgoing Punto if I'm honest, but the new 1.3-diesel engine is sure to be a winner. Fiat is banking on diesel models increasing their market share in the B-segment. With 22 models in the line-up, the Italian manufacturer has plenty of ammunition up its sleeve to take on the likes of Citroen, Peugeot, Renault, Ford and Vauxhall.

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