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First drive: Grande Punto - on sale February 2006

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Review

Fiat is making no bones about it: the success of the Grande Punto is absolutely vital.

In front of an audience of some 800 journalists, dignitaries and Turino glitterati, Fiat chairman Luca di Montezemolo declared: “The Grande Punto is the car we are counting on to close with the recent past and tell the market, our competitors, and our customers: ‘Fiat is back’.” Failure then, is not an option.

With the original Punto selling more than six million units since launch in 1993, the precedent is more than promising. Fiat is hungry to reclaim its dominance of the B-sector with the Grande Punto, as the sector accounts for 40% of its world sales.

The car has been built with the mission of setting a new benchmark for quality in its segment. As a result, Fiat claims class-leading structural rigidity (67% of its construction is from high strength steel, versus 50% in nearest competitor); class-leading comfort through its seat design; and class-leading quietness in the cabin. It also has the highest combined EuroNcap safety rating of any car in its class – five stars for adult passenger safety, three for children and three for pedestrian.

Grande, as the name suggests, is 19cm longer and 2.7cm wider than the standard Punto (due to be dropped at the end of next year), though only nominally taller. Inside, the car feels roomy and well appointed. Only on models fitted with the two-panel panoramic sunroof, does head-room become an issue, as the roof-lining is lower in order to accommodate the glass.

The driving position is good and is boosted by comfortable, supportive seats and a quality leather steering wheel. The speed-adaptive dualdrive electric steering is positive and offers a servo-assisted city mode for low-speed manoeuvrability.

At launch, four diesel and two petrol engines will be offered. All cars will be offered in either three- or five-door. Prices and exact specification for UK cars are still to be confirmed.

With six engines, four specs, 13 paint colours and 12 interior trim options available, there are 100,000 combinations or, as Fiat put it, “100,000 to ways to entice new customers”.

In due course expect to see a 1.6 litre diesel, a 1.4 litre turbo petrol offering either 120bhp or 150bhp, and a 1.6 litre turbo petrol developing 180bhp. An automatic gearbox will be offered from the middle of 2006, and a cloth-top convertible and mono-cab derivative are also likely. There’s also talk of an Abarth version.

Fiat is remaining tight-lipped as to its UK sales projections, but says it is aiming for a global figure of 360,000 units a year. However, Fiat’s UK sales aspirations won’t have been helped by a recent gaffe in the Daily Mirror’s coverage of the Which? Car awards, which cited the Punto as the number one car to avoid, but used the new Grande as its illustration.

Strengths: Pretty looks, flexible finance options, Fiat’s desire to succeed
Weakness: Some interior build-quality blips, woolly 5-speed ‘box on 75bhp diesel
Opportunity: To regain Fiat’s dominance of B-sector
Threat: Consumers don’t buy-in to “new Fiat” vision
USP: Italian chic and biggest range of diesel engines in sector
Price: Not yet available for UK
Engines: 1.2 litre 8V, 65bhp; 1.48V, 77bhp; 1.3 Multijet 16V, 75bhp; 1.3 Multijet 16V, 90bhp; 1.9 litre Multijet 8V, 120bhp; 1.9 litre Multijet 8V, 130bhp
Performance: 0-62mph from 14.5sec (1.2)-9.5sec (1.9 Multijet 130); top speed: 124mph
Transmission: 5-spd manual on 1.2, 1.4 and 75bhp 1.3 Multijet; 6-spd on all other models
Efficiency: 122-150g/km CO2 (1.3 90-1.9 190); combined 61.4mpg (1.3 90)-49.6mpg (1.9 130)
Rivals: Clio, Corsa, Jazz, Fiesta, 206, Mazda2, Ibiza

Behind the wheel

Our test car was the 90bhp 1.3 16V Multijet diesel. Mated to a six-speed ’box, it gives the car a top speed of 108mph, 0-62mph in 11.9sec and 147lb ft of torque at 1,750rpm. The result is a flexible engine that provides zesty performance in town and is comfortable at motorway speeds. And, according to Fiat’s figures, returns an impressive 61.4mpg. The only real niggle is the long throw of the gear change. This gives it a slightly laborious feel, out of context with the willing engine.

Driving position and steering feel and are both good, and combine with the rigid body and extremely good brakes to provide a sure-footed feel to the car.

It could be further improved with stiffer damping.

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