2006 Fiat Grande Punto
The heavy bleeding has stopped at Fiat. Thank the Grande Punto
By MATT DAVIS
AutoWeek | Published 05/12/06, 3:41 pm et
AT A GLANCE:
2006 FIAT GRANDE PUNTO 1.9 MULTIJET SPORT
ON SALE: Now
(not in North America)
BASE PRICE: $21,000 (est.)
POWERTRAIN: 1.9-liter, 128-hp, 206-lb-ft turbodiesel I4;
fwd, six-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 2645 lbs
0 TO 62 MPH: 9.5 seconds (mfr.)
Meet the car that pulls the lion’s share of the weight around the halls of Turin. What you see is the fourth-generation Fiat Punto, called Grande Punto for its perceived greater exterior size. While the third-generation Punto launched in mid-2003 was essentially a gen-two Punto with a new front-half shell, gen-four is a completely fresh car.
From certain angles the Grande Punto looks like a bite-size Maserati Coupe. Italdesign-Giugiaro did the designs for both cars. But if only the base Maserati could share even a splinter of the Grande Punto’s forecasted first-year sales (September 2005 to September 2006) of more than 400,000 units.
The Grande Punto will exceed all such forecasts according to analysts, and that is good news for Fiat. In calendar year 2005, Fiat-brand sales were up 12 percent in Europe. In January and February 2006, Grande Punto was the best-selling car in the European Union, the toughest market in the world to make significant headway due to saturation.
In this B-segment, the top engine spot is held almost exclusively by four-cylinder common-rail direct-injection diesels. We went straight for the 1.9-liter turbo Multijet Sport. Its 128 hp is one reason; 206 lb-ft is a bigger one. In a small hatchback, that much juice catapults one from every stoplight.
And the three-door Sport edition is a strong-willed horse that needs practice to master. Once the interaction between six-speed manual, engine revs and clutch takeup is in sync, it’s a thoroughly engaging European experience.
These 17-inch wheels and sport suspension can be overkill on Italy’s rougher sections of road, but on smoother stuff they are great fun. In tighter curves the Sport model is a giant killer. Challenged frequently by northern Italy’s little hot rodders, we held our own at every try. And not a single puff of black smoke out back, not even when accelerating hard uphill.
Giugiaro’s bodywork is a selling point. We also appreciate it in this way, but it sits a little high on the new small-car modular architecture. And while the exterior looks bigger than the old model, interior space is about equal to what it was before. Nonetheless, the whole package is far more grown-up.
The GM-Fiat alliance created a few gems, and this architecture first seen on the Opel Corsa is a big improvement over the old Punto chassis. Ride and handling are finally competitive globally.
Two small gas engines (1.2- and 1.4-liter) produce 65 and 76 hp, while I4 diesels (1.3- and 1.9-liter) range from 74 hp to the Sport edition’s 128 hp.
Grande Puntos are now built at the Melfi plant in southeast Italy, but a second line at the Mirafiori plant in Turin is due to open this month. The big seller in key markets will be the 1.3-liter, 16-valve, 89-hp Multijet turbodiesel.
Seeing as Fiat’s past 20 years were full of difficulties and disillusionment, the company is cautious regarding the ambitious sales projections. The greatest B-segment test of all will hit as you read this article: the Peugeot 207. If the new Peugeot proves as great a car as its advance publicity states, the soaring success of the Grande Punto could stall.
On the other hand, if the Grande Punto holds its own against the highly favored 207, Fiat will finally and truly have crested its wave of troubles.