Fiat Punto - Gimme red!

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Red is a colour that has very few associations.

Ferrari is one of them, Alfa Romeo is another and well, Fiat India thinks you should be associating red with their spunky new small car, the Punto. Yes, you read it right, Punto and not the Grande Punto. You see, when the 'Grande Punto' first came out some three years ago, Fiat was still manufacturing the 'Punto', which is why this one got the name Grande or 'big'. Now that the erstwhile Punto has been retired, the Grande Punto has lost its Grande, so there. But let's get back to our discussion about the colour, and I admit, it looks good in red. Heck, it looks good in any colour and if I may dare say, it is the best looking small car on sale in India today, at least until Fiat introduces a scorpion-badged Abarth version. It also has one of the most sorted rides, has very good high speed stability and feels like it's built to last a pounding for a couple of Raid de Himalayas. Is that enough dope for you to stop reading further and go ahead and book yourself a Punto? I fear not, so let me explain in as structured a manner as possible.

LOOKS AND INTERIORS
Really, I mean it when I say it looks stunning. And it's not a case of form overruling function, but a genuine attempt to marry both. Like with the Linea, the association of the design language with Maseratis is quite strong and that can only be a good thing. The large ovular headlamps sweep back to create a pear drop effect, while the large checkered grille with the MultiJet badging looks smart. The integration of the bonnet shutline is a work of art too, and instead of resorting to fuzzy pinch lines, Fiat left the bonnet clean.

The flowing lines and the large A-pillar make the car appear larger than it actually is. With clean door panels and a well-integrated tail-lamp cluster, the Punto is a study in design. Even the boot lid has no fuzzy detailing with just badging to round off the exteriors. The MultiJet we have here comes with fantastically carved 14-inch alloy wheels, but the 15-inchers on the 1.4 FIRE look even more exciting.

On the inside, you are greeted by now familiar interiors of the Linea, a sign that this is how much Fiat could differentiate between two cars base on the same platform. The Punto is priced a couple of lakh lower than the Linea and that shows on the interiors. Some of the plastics feel poorly built and the finish on some others isn't the same as on the Linea. Yet the dashboard feels solid, the control stalks feel strong and the dials are, well, as you will find on the Linea - pretty good indeed.   The airconditioning is strong, but for some reason would turn to blowing hot air after a while if the temperatures hovered in the range of 22 to 24 degrees centigrade. The audio is good until you reach 70 per cent volume levels and then they distort rather alarmingly. Our test car was also plagued with the problem of repeating songs and despite rebooting the system to factory settings, it just didn't help. We didn't like the seats for one, they are too wide and just don't provide enough support until you set them firmly upright. The rear seat is nice and comfortable, but push the front seat to its last stop and legroom can be a bit of a bother. Three normally built people can be accommodated, but they will rub shoulders after some time. It is comfortable enough for a small car, but there are small cars with better space on the inside.

ENGINE AND PERFORMANCE
For India, Fiat opted for the regular, now proven and well, yawn, MultiJet engine once again. That takes the total tally of cars powered by this engine in the country to seven! Talk about serious component sharing. The 1248cc, four-cylinder engine produces 75 bhp@4000 rpm, but, unlike the Swift diesel which produces 19.1 kgm of peak torque, this one produces close to 20 kgm of it, at just 1750 rpm, against the Swift's 2000 rpm. The fixed-geometry vane turbo can't hide the turbo lag, but Fiat has worked around it very smartly by short ratios for the lower gears and taller ratios for the higher ones. Despite having to pull nearly 1.2 tonnes, versus the Swift's kerb weight that is a little over a tonne.

Off the starting line, the Punto feels slow, and the turbo lag becomes prominent, so the best way to drive the car is to shift early and not let the car linger into unnecessary revs, essentially anything above 4600 rpm. Do that and the car will register better acceleration times. We tested it on a rather wet morning and it despatched 100 kph in less than 17.5 seconds, which isn't bad for a car with this sort of kerb weight. I'm sure on a nice cold morning, 17 seconds would be easy. The gearing helps here. The tall third gear just takes you past 100 kph, but the trick is to shift into fourth before that point and you can easily shave off half a second on the acceleration charts. Yet, the Swift can do it all a couple of seconds quicker and the heavy kerb weight really weighs down on the Punto's performance. Maybe Fiat should consider plonking the variable geometry turbo equipped Linea engine into the Punto and give the Linea the 1.6 MultiJet and everyone will be happy, it is that simple!

The gearbox is simple to use and it slots positively. The impressive bit about the Punto is its high speed stability. Even at speeds of 140 kph and above, it tracks true. It isn't affected by ruts and cross winds don't bother it much either. Add the fairly precise steering in a straight line and the Punto feels like a much larger car. But more on that in our ride and handling section.

RIDE & HANDLING
Ever since the days of the Uno, Fiat's products in India have excelled in the ride department. The Punto continues to fly that flag for Fiat. The independent suspension at the front and torsion beam setup at the rear just help the car glide through bad patches like they didn't exist, especially since the first monsoon showers get the better of Mumbai's roads. The way it pummels everything under its feet is worth noting, and Fiat doesn’t have to introduce a Punto Adventure! The overall balance between suppleness and firm ride is just perfect.   Handling too is pretty good for its size and weight. To find out what it is capable of, we took it to our Performance Evaluation Test track. Once again, the low-down power delivery played spoilsport, but once it got around the cones, it cornered flat and made the 40 kph we carried through the cones like a walk in the park. Decent steering feel and good body control make it absolutely easy to drive, even for a novice. But our test proved that a more powerful engine can only do wonders.

VERDICT
This car is crying for a wee bit more power. It is crying for a bit more bottom-end grunt and better quality interiors. That's just about it. For most seasons and reasons, the Punto MultiJet is the kind of car that will deliver whatever you demand, provided you aren't looking for straight line acceleration. It is fuel efficient enough, returning 14.5 kpl overall and isn't too expensive either –
priced at just Rs 5.02 lakh for the base variant and Rs 5.75 lakh for the Emotion on test here, ex-showroom Mumbai. It's pretty well loaded with features like Blue & Me – a genuine asset. And if you are really interested in buying one, book one in red. It will certainly impress your neighbours.