Fiat Grande Punto 1.4 Coupe Dynamic Review
Punto gets up-Grande-d

Justin Lee
15 Sep 2006

The Fiat Grande Punto kicks off a new wave of up-sized small hatchbacks from Europe.

Fiat has always built wonderful little family cars, and the Punto range is no exception. When the first model was first launched in the mid-90s, it was bold, stylish and trendsetting. Its tall body and clever packaging influenced the design of many other small hatchbacks such as the Honda Jazz, Mitsubishi Colt and Chevrolet Aveo5. While the small hatchback has always been popular in Europe, it has taken these Punto-influenced runabouts to make this body style trendy and acceptable in Asia.

Is the new bigger Grande Punto similarly far-reaching and trendsetting? Well, in Europe it is already ahead of the game. There are a whole host of hatchbacks being launched such as the Peugeot 207, the new Renault Clio and the new Opel Corsa, and they all follow the Grande Punto in being larger and more upmarket than the cars they replace. In being the first on the market, Fiat has about a six month lead over Peugeot, Renault and Opel. It will be more difficult to predict if the Japanese and Korean carmakers will follow this European up-sizing trend.

So what do we get in the Fiat moving the Punto to a Grande Punto? For starters one gets a car that looks like a Maserati, especially from the front. Giugiaro, who has styled all three generations of the Punto, has given the Grande Punto a long tapered nose with conically shaped headlamps, very similar in look to the 4200 GT, which he had designed for Maserati. Looking like a (considerably) more expensive car is probably the most effective way to move upmarket.

For the rest of the body, it is obvious that Giugiaro is a maestro - the Grande Punto looks classy, in a refined Italian manner, with beautiful proportions and the detailing is marvelous. The rear tail lamps follow the Punto tradition of being high-mounted in the D-pillar, but this time they are also integrated as an extension of the rear windscreen. The car is larger in every dimension than the last Punto (length +165mm, width +27mm and height +10mm) and it looks like a rival for cars in 1.6-litre class, against models such as the Volkswagen Golf, Peugeot 307 and Opel Astra. For added status, there is a discreet "Designo di Giugiaro" badge at the rear door, just ahead of the wheel arch.

As a driving experience, the Grande Punto also moves upmarket. The chassis feels more rigid than previous Puntos, and the suspension is muted and refined. It certainly didn't feel like a 1.4-litre hatchback. Much of this can be attributed to Fiat using an 8-valve engine - it may seem like a backward step when everyone else is a 16-valve powerplant, but the advantage is that the Grande Punto achieves its full 115Nm of torque at just 3000rpm. Being a high-torque engine makes it feel most muscular when accelerating, and more relaxed and less peaky since one doesn't need to rev hard to get the engine to perform. Its telling that Honda also retains an 8-valve engine in its Jazz.

The Grande Punto as tested came with a 5-speed manual gearbox, but most cars will have the semi-automatic 'clutchless' version of the same box. The ratios themselves seem to be well-spaced, and fifth is really nice for cruising. This is a good thing since the gearshift, while less notchy and more precise than previous Puntos, is still not a slick as a good Japanese one. In offering the semi-automatic, Fiat seems to have dropped entirely its Selecta Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), bringing the Grande Punto into line with the Panda, Idea and Stilo. If the box is as smooth and responsive as the unit in the Panda, than perhaps it may win over some converts from the fully automatic corner.

Equipment-wise, the Grande Punto is hard to fault - apart from ABS with EBD, it gets an on-board computer and six airbags, probably more than any other 1.4-litre hatchback. Its 5-star EuroNCAP test rating is also very impressive. While these features are all very impressive, they aren't all visible, and in our 'show-and-tell' culture, doesn't bode well for the Grande Punto. The trip computer for example, is so neatly integrated into the instrument panel that it looks just like an ordinary trip meter until one learns how to operate it by using the dashboard mounted buttons, which are again very discreet.

The dashboard design has certainly grown-up - no more funky wave-like shapes or buttons scattered all over. Instead, everything is neatly designed within a panel on the centre console. Everything looks tidy and neat, and the full-length light grey accent panel is nice, although it is neither metallic nor wooden in texture. The grey colouration is picked up on the door panel inserts, effectively giving the Grande Punto's cabin a two-tone effect.

Although the Grande Punto has grown significantly in external dimensions, the cabin does seem that much larger. Headroom is good, especially in front, but the transparent Skydome panels, that really look classy as space-age-like, it does eat into the rear headroom. Some nice touches include an electrically adjustable lumbar support for driver, and the centre armrest in front.

Fiat must be very careful when it positions the Grande Punto upmarket. Look-wise, Giugiaro has done a brilliant job. The car has an Italian flair and cheek that is unmistakable. It is now a better and smooth cruiser rather than an innovative and aggressive little hatchback. As it moves up in side, style and equipment, there is also an increase in price, and this has to be closely watched in order not to alienate fans of the older Punto. One car that has successfully moved upmarket is the Honda Civic, but the hatchback model has become so expensive that it had to be dropped from the line-up. Chic and stylish though the Grande Punto may be, Fiat will have to make such it doesn't follow the Civic to natural but over-priced 'extinction'.

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