FIRST DRIVE: FIAT PUNTO POP

THE ITALIANS love an extended model life. While most Asian brands deem it necessary for a full changeover somewhere around the five-year mark, the Italians have been known to stretch a car’s showroom life beyond a decade.

Take the third-generation Fiat Punto. We never saw the first two, but the third ‘Grande’ version launched here in mid-2006 wearing ridiculously inflated prices, and after 1735 were sold, importation ceased in 2009. Yet the Punto soldiered on in Europe.

Now, four years later, with a facelift under its belt, the Punto is back – this time supported by the factory, not an importer. The model range has been simplified and prices have been slashed, to the point where the entry-level, five-speed manual Punto Pop tested here costs just $16,000 driveaway.

In many ways, you get a lot of car for the base Punto’s price. DNA ties with Opel’s Corsa means the Punto boasts a strong, smartly-packaged body that comfortably accommodates four adults and rides quietly on its high-profile 175/65R15 Dunlop SP30s.

You get stuff you normally wouldn’t expect for the price, like a hill-holder, a gutsy six-speaker stereo, stop/start, a full-size spare wheel and Bluetooth integrated into the steering wheel, but there’s plenty missing too. Overhead grab handles, a boot light, iPod connectivity and cruise control all require a step up to the $19,300 Punto Easy, which is only available with Fiat’s deplorable Dualogic robotised transmission that is unacceptable at any price.

Given that situation, your best bet is the five-speed manual Pop. It’s a seriously likeable city car, with a well-oiled, long-throw gearchange, and an elasticity from its ancient single-cam, eight-valve ‘Fire’ 1.4 that compensates for its ultimate lack of balls. As does its absence of flab – just 1024kg makes 57kW feel a lot more macho than you’d think. Until you add three passengers and feel its performance wilt dramatically.

Those poverty-spec Dunlops and an artificial electric steering set-up imply the Punto should be pants at dynamic stuff, but it’s more entertaining than you’d think. A bit of rear-steer action helps point it into corners, and there’s plenty of old-school charm about Punto’s unobstrusive ride. She ain’t perfect, but she’s willing, and that goes a long way.

Inside, the basic-looking seats are actually very comfortable, its driving position is sound, and its instruments are a bit old-Maserati, but the Pop’s circa-2005 dashboard (see breakout) is hard and cheap, and the scratch-prone plastic door trims are awful. The map pockets are tiny and the only cupholder of any use is for rear-seat passengers.

But as No Frills transport, the Punto has surprising appeal. It’s just a pity that if you want more bling, you can’t have a manual.

TRIMMED DOWN

The Fiat Punto Pop might be basic, but you can choose from a wide selection of optional wheels in sizes right up to 17-inch, as well as body decals. Jump to the Easy ($19,300) or Lounge ($21,800) and not only do you get completely different, much nicer interiors, but you also acquire classy, colourful trim and a shedload more kit. The Lounge gets leather, electric driver’s seat, dual-zone climate, rain-sensing wipers, fogs, 16s, a bodykit and aluminium mirrors. Unfortunately, it also gets the semi- automatic gearbox...

PLUS   Well-packaged, comfy seats, nice ride, amenable drivetrain

MINUS  Leisurely performance, plasticky interior, disconnected steering

Fiat Punto Pop Specifications

Engine  1368cc in-line 4, sohc, 8v

Max power  57kW @ 6000rpm

Max torque   115Nm @ 3200rpm

Transmission  5-speed manual

Weight  1024kg

0-100km/h  13.2sec (claimed)

Price  $16,000 driveaway

On sale  Now

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