The Big Con?
Read the original article in Drive Magazine.
Now I always thought Grande implied, well, big. Large. I know the English version extends to mean impressive or excessive as well, but it always links-in with size in my mind.
Yet Fiat’s Grande Punto, despite being a full five-door, doesn’t exactly take up the whole road. In fact it’s quite small, even for a car in this category.
It’s got a small engine too. Just 1.4-litres, although at least in the case of this T-Jet that is turbocharged for some extra vooma. This drives the front wheels via a regular five speed box.
What it does have rather a lot of however is presence, especially resplendent in a lovely metallic electric blue (I believe FIAT calls it New Orleans Blue). That’s the hand of Giugaro in sculpting this shape, it’s definitely got that unique grace you expect from the Italians (bar Lamborghini, of course).
But some things are deceptive here, and you notice them the first time you swing open the shapely door and fall into the seat. It’s actually not as cramped as you expected in here, in fact it’s pretty roomy. All right so with me at the wheel the back seat has no legroom but that’s fairly standard. As the driver I’m good in the Grande Punto, especially thanks to the height-adjustable wheel and seats. Just the pedals are a little tight, but again that’s pretty standard especially for an Italian model.
It’s very well-equipped too, although our demo unit did sport a few of the features from the options list despite already weighing-in at R195 000 (base) for this range-topper. Selecting from this list somewhat more cautiously is probably wiser, as you don’t need all of the niceties in here, but some are definitely recommended, like the full climate-control upgrade, and the uprated sound equipment, although the rain sensing wipers probably can’t be called a necessity.
The cabin is full of little thoughts which wouldn’t afflict the German rival’s products, for instance, but brighten things up quite a bit, and it always manages to remind the driver that life really isn’t all that bad if they think about it. The seats are covered in some pretty, spangly cloth for instance and this is echoed quite liberally on the facia, dash, and door panels. And why oh why do some cars still come with hard plastic or marginally leather-padded armrests in the doors? The FIAT’s are generously cushioned indeed, and your elbows are all the better for it after a long journey.
OK, firing up the engine isn’t nearly as feel-good – it catches with a bit of a clatter before settling to an anonymous idle. Feed out the light clutch and get on the throttle and… whoa! Again, deceptive. At just 1.4-litres, and producing only a quoted 88kW, this little mill pulls quite well! Must be that 206Nm at 2000rpm I suppose.
Turns out it isn’t quite as muscular as it first feels, as the unit has been tuned to produce all that low-end torque, and it runs out of puff quite early, leaving little reason to go beyond the 5000rpm power-peak before shifting. But that nature combined with well-chosen gears make the Grande Punto T-Jet feel very brisk up to the national limit. It also makes overtaking in the feisty FIAT pretty stress-free, there’s very little lag and as long as you’re at or at about 1800rpm the turbo spools quickly and just makes it feel more like a 2-litre nat-asp in a small, light car.
Flat-out, well the company claims a top whack of 178km/h but the Punto’s speedo must over read a bit then because I touched 200 on that clock on a long open largely deserted stretch of isolated road. It’s really not bad for such diminutive numbers. And that lead to me worrying a bit about the brakes – I’d spotted the rear drums when walking around it earlier, and but a second later a situation arose which required a firm foot on the middle pedal, and sure enough it wasn’t great. Yes it has ABS and EBD but the disparate braking systems front to rear and soft shocks conspire to create a worrying pitching when braking from unsociable speeds, speeds which it feels happy to cruise at, and with a sixth cog would quite easily surpass.
The handling is also affected by the spongy shocks, as well as the portly tyre sidewalls, but this isn’t exactly a Focus RS after all. The Grande Punto does have an engaging chassis however, so when you are toying with its undeniably modest grip limits it does communicate well with you so you have all the information you need. The helm is fairly numb to it all but the chassis speaks quite clearly so. It holds on gamely when attacking roads like this but ultimately falls into scrubby understeer of course, having adopted impressive body roll angles just before reaching this loss of grip.
Of course driving it in this way does sort of wreck FIAT’s reason for putting a small capacity engine in – fuel economy! The company claims an impressive 6.6l/100km but we never got beneath 10, with spirited use of the throttle.
This T-Jet motor does leave one wondering where over complicated things like VWs 1.4 TSI twincharged system actually fits. With just a turbo the Punto seems to offer everything the VW claims to, good low-end torque, good fuel economy, a good sensation of power. Well fortunately we had one of these this month as well so read that review to find out how it compares.
I think the Grande Punto T-Jet is actually a severely underrated car. It offers a very appealing mix of practicality, performance, and distilled Italian style for just under R200K, and does it without stepping on the toes of the slavering eco-brigade too much even! Yes competitors can give you more power for similar money but for the most part they perform their duties without much charm. The Grande Punto exudes charisma from every orifice.
Maintenance cost worries are valid but it feels a pretty well-built machine, and FIAT SA promise us that its parts basket pricing has at the very least met with industry standards now thanks to some intensive focus on local parts operations.
This concern apart this car makes a strong case for itself, the turbo power especially useful up here at the Reef of course. Take one for a test drive if you’re interested, you’re likely to be surprised by the overall package.
Reviewer : Russell Bennett
Engine : 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder
Power : 88kW @ 5000 rpm
Torque : 206Nm @ 2000 rpm
0-100kmh : 8.9 s
Top Speed : 178 km/h
Weight : 1155kg
Price : R 197 300
For more information, visit the Fiat SA website.
Press images courtesy of FIAT SA and Quickpic.co.za.