As with music, food and fashion, the car business is subject to the vagaries of individual whims and tastes. In Italy, for example, more than 200,000 motorists bought Puntos last year, making Fiat's baby the biggest selling supermini by a factor of three to one. Compare that to the 55,000 sold in the UK during the same period - just enough to secure the car a fifth place ranking - and it's obvious that the concept of European unity stretches only so far...
And that unity is about to be put to the test again, thanks to a heavy facelift of the second-generation Punto complete with a wider choice of engines, gearboxes and interior trim levels. At the car's international launch in Turin, it was clear that the Fiat stylists have focused their attention on the front. The generic, rounded light clusters and conventional grille give the Punto a more conservative and much less individual look than the previous model.
Changes at the rear have been restricted to an extra bank of vertical stoplights on each side of the three-door model's tailgate, together with a general toning down of the 'slashes' in the flanks.
Step inside the cabin, and the first feature that catches the eye is the new two-tone dashboard and more subtle upholstery. Unfortunately, the interior layout is unchanged, which means that tall drivers will still scrape their thighs on the bottom of the dash every time they pump the clutch, and many of the controls are placed haphazardly. The uneven panel gaps and cheap-looking, shiny plastics don't exactly instill confidence in the Fiat's build quality, either.
One of the Punto's main attractions has always been its diverse range of engines, and 2003 sees the arrival of three new powerplants: a 1.4-litre 16v petrol, a 1.3 Multijet turbodiesel and a 1.9 Multijet oil-burner. Of these, the 70bhp turbo unit is arguably the most important. As with the 1.9 motor, it has state-of-the-art common-rail injection technology and is due to appear in Vauxhall's best-selling Corsa later this year. First impressions are favourable. It's not quite as refined as the Peugeot 206's 1.4 HDi, and doesn't really come alive until 2,000rpm. However, its responsive and free-revving delivery make the Punto feel more eager than its French counterpart when you pull out to overtake on the motorway.
Changes to the damping rates have smoothed out the ride a little, too, but it's still lumpy by Ford Fiesta standards, and there's too much wind noise at speed. But the Fiat is roomier inside than a 206 or Renault Clio, and has a host of new upmarket features. As well as a six-speed manual gearbox, there's the option - for the first time - of the firm's Selespeed sequential transmission, badged Dualogic and operated via the gearlever. You can also specify such luxuries as parking sensors and dual-zone climate control, making the Punto a well equipped supermini.