Fiat Grande Punto

As tough jobs go, the new Fiat Grande Punto has its work cut out! Not only is it expected to top the supermini class, but it has also been tasked with relaunching the entire Fiat brand.

By returning to its traditional strengths of great looks and competitive prices, Fiat could be on to a winner with the all-new Punto. Although the supermini is undeniably stylish, its success will depend largely on reliability and build quality. With new offerings from rivals set to provide stiff competition, convincing buyers will be the firm's biggest challenge.

As tough jobs go, the new Fiat Grande Punto has its work cut out! Not only is it expected to top the supermini class, but it has also been tasked with relaunching the entire Fiat brand.

After the award-winning Panda and ungainly Croma estate, company bosses have high hopes for the pretty hatchback. Designed in association with Italian styling house Giugiaro, this is the first Fiat to wear a new family look which the forthcoming Stilo will share.

It's the Grande Punto's shape, fun driving characteristics, strong diesel engines and improved build quality which Fiat believes will turn the firm's fortunes around. We drove the entry-level 75bhp 1.3-litre diesel model to judge for ourselves. After the unsuccessful mid-life facelift performed on the outgoing car, the Grande Punto represents a welcome return to form.

The Seventies-style chrome grille and sleek headlights provide a distinctive, sporty appearance, while the trademark pillar-mounted rear lights - previewed on the original 1993 machine - create a clean, modern look.

As its full name suggests, the transformation has seen the Punto put on some weight. It's 19cm longer than the old car, resulting in a roomy cabin, a decent boot and an expected class-topping Euro NCAP crash test rating.

Inside, the dashboard is smart and the switchgear uncluttered. The height-adjustable seat and steering wheel help the driver find a comfortable position. Our entry-level car was fitted with only four seatbelts and rather dated ventilation dials, but higher-spec models come with digital climate control, five belts and up to seven airbags.

On the rural Italian roads of our test route, the 75bhp diesel unit didn't feel as slow as its 13.6-second 0-62mph time suggests. In-gear performance is fine for an urban runaround, and fuel returns nearing 60mpg are impressive.

Motorway speeds are also maintained comfortably, while the ride and refinement have been improved significantly. But there is noticeable body roll when pressing on, and the sensitive brake pedal lacks progression.

However, the Punto is easy to drive thanks to its light clutch and smooth five-speed manual gearbox. We'll have to wait until we sample it on UK roads to deliver a final verdict, but our initial impressions are positive. The 1.3 oil-burner is available with either 75bhp or 90bhp, while a pair of 1.9-litre diesels - including a 130bhp option - are also offered. Petrol choices comprise 65bhp 1.2 and 77bhp 1.4-litre units.

At the Grande Punto's launch, Fiat's claims about quality are of particular interest. Despite encouraging signs, the otherwise solid-feeling interior of our car was let down by an ill-fitting centre console cover. Doubts also remain over the below-par dealer network.

Three and five-door models arrive next February. Prices are not expected to carry much of a premium over the current car, which will initially be sold alongside the newcomer as a budget option. The new range is likely to start from about £7,600, making Fiat's 'mini Maserati' certainly worth a look.

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