Fiat Grande Punto

Hot diesels are all the rage, and Fiat clearly doesn't want to be left behind with its new Grande Punto

Upmarket looks and a 130bhp oil-burner ensure the new Punto has all a sporty supermini could want. A spacious, stylish interior also give it the edge over older rivals. Yet question marks remain over cabin build quality. If this is sorted, the model should be a winner, although the forthcoming 150bhp diesel promises more thrills.

When the pretty supermini arrives in February, its most powerful engine will be a 130bhp 1.9-litre Multijet oil-burner. Auto Express is already impressed with the entry-level 1.3-litre diesel, so we were keen to try out the bigger motor on the roads of Turin.

To help the car stand out from the rest of the Punto crowd, there are smart 17-inch twin-spoke alloys, colour-coded wing mirrors and side sills. Add bright paint, and the model really looks every inch the hot hatch Fiat promises. The sporty theme continues inside, thanks to a chunky leather steering wheel, colour-coordinated seat facings and a slick six-speed manual gearbox.

In-gear performance is strong and overtaking manoeuvres can be completed with confidence, but the car lacks the urgency of other hot diesels we've driven recently. Indeed, despite Fiat's own figures showing the Punto to be as fast as, say, Skoda's Fabia vRS, in our hands it seemed to lack its competitor's pace on the open road.

On the plus side, this model will manage nearly 50mpg, and there will be the option of the Italian firm's latest automated Selespeed manual box. We'll have to drive the newcomer in the UK before delivering a final verdict on handling, but its ride is certainly smoother than that of SEAT's Ibiza FR. Precise steering and strong brakes also impress, yet the car feels heavier than its predecessor; a legacy no doubt of the beefing up it required to earn a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating.

Of more pressing concern is build quality. The company will have to improve on the occasionally poor finish of our test cars if it's to tempt buyers here in the UK. Real performance fans, meanwhile, might want to wait for the pair of even more powerful motors promised for late 2006.

For now, however, the 130bhp model is the best on offer. And even though it could be more punchy, it shows real promise. Fiat's talent for building exciting sporty small cars is undiminished.

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