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Click to view picture gallery“Fiat’s Grande Punto
  offers you a splash
  of glamour for your
  money. And, for a
  supermini, it has more
  ‘big car’ feel than many
  much larger cars...”

FOLLOWING a consistently strong sales performance throughout 2006, Italian auto maker Fiat has confirmed its position as the fastest growing automotive brand in the UK, with annual sales of 58,831 units up by over 64 per cent year-on-year in a market down by 3.9 per cent over the same period.

Led by the huge success of the company's stylish new Grande Punto, which went on sale here to widespread acclaim at the beginning of 2006, Fiat's performance in this sector of the market (B-segment) has been particularly noteworthy. Despite a number of key product intro-ductions from competitors, only Fiat's Punto has exhibited dramatic growth — 140 per cent year-on-year.

2006 also produced media awards for the Grande Punto — it scooped the Scottish Small Car of the Year and Autocar magazine's Design Award. More importantly to buyers, the company has also laid the foundations for significant improvements in customer service and it is working with J D Power on a bespoke Customer Contact Programme.

Which brings us very neatly to our Grande Punto road test. You may have already read reviews stressing how important the latest Punto is to Fiat — often with stirring headlines about it being a 'make or break' model for the Italian company. Happily, it's turned out to be 'make'. The new Grande Punto is a pretty supermini that stands out from the crowd while at the same time being big enough to make sure that there's no crowding.

Fiat has both a talent for and a long history of producing exciting
small cars, starting with the original Fiat 500. Launched in 1936 as the world's smallest mass production car it was nicknamed Topolino, or Mickey Mouse. Clearly Fiat hasn't lost its touch. Defined by its bold Maserati-style nose, there's plenty of visual appeal. As you would expect, knowing that the Grande Punto was designed in association with Maserati designer Giorgetto Giugiaro's Italdesign studio. Available in three- or five-door bodystyles, customers can choose from five trim levels and six engines, including four oil-burners — the widest diesel engine range in its category.

Petrol engines come in two sizes: 65bhp 1.2 and 77bhp 1.4-litre. The four turbocharged direct injection MultiJet diesel powerplants take in 75bhp and 90bhp versions of Fiat's award-winning 1.3-litre 16-valve unit — the world's smallest and most advanced second-generation common rail direct injection turbodiesel. Topping off the diesel range are 120 and 130bhp variants of the 1.9-litre unit. Prices start at a competitive 7,489 rising to 12,695 on-the-road for the five-door Eleganza 120bhp 1.9 tested here.

As the 'Grande' part of its name suggests, when it comes to interior space the 4-metre long Grande Punto is the biggest car in its class. Longer than its predecessor (by 19cm), it sports a roomy cabin and
a decent boot. Punto passengers don't fight to sit up front either — because there's ample room whether you sit alongside the driver or in the back. Wherever you end up, you won't feel cramped. In fact, it's one of the few in this class that will accommodate five.

For buyers, one of the Punto's crucial qualities will be its economy.
The official figures for the 120bhp 1.9-litre car are 38.7, 51.4 and 62.8mpg respectively for the urban, combined and touring cycles.
Our test car managed a smidgen under 50mpg running around — pretty good for the real world. And if we can get that, then most other drivers should do better. Economy doesn't come at the price of per-formance — the 1.9 will hit 62mph from standstill in 10 seconds dead and top speed is well above the legal limit at 118mph.

Value for money will also be of keen interest to potential Grande Punto customers — a broad spectrum taking in young adults (sportier-looking 3-door models) and first-time buyers, women and those with small children (five-door models). Standard equipment on all versions is
good, but the 1.9 Eleganza is generously spec'd. Its comprehensive kit includes ABS with Electronic Brakeforce Distributor, remote locking, dual-stage driver and passenger front airbags, side and curtain airbags, electric front windows, heated and electric door mirrors, audio controls on the height and reach adjustable leather trimmed steering wheel, height adjustable driver's seat, a radio/CD player, trip computer, Dualdrive electric power steering and 'Follow Me Home' headlamps.

Eleganza models also feature automatic dual-zone climate control, front armrests, front seat lumbar adjustment, a multifunction display with outside temperature, parking sensors, multi-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels shod with 195/55 Bridgestones, a Bluetooth telecommunications pack, an Electronic Stability Programme, an Anti-Slip Regulation system, Hydraulic Brake Assistance and a Hill Holder system.

The cabin is welcoming and roomy — an impression strengthened by the steeply-raked windscreen, the base of which is almost MPV-distant. The two-tone dash and colour co-ordinated trim looks classy. Upholstered in a ribbed, textured metallic-look material that's nice to the touch, the seats are supportive and comfy. Thanks to the height-adjustable seat and meaty reach/rake-adjustable steering wheel, drivers' are assured of an excellent driving position with good all-round visibility.

The switchgear is logical and uncluttered and the instruments feature large, clear graphics which, after dark, are backlit in an eye-soothing amber. More good news is that the buttons for the sound system and those on the multi-function wheel are of a sensible size. Front and
rear headroom is plentiful, and while taller adults sitting in the back may find their knees quite close to the front seatbacks, there's loads of foot room under the base of the front seats to make up for it.

The shaped rear 'bench' offers genuine comfort for two. It can take
a third sitting in the middle, but if it was me in the back I'd want to restrict it to just two. A thoughtful touch is the three rear headrests — when not required, they drop flush with the top of the seat for maximum visibility. Further emphasizing the Grande Punto's 'big car' feel, the doors shut with a solid 'thunk'. Particularly pleasing, then, that it goes hand-in-hand with significant 'small car' fuel economy.

Out on the road, it's more good news. The Punto is easy to drive, courtesy of a light clutch and a slick six-speed 'box. With 206lb ft at 2,000rpm, 90 per cent of which it yields up between 1,750 and 3,250rpm, in-gear performance from the 1,910cc turbodiesel is strong and makes for brisk overtaking. At motorway speeds, the diesel engine is virtually inaudible. And thanks to the smooth ride and excellent overall refinement, longer journeys are never tiresome.

The Grande Punto's steering comes with Dualdrive speed sensitive power steering, offering the driver a choice of two settings. The first ensures maximum feedback and the second lightens the steering to minimise effort, making it ideal for urban driving and low speed manoeuvring. Pressing the City button on the fascia activates the latter mode. And you needn't worry about switching it back when you leave town as both settings provide identical power assistance above 19mph. The City mode works brilliantly in the mayhem of today's heavy urban traffic, making parking a cinch and executing tight three-point turns child's play.

Pressing on, it handles capably: there's some body lean but it delivers more than enough grip, stability and steering feel to attack B-roads with gusto. The brakes — discs all round; ventilated at the front — are strong, and the ride is compliant enough to make driving the Grande Punto happily undemanding much of the time. Which is exactly how most owners will want it.

Commendably, and despite the fact that two thirds of the range costs under 10,000, safety is not skimped. The Grande Punto's well-earned maximum 5-star Euro NCAP rating is backed up by the highest score to date in its market category. For the record, it achieved 5 stars for passenger safety, 3 stars for child protection and a further 3 stars for pedestrian protection. Worth a special mention is the fixed triangular quarterlight fitted into the base of the A-pillar that improves visibility when cornering or during low speed manoeuvring while at the same time enhancing the styling. Clever.

Both outer rear seats incorporate ISOFIX mountings for a child seat. The practical, top-hinged tailgate offers full-width access to the 275-litre boot (bigger than those of most other superminis) that will easily accommodate — among other things — a pushchair. The rear seat, split 60:40, can be folded flat to increase load space to 1,030 litres. There's also a useful deep underfloor storage in the boot. Finally, a Fire Prevention system is fitted as standard.

A very good way to decide on a car's merits is to use the Interview Technique. That's where they look for reasons to reject the candidate rather than, as you'd expect, to give him the job. And on that basis it would be almost impossible to reject the new Grande Punto. Giugiaro's uncluttered Italianate styling works a treat — especially the 'mini Maserati Coupe' front end. More substantially, though, it is good value, parsimonious with fuel and it's lovely to drive. Overall, the Grande Punto is a well built, comfortable and civilised supermini. And one that you'll find great to be out with whenever the mood takes you.

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Fiat Grande Punto 1.9 MultiJet Eleganza | 12,695
Maximum speed: 118mph | 0-62mph: 10 seconds
Overall test MPG: 49.7mpg | Power: 120bhp | Torque: 206lb ft

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