22nd Jul 2009 7:00 am
The gorgeous new Grande Punto, Fiat’s third large hatchback for India, has rolled out. But is it good enough to shake up the leaders in this now-overcrowded class?
Solidly built hatch looks stunning but performance is only average.Just like the Linea, it looks superb, is solidly built and comes with class-topping ride and handling. But it doesn’t take the game as forward in the hatchback segment as the Linea has done in the saloon class. Performance, fuel efficiency and refinement are not the class best and even the interiors left us disappointed. The Grande Punto makes up with the value it offers. With the base 1.4 version starting at around Rs 5 lakh (we haven’t driven the even cheaper 1.2) and the fully-loaded diesel not exceeding Rs 6 lakh, it may not be the cheapest hatch around but to take a line from partner Tata, the Grande Punto is a lot of car per car and pretty good value for money.
The mile-high cumulonimbus rain clouds just over the horizon are amassing like an invading army, steadily turning the sky to slate grey. But we aren’t paying attention. We’ve clapped our eyes on the pair of Grande Puntos we’ve just been given and can’t get over how stunning Fiat’s brand-new hatchback looks. The long nose wouldn’t be out of place on a Maserati and the compact rear with those angled, high-mounted lights gives the Fiat hatch a sporty look. Sure these cars look good on these pages, but wait till you see them in the flesh.
Our appreciation of master designer Giugiaro’s gorgeous lines comes to a quick end. The cool buffeting breeze and swirling leaves are disturbed by a massive crack of lightning, soon followed by loud thunder and large drops of rain. With no chance of getting any pictures and to avoid getting soaked, we dive into the cars. There’s nothing to do except go for a drive. So with headlights on and wipers flapping, we set out to see how if the Grande Punto drives as well as it looks. At first, we take it easy to get ourselves acquainted with the car and the extreme weather. Large puddles are already forming and visibility at times is bad.
Immediately the Grande Punto impresses. The doors shut with a weighty thud you only get in European cars. You feel nicely cocooned from the outside elements and insulation from the road is pretty good; the sound of pouring rain is distant now. In the half-light, the dash looks quite attractive with the glow from the chrome-ringed dials.
We branch off onto a lightly trafficked mountain road and really begin to enjoy the cars. The Grande Punto is taking to broken roads and adverse weather with utter nonchalance. Nothing seems to faze the Fiat as it effortlessly skips and splashes over potholed tarmac. Key to the Grande Punto’s terrific poise, especially over rough roads, are the large 195/60 R15 tyres (the same size as the Linea’s), stiff chassis and absorbent suspension with a perfect spring and damper set-up.
Wet roads don’t seem to affect the Grande Punto either, which exerts a claw-like grip on the glistening tarmac. With its suspension raised for India, the Grande Punto does roll a bit into corners but this detracts little from the driving experience. Especially noticeable, once you go harder, are the very high amounts of grip from the front end, the almost total lack of understeer and the very strong brakes. The superbly weighted and accurate hydraulic steering (the best on any hatch) gives you an almost rally-car-like feel.
What’s also special is the flat and consistent manner in which the suspension works. There’s none of the nose-heaviness or heaving that plagues most front-wheel-drive hatchbacks. Quite simply, at highway speeds nothing comes close to the Punto. However, crawling through villages at slow to moderate speeds, there’s an underlying firmness that can be felt. It’s not intrusive in any way as the suspension is amazingly quiet and doesn’t clunk about but what’s clear is that the Grande Punto doesn’t have the low-speed suppleness of the Fabia, its only true rival in the ride and handling department.
The storm passes over, and the sun’s back out for us to stop and take some pictures. It’s hard to tell that Fiat has shortened the bumpers to keep it below four metres (it was originally 4030mm long) to be classified as a small car (for excise duty savings).
Jump inside and the interiors aren’t as roomy as you expect in a four-metre-long car. It’s clear that space has been sacrificed at the altar of style. The long nose and distinct two-box silhouette look great but it does take up a lot of useable space. There’s no real issue for front seat passengers. The seats are large, there’s plenty of headroom, seat travel is good and the cabin feels wide and airy.
The steering and driver’s seat both adjust for height too. However, like in the Linea, the steering which doesn’t adjust for reach is too ‘in your face’ and the front seats slope down a bit so they lack a bit of support.
Get into the back seat, especially behind a six-foot-tall driver, and legroom is in short supply. Part of the problem is that the steering and pedals protrude out, forcing the driver to take his seat further back. One could think the Grande Punto’s wheelbase, which is considerably shorter than the Linea’s (both Fiats share the same platform) is to blame. But at 2510mm, it’s still longer than the Fabia or the Honda Jazz. Both these cars, clearly, make more efficient use of the space.
However, it’s just the legroom that is a problem in the Punto.
With the front seats pulled forward, the back seat is pretty comfortable. In fact, the high seating position, decent headroom, good under-thigh support and a perfectly angled back rest make for a supremely comfortable seat. If only there was a little bit more legroom.
Like the Linea, the Grande Punto is also very well equipped. The Emotion variants we were driving come with an iPod dock, voice-activated Bluetooth pairing for your phone (dubbed Blue & Me), climate control, 15-inch alloys, ABS and twin airbags. The information display, also carried over from the Linea, informs you of cabin temperature and fuel consumption (for other variants see box). In fact, the dashboard design is similar to the Linea and has the same classy design.
The steering wheel is great to hold and even the gear lever has a sporty feel. However, when you take a closer look, the quality of certain plastics is quite disappointing. The finish is a bit rough, many of the joints are unsightly and even the rubber beadings are a bit sloppy. Heavy localisation of parts may not be a good thing after all.
The Grande Punto is short on storage space as well. It has shallow cupholders and small door pockets. The car, however, does have a largish boot that measures 280 litres, plenty of space for a car in this class. The boot itself though is narrow, due to the intrusion of the suspension towers and the high loading lip may be a bit of a challenge. You do get split seats for added flexibility.
Fiat has chosen to launch the Grande Punto with a string of three motors. There will be two petrols — a 1.2 and a 1.4 — and the obvious choice, the famous 1.3 Multijet diesel which ironically has earned a name for itself by powering the Maruti Swift. On paper, the Punto’s 1.3 Multijet which also powers the Palio, Ritz and Indica Vista has similar power and torque of 75bhp and 20.08kgm respectively. We assumed performance would be similar to the Swift as well but it’s not. Different ECU calibration and shorter gearing have sacrificed top-end performance for better driveability. In traffic and on part-throttle, the diesel Punto with its relatively short gearing and light clutch is quite a breeze to drive. The gearshift is quite light too but nowhere near as slick as the Fabia’s.
However, the instant you want to make urgent progress, the diesel Grande Punto lacks sparkle. The initial turbo-lag, a characteristic of this engine we now so well know, is very much there but even after the turbo starts spinning the strong tug or spike in the powerband is missing. In fact, the motor feels strained when revved and 0-100kph takes a leisurely 17.8 seconds with another 16sec needed to get to 130kph. Not only is the Swift diesel quicker but it’s more refined as well. The diesel Fiat gets quite boomy around 4000rpm and Fiat engineers did confirm that the sound-deadening material is less than in the Linea.
The in-gear timing is pretty good, especially the 40-100kph slog in fourth gear and the Grande Punto matches the lighter Swift. In fact, the Grande Punto’s weight (it’s 115kg heavier than the Swift) is what blunts performance. We are already wishing for the Linea’s 90bhp motor.
The 1.4 petrol, identical to the Linea’s, is more enthusiastic and smoother-running. This twin-cam 16-valve motor makes 89bhp, decent for its 1368cc capacity but lacks outright punch and low speed torque. And what torque it has comes in late, only at 4500rpm. But again, like the diesel, this car is decent for normal city driving and it’s quite responsive on a part-throttle. Again, the short gearing compensates for any lack of grunt and in-gear acceleration is better than the petrol Swift. But wind the motor through the powerband and the mid-range feels flat. It labours a bit around the 4000rpm mark. The top end is much more enthusiastic and flat-out driving is more rewarding. Still, it’s not quick by most standards, taking a modest 16.5sec to hit 100kph. The 1.2 Fabia in comparison takes 16.26 sec and that says a lot. We have to admit that we’ve been bewildered by the performance of both the engines we tested in the Grande Punto, which despite the unfavourable power-to-weight ratio should have been better. Both engines were brand new and barely run-in and hopefully when we put them through our full road test, better figures will be recorded.
A SIP OR TWO
Fiat has understood the importance of fuel economy the hard way after the first Palios, and the latest Fiats have all proved to be pretty frugal; the Grande Puntos are no exception. The diesel Punto gives a terrific 13.7kpl in the city and 17.5kpl on the highway. The 1.4 returned 10.2kpl in the city and 14.6kpl on the highway, really good for such a heavy car. Again, these are just preliminary figures and once the engines run-in, the efficiency should improve further.
The Grande Punto is the car that saved Fiat’s hide. It took the European car market by storm as soon as it was launched in 2005 and gave Fiat a platform from which to launch its recovery. Can the Grande Punto propel Fiat to similar glory in India?