Fiat's newly launched Punto is already regarded by the specialist press as one of the best small cars around, receiving widespread critical acclaim for setting new small car standards of space, comfort and safety, a view with which I wholeheartedly concur having spent a couple of days driving this little delight.

Slotting in between the well established Uno and Tipo ranges, the Punto comes in 3 and 5 door variants - with a convertible to appear this Summer - with 3 trim levels and a choice of 1108, 1242 and 1372 petrol and 1698 cc turbo diesel engines, yet all are very competitively priced from the base 55S 3 door at just £6,350 all the way up to the firebreathing, 136 bhp, GT version at just £10,996.

I chose to try the 75 SX, about the middle of the range, equipped with the larger 75 bhp 1242 cc engine and in the better trim option, SX.

For a car costing well under £8,000 you get an awful lot for the money, central locking, a manual sunroof, electric front windows, internally adjustable mirrors, tilt adjustable steering wheel, height adjustable driver's seat, front fog lights and a good 4 speaker stereo, a superb package by most small car standards.

A very sleek 90's design has been carefully sculpted by the famed design house of Guigaro and exhibits many good features both inside and out. I particularly liked the vertical, high mounted, rear light cluster, rather Volvo 850 estate-ish, guaranteed to keep the dozy driver behind on his toes - and the wealth of good safety features, double door bars, seat belt pre-tensioners and even, as an option, airbags.

Inside, the Punto has one of the best dashboard layouts in this price range, out goes the acres of dark, bland, plastic that so many cars are burdened with and in comes a light coloured and well sculpted dash with stowage trays and large, clear, instruments - all white on gray - with all controls easily seen and well within a hand's span, all radiused into the overall curviness of the dash.

The "wheel at each corner" design makes for very good space planning, the Punto being one of the best cars in it's class in this respect, with very good head and leg room, and comfortable seats, the driver's seat being height adjustable with lumbar support, both unusual features at this price.

Unfortunately, it is still slightly marred by the Italian driving position, all long arms and short legs, but this effect can largely be overcome with the wide range of seat and steering wheel adjustment.

The 60/40 split rear seat results in a reasonably sized 10cubic feet of space when up but, when folded down, this increases to a whopping 38 cubic feet, better than many larger cars and quite remarkable for a car under 3.8 metres long.

Given such a small engine - 1242 cc - the Punto buzzes along happily, quite at home on the motorway at 70, sounding quiet and unstressed and drinking remarkably little fuel. A fast run which included both town and motorway driving resulted in an average consumption of over 50 mpg, making a full tank last well over 400 miles, figures even better than claimed.

Yet, for all the remarkable economy, it is still a nippy engine, the 75 bhp matched to a light, 5 speed, gearbox, giving the Punto a fair turn of speed.

The ride from the all independent suspension is very comfortable only pitching up on very bad roads but this is hardly unusual for a small, short wheelbase car. It's agility combined with very little roll makes it a very chuckable car, real fun to drive.

The unpowered rack and pinion steering is very well thought out, just a tad heavy at parking speeds but at all other times precise, well weighted and nicely balanced.

Fiat's new Punto is a very well designed and built small car with real character that certainly advances the game by several points, a very likeable little car that is guaranteed to win friends and, I have little doubt, will be a big seller.

First Published 1995 - Article © Graham Benge 2007

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